ROME — The Travis Mills Foundation’s Veterans Retreat hummed with low-grade late summer activity.

No families were in residence on Wednesday, and volunteers and staff were at work doing all the tasks large and small that keep the organization humming along. The expansive lawn that stretches from the retreat house down to the shore of Long Pond was being mowed, while elsewhere on the complex staff were coordinating the delivery of a grill that will be used in a fundraiser later in the day. Two more workers zipped over to a labyrinth where a roof to cover it is under construction.

In the middle of it all stands Travis Mills, the charismatic ringmaster. In 2012, while serving in the 82nd Airborne in Afghanistan, he lost portions of both legs and both arms when he unknowingly set his backpack down on an improvised explosive device. The retired staff sergeant is one of only a few to have survived such extensive injuries, and spent more than a year and half at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center recovering before launching his landmark foundation and retreat years later.

Now, he’s on a new mission.

Travis Mills stands on a second floor deck during a tour Wednesday at the Travis Mills Foundation Veterans Retreat in Rome. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

While running the retreat operations and planning for its future continue to be a top priority, Mills has of late been very publicly commenting on the controversial withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan. As the Aug. 31 deadline for the United States to withdraw from Afghanistan nears, the two-decade long war started in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks is in the news again as violence breaks out across the country and both foreign nationals and Afghans scramble to get out in a matter of days.

The White House says about 105,000 people have been evacuated from the country since Aug. 14, the day before the Taliban’s takeover of the capital city of Kabul. Since the end of July, about 110,600 have been evacuated. Meanwhile, a suicide bombing at Kabul’s airport on Thursday killed at least 169 Afghans and 13 U.S. service members, while leaving at least 20 Marines wounded.

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News of the chaotic and deadly withdrawal from Afghanistan has brought more attention to the Mills’ foundation and its work helping injured veterans, but he said it’s not going to change the essential, ongoing work of the foundation.

Part of that attention has come from his recent media appearances on local and national television, where he has been outspoken on the value of the service of military men and women who served in Afghanistan. On CBS Sunday Morning, Mills said he had a three-word message “to my fellow veterans who have bravely served in Afghanistan over the last two decades and to all the Gold Star families whose loved ones made the ultimate sacrifice.”

“We did good,” he said on the national program, amid images and videos showing the fall of Kabul to the Taliban. “I know it may not feel that way in this immediate moment.”

The view from the second deck at the Travis Mills Foundation Veterans Retreat in Rome. The foundation also has buildings across the road on Long Pond. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Mills expanded on that message Wednesday during a tour of the retreat.

“I think it’s important that veterans who sacrificed life, limb and time basically to go overseas and fight, that they know we didn’t fail,” Mills said. “It wasn’t a failure of the mission. If anything, we weren’t allowed to win. But the things we did win on were the structures we built and the people we helped. We did a really good thing there.”

While some people question what was the war all for, Mills said the U.S. military did the job it was supposed to do. Mills has been vocal in supporting the withdrawal of U.S. troops, and thought it should have happened years ago.

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“We won’t get any more families from Afghanistan that will come here from limb loss,” he said, “so I guess that’s a positive, and we’ll just keep trucking along, you know?”

PART OF THE JOB

As he pointed out the historic features of the former summer estate of cosmetics mogul Elizabeth Arden and the family friendly features that the renovated retreat offers in residential and recreation spaces, Mills doesn’t lose sight of the mission of the foundation that bears his name: supporting injured veterans and their families to overcome both physical and emotional obstacles.

“We all signed up to go into the military voluntarily, and nobody was forced to do it,” he said. “We did the job we were given and unfortunate things happened with myself and some other guys I personally know that didn’t make it home or were injured. It was just part of the job.”

With August drawing to a close, the eight-week summer retreat season has ended. This year, 52 families were able to visit for week-long all-expenses-paid vacations to spend time relaxing and learning adaptive strategies.

Mills, who is a motivational speaker, author and business owner, doesn’t spend a great deal of time at the retreat; he’ll spend some time talking with veterans and their families at meal times. The work of running the retreat is the focus of his qualified staff and a host of volunteers.

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His focus now is on the next series of events. On Sept. 11, the Building Strength Gala will be held at the retreat to benefit the foundation’s Health and Wellness Center. Gala tickets have been sold out, but the silent auction that’s being held at the same time is online and open to the public.

Travis Mills stands inside a small house with elaborate log cabin-style wall coverings during a tour Wednesday at the Travis Mills Foundation Veterans Retreat in Rome. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

The foundation also offers the Warrior PATHH program, a  program designed for combat veterans and first responders to cultivate and facilitate post-traumatic growth and turn times of struggle into times of strength and growth. It consists of a seven-day on-site initiation followed by 18 months of training. The Travis Mills Foundation is one of just 10 sites where the program is currently offered.

Warrior PATHH stands for Progressive and Alternative Training for Healing Heroes.

“We stay in the scope of what we do because our donors and the people that champion our mission with us or for us expect us to do what we do,” he said.

NOT LOSING STEAM

On Wednesday, Mills hustled through the main retreat building, stopping to talk to foundation Chief Operating Officer Kelly Roseberry and ribbing staff members who he insists are running late. It’s like he’s still a U.S. Army staff sergeant keeping everyone on a schedule.

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Mills and his wife, Kelsey, had already started an outreach effort, donating $5,000 of their own money to send care packages to servicemen starting in 2008. After his recovery, they took that impulse a step further, establishing the Travis Mills Foundation, which opened its lakeside retreat in the summer of 2017.

Looking ahead, more PATHH sessions are scheduled and a program to help Vietnam-era veterans is in the offing.

The 9,800-square-foot wellness center, connected to the retreat by a tunnel, will have an indoor pool, a fitness center and massage rooms. When it was first announced in 2019, the project was estimated to cost $4.3 million. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the start of construction has been delayed and costs have grown to about $7 million.

An addition to a lodge at the Travis Mills Foundation Veterans Retreat in Rome is planned on the site. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

An open house will be held the following day to allow the public a chance to see the facility that’s otherwise closed in order to preserve the privacy of the recalibrated veterans and their families.

In October, the Travis Mills Plane Pull at the Portland International Jetport is open for teams of 20 to compete to pull an 80-ton FedEx 747 the fastest. There’s still space for teams to sign up and for sponsors.

Mills and his staff have the information on these and other events at the ready, and during the tour he takes the time to point out the contributions that people and organizations have made to the retreat: The deck, courtesy of the Maine Cabin Masters, the obstacle course and climbing wall provided by Mike Rowe of “Dirty Jobs” fame, and the interior design and furnishings donated by Wayfair.

The importance of fundraising is clearly on Mills’ mind, because it’s also a bridge to what happens next for the foundation. Mills said he’s been approached by people interested in open retreats in other parts of the country, and he doesn’t rule that out.

He’s got a five-year plan to create a $50 million endowment, but it’s not something he can talk about yet.

“I don’t think we’re ever gonna really lose steam. What we do is help veterans, and we’re out there kind of leading the charge in getting nonprofits together to figure out what nonprofits are best for what situation,” he said. “We don’t want people to get in desperate, dire needs and reach out to us and we don’t have the right answer or the right treatment for them. We have the right answer for who they need to call.”

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