Spotlight: Travis MillsFebruary 24, 2022

Purple Heart Recipient and Quadruple Amputee Inspires Others By
February 24, 2022

Spotlight: Travis Mills

Purple Heart Recipient and Quadruple Amputee Inspires Others
People who have heard Mills’ speeches say his message of strength and determination, sprinkled with raw emotion, resonates deeply with everyone. Courtesy of the Travis Mills Foundation

People who have heard Mills’ speeches say his message of strength and determination, sprinkled with raw emotion, resonates deeply with everyone. Courtesy of the Travis Mills Foundation

“Never give up. Never quit.” That’s the message retired Army Staff Sgt. Travis Mills, of the 82nd Airborne, shares as a motivational speaker. This mantra is the driving force behind his remarkable life’s journey — his raison d’être — or reason for being.

In April 2012, Mills, a paratrooper and combat infantry soldier, was leading a team checking for improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Afghanistan when his world blew up — literally. After placing his backpack on the ground, an explosion erupted and mangled him. He remembers a flash of light, a loud boom. He screamed to the medics to help his soldiers.

In a split second, he lost both legs above the knee, as well as portions of both of his arms. This was April 10, 2012, four days before his 25th birthday. He was airlifted from Khik to Kandahar, Afghanistan, to a U.S. hospital in Bagram, Afghanistan, then transferred to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, then on to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, and finally, Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. He had to undergo four amputations.

His brother-in-law was at his bedside when he woke up. “Am I paralyzed?” Mills asked.

“You took the brunt of the explosion for your guys. You’re not paralyzed, but your arms and legs are gone,” was the staggering response.

A few days were dark, he says — very dark — while he began to process this life-altering news and contemplate why he didn’t die. Also, he was self-conscious: without his limbs, the 6-foot-3-inch, 225-pound Mills was now 110 pounds lighter. Independent to his core, he thought needing help with everything would be intolerable. There were moments early on when he thought about quitting.

And then Cpl. Todd Nicely paid him a visit at Walter Reed. Nicely, also a quadruple amputee, grabbed a soda and opened it. That simple act made a huge impact on Mills, and after chatting for a few minutes, Nicely reassured Mills that he would be able to go back to living independently. Heeding this call, Mills forged forward. “If I gave up, I was giving up on my family,” he explains. “And I wasn’t going to do that.”

An incredible will to live led him to become one of only five quadruple amputees from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to survive such injuries. Each and every day, four hours of occupational therapy and four hours of physical therapy became his norm. He worked. And he worked hard.

Eventually, the grueling rehabilitation paid off. Five weeks into his recovery, he used his robotic arm to feed himself. Two weeks later, he began to walk with robotic legs equipped with microprocessors. Also waterproof, they feature a Bluetooth remote to help him drive.

Only five months after his injury, with sheer grit, Mills walked a 5K in New York City — the Tunnel to the Towers — that honors the sacrifice of firefighter Stephen Siller, who lost his life helping others on September 11, 2011.

While he struggled on his new legs, bleeding from his newly fitted prosthetics, this experience helped him realize how much he wanted to run again. After consulting with his doctors, he was fitted for running blades. Today, he hosts an annual Memorial Day road race, the Miles for Mills 5K in Augusta, Maine to raise money for his foundation.

Mills, who calls himself a “recalibrated warrior,” says he and his daughter Chloe “learned to walk at the same time.” Courtesy of the Travis Mills Foundation

Mills, who calls himself a “recalibrated warrior,” says he and his daughter Chloe “learned to walk at the same time.” Courtesy of the Travis Mills Foundation

I Couldn’t Fail

He credits his family as the core behind his motivation. While at Walter Reed, he and his daughter Chloe learned to walk at the same time. “I came to terms with the fact that I lived when so many didn’t. I couldn’t fail. I had to be a role model for my kids,” Mills explains. “Do I wish this didn’t happen to me? Of course. But it did, and I have had to just accept that.”

Today, Mills travels the world sharing his message of resiliency and determination with groups of all kinds. “After my speeches, I hang around to meet as many people as I can. Everyone has a story to tell. My problems are not bigger than theirs. I share mine with the hope I can help someone,” he says. “I gave a lot, but I didn’t give everything. I don’t dwell in the past, and I certainly don’t live on the sidelines. Life is all about perspective.”

It is that message, his larger-than-life personality, sense of humor and incredible spirit that groups find most inspiring. Many are surprised by the way Mills pokes fun at himself. “People listen best when they are having fun and I make sure that happens,” he explains.

“I tell jokes to disarm the situation,” he says with a laugh. “For example, `I really don’t want to bomb, because look what happened last time.’” With a robotic, bio-electric arm that turns 360 degrees, Mills frequently uses it to trick people when shaking hands.

His message is especially poignant today, as the world reels from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. “My biggest message is resiliency, and the fact that you can bounce back from almost anything with the right mindset,” says Mills, who never allowed self-pity to seep into his psyche. Instead, he chose to forge ahead with confidence and conviction that inspires people around the world.

He does not call himself wounded. “I am a recalibrated warrior,” he says, adding that what defines him is being a husband, father and empathetic leader.

His family is his world. After he was released from Walter Reed, his wife Kelsey gave birth to their son Dax, named in honor of the two medics who saved his life by putting tourniquets on all four of his injured limbs while pumping fluids into his body. “If one of those tourniquets had loosened, I would have died within three minutes,” he explains.

After leaving Walter Reed, Mills and his family relocated six times, eventually moving into a specially adapted smart home built and donated by the Gary Sinise Foundation in Manchester, Maine, the state where Kelsey is from. “A happy wife is a happy life,” he says with a chuckle.

His awards are many, including finalist for the Congressional Medal of Honor Society’s Citizen Honors Award, and 2018’s New Englander of the Year, but Mills insists being recognized by Fatherly Magazine as a Father-of-the-Year honoree means the most to him.

A self-described “small-town kid” from Michigan, he attended Grand Rapids Community College until he discovered the military offered the same camaraderie he had so enjoyed as a top football, baseball and basketball player, so he enlisted in 2006, and deployed three times. In 2012, his unit was going to Afghanistan, and while he didn’t have to go, he wanted to. “My guys were going, and I felt obligated to go as well. A month and a half later, I got blown up. I was transferred to Walter Reed where I had to learn to walk, feed myself, dress myself and so much more.”

Today, he speaks at 60 conferences a year for groups of all types and sizes, and is impressed by the corporate social responsibility focus exhibited by many. “I was at a sales conference in California, where during the day the group built 250 wheelchairs as part of a team-building activity that then got donated to a local veteran’s hospital. How cool is that?”

Audiences are captivated by his journey. “I can honestly say that while his story is one of inspiration and of a true American hero, even more compelling is his ability to connect with his audience,” says Stephen James, of SCJ Fiduciary Services. “I have seen near a hundred motivational speakers over the years, and there are only a few I found that come across so genuine and as comfortable as a speaker as he.”

Nan Pum, director of talent development at M3 Insurance, agrees. “He made us laugh, he made us cry. His story of resilience, the power of positivity and humility moved our group. He challenged the thought processes and attitudes of everyone in the room, and gave them the perspective they needed to take on their own challenges in their personal or professional lives.”

“Tough As They Come,” the book Mills wrote about his journey, has become a The New York Times bestselling memoir. The COVID-19 pandemic was the impetus for a new book that is in the works about resiliency and how to thrive in the face of adversity.

U.S. Army veteran Travis Mills says his determination to recover from his injuries, suffered in Afghanistan, came from thinking about the love of his wife and children.  Courtesy of the Travis Mills Foundation

U.S. Army veteran Travis Mills says his determination to recover from his injuries, suffered in Afghanistan, came from thinking about the love of his wife and children. Courtesy of the Travis Mills Foundation

Giving Back

Mills is forever indebted to not only his family, who unconditionally supports him, but to the medics, the doctors and medical technology that have contributed to the full life he now lives. Today, he is focused on giving back and ensuring other combat-injured vets have access to the same support he received. An abandoned spa built by cosmetics guru Elizabeth Arden in 1929 was on the market for 10 years and caught his eye. He thought it would be the perfect home for his nonprofit, the Travis Mills Foundation. It is.

Converted into a retreat for injured soldiers and their families, hundreds of other “recalibrated warriors” have learned how to overcome their own injuries at his facility. Not only do they receive an all-inclusive, all-expenses paid, barrier-free vacation where adaptive activities are offered, but they are also given the opportunity to rest and relax in Maine’s outdoors. Boating, fishing, biking and snowshoeing are just a few of the activities offered.

With the hope of operating year-round, a Health and Wellness Center is also in the works that will include an indoor pool and fitness center. “These retreats help on so many levels. They include the entire family, as it is so helpful to bond with others who are in similar situations, and for our kids to see there are others like us,” Mills explains. “I will help anybody who needs help, as long as they are willing to work for it.”

Mills and his wife are also owners of Lakeside Lodging & Marina, a lodge set on the shore of Cobbosseecontee Lake in East Winthrop, Maine, that is also home to a recently opened restaurant/brewery, White Duck Brew Pub. Rental properties and a supplemental benefits insurance company are other endeavors. “I’m just a man with scars living life to the fullest as best I know how,” Mills says modestly. C&IT

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