Retired Staff Sgt. Travis Mills had a wife, new house and baby daughter at home when he was on his third tour in Afghanistan with the 82nd Airborne Division, and dropped his backpack one day.
The hidden bomb that went off in 2012 took off parts of all Mills’ arms and legs, and started a four-day struggle to save his life.
“My 25th birthday was the day I found I had no arms and legs,” Mills told the audience at the International WorkBoat Show, where he was the keynote speaker Wednesday.
Mills is one of only five quadruple amputees to survive the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But with support from his wife Kelsey and another quad amputee veteran, Marine Cpl. Todd Nicely, Mills began to work on his comeback.
“So I met Todd and I started working out,” said Mills. Seven weeks later, he began learning to walk again on prosthetic legs.
Today Mills, 30, calls himself a “recalibrated warrior,” who works as a motivational speaker, actor, author and an advocate for veterans and amputees. His memoir, “Tough as They Come,” was a New York Times bestseller (the book is available at Octavia Books in New Orleans).
In 2013 he founded the Travis Mills Foundation, a nonprofit that assists combat wounded veterans. With his Travis Mills Group LLC, Mills consults with and speaks to companies and organizations nationwide inspiring all to overcome life’s challenges and adversity.
Mills’ appearance in New Orleans was one of the last of his 2017 tour – he does about 70 speaking engagements a year, when he is not at home in Maine, where the foundation in June 2017 opened a fully accessible veteran’s retreat on a former 17-acre private estate.
The talks he gives are filled with the jokes and banter of a soldier who has dealt with seemingly impossible situations. On of Mills’ openers to the audience: “I tell jokes to disarm the situation.”
A native of Vassar, Mich., Mills played football and powerlifted in high school, before joining the Army with the prospect of a $24,000 bonus as a paratrooper. On his first tour in Afghanistan Mills became fast friends with an Army medic. After his friend Josh returned stateside, Mills was surprised to hear from his sister Kelsey via social media.
The long-range relationship that ensued led to marriage, a home at Fort Bragg, N.C., and a daughter, Chloe. Then came a third deployment to Afghanistan in spring 2012.
“Hit the ground running, firefights every day,” Mills recalled. On April 10, 2012, Mills’ unit moved through a village and swept for improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Believing the area clear, they stopped.
“When my bag hit the ground, the bomb went off,” said Mills. The blast took parts of his limbs off – “They couldn’t find anything,” he said – and the other soldiers rushed to help him.
“I’d seen a lot of guys die due to a lot less injuries,” said Mills. He told the others, “Whatever happens, don’t worry about it.”
“In the field, I was always the first one in a firefight, the last one out,” and he tried to keep fearless during the helicopter evacuation and emergency surgery at a field hospital. Finally came anesthesia and days of unconsciousness.
Mills woke up in a hospital in Germany to see his brother-in-law Josh. Mills could not feel his fingers and toes, and asked if he was paralyzed.
“Travis, you’re not paralyzed, because you don’t have them any more,” came the answer.
“In my head, I’m a burden,” to his wife and family, recalled Mills. One fear was how six-month-old Chloe would react to the sight of her father lying in a hospital bed.
“Then it dawns on me. I look like every toy she’s had: short arms, short legs and a fuzzy chest. I’m a teddy bear,” he said.
In five weeks, Mills was able to begin feeding himself, and then began learning to use his first prosthetic legs. By September 2013, he was able to walk in the New York City Tunnel to Towers 5k event, commemorating the first responders of 9/11.