All images Courtesy of © The Gary Sinise Foundation
By Raye Mocioiu
Ten years ago, while serving with the 82nd Airborne in Afghanistan during his third tour of duty, Staff Sergeant Travis Mills was critically injured when the blast from an improvised explosive device (IED) took portions of his legs and both his arms. He is one of only five quadruple amputees to survive his injuries. His experiences led him to write “Tough As They Come,” a memoir detailing his upbringing, military experiences, and inspiring story of perseverance and recovery.
Mills was taken to Walter Reed National Medical Center for recovery, where he met Gary Sinise, founder of the Gary Sinise Foundation, which works to ensure that veterans, first responders, and their families who have put America’s safety before their own are never forgotten.
In the foreword of “Tough As They Come,” Sinise recalls being immediately struck by Mills’ positive outlook, humor, confidence, and sense of gratitude for having survived the blast.
“One would think that losing both arms and legs would slow a person down, but with Travis, it seems to be just the opposite. Travis has managed to trump over the harrowing experiences of war and ruin.”—Gary Sinise
Just weeks after his injury, Mills insisted on starting rehabilitation, thinking only of his family and how much he wanted to be strong for them. Day after day, Mills went to the rehabilitation center and put in as much work as he could muster, from small movements like bobbing a balloon to stomach crunches with his baby daughter sitting on his chest for added resistance.
Two months later, Mills took his first steps on his prosthetic legs. Less than a year later, he was walking without the help of his crutches. The whole time, he had one thing in mind: never give up, never quit.
Now 34, Mills currently lives in Maine with his family. This month, he celebrates his 10th “Alive Day,” celebrating his survival and recovery on that fateful day a decade ago.
During his recovery at Walter Reed, Mills discovered a passion for encouraging fellow wounded veterans when he traveled from room to room in the hospital and met others whose lives had been radically reshaped by the wars. Today, he continues that mission with motivational speeches shared at hundreds of events every year, in which he shows wounded veterans and their families that they can overcome their physical and emotional challenges and find purpose.
With a big heart and a wonderful sense of humor, Mills speaks to a wide variety of groups, inspiring everyone he meets to overcome their own life challenges.
“I don’t hold the value of my service in the military above anyone else’s,” Mills shares in the opening of his book. “I don’t think I served better or harder or greater than any other soldier. I’m just thankful I was able to serve my country. Even though I’ve been wounded badly, I don’t think the challenges in my life are any greater than anyone else’s. Sometimes after people hear my story they say, ‘Man, I don’t know if I could ever press forward like that and overcome challenges like you have.’ But I say, everybody faces challenges in life, big and small.”
Through it all, Mills has used humor as a way to cope with pain. He doesn’t consider himself a “wounded warrior”—he says he’s healed and welcomes the next chapter of his life. He looks back on the incident in Afghanistan and says he just “had a bad day at work.”
Mills retired from the United States Army in November 2013 and established the Travis Mills Foundation and Travis Mills Group, LLC with his wife, Kelsey. The organization provides unique support for veterans and their families through programs that help these heroic men and women overcome physical and emotional obstacles. Veterans who have been injured in active duty or as a result of their service receive an all-inclusive, all-expenses-paid, barrier-free vacation in Maine with their families, where they participate in adaptive activities, bond with other veteran families, and enjoy much-needed rest and relaxation.
The foundation recently established a new health and wellness center, set to open later this year. Even more recently, Mills hosted a benefit concert with country star and fellow veteran Craig Morgan right before Thanksgiving in Ocala, FL.
“Travis is using his means to take care of a new generation of service members injured in battle,” Sinise says. “Whether speaking on behalf of his own foundation and his effort to build a retreat to assist wounded service members and their families or traveling to raise awareness and funding for other military charities, Travis is constantly serving and honoring the needs of his brothers and sisters in arms.”
Today, Mills lives his life to the fullest: he drives, jumps on the trampoline with his kids, and enjoys swimming and boating with the family. In 2014, he and his family moved into their custom Smart Home constructed through the Gary Sinise Foundation’s R.I.S.E. (Restoring Independence Supporting Empowerment) program.
“It is a true honor to serve as an Ambassador for the Gary Sinise Foundation,” Mills shares. “The Gary Sinise Foundation has provided my family and I with so much more than a home. It is our duty to continue to support our wounded service men and women and provide them with the necessary freedoms to continue life without limitations. I am honored to play a small part in such an influential organization.”