A veteran’s journey: Quadruple amputee goes from hospital bed to helping others heal

Posted May 29, 2013, at 4:20 p.m.
Last modified May 29, 2013, at 10:55 p.m.

BELGRADE, Maine — Travis Mills says he doesn’t spend much time dwelling on the past. Instead, he offers a former athlete’s assessment of his life, post-April 10, 2012.

“If you see an umpire make a call and the coach doesn’t like it, and the coach goes in there and argues — does the umpire ever reverse his call?” Mills asks. “Never.”

That is the situation the 26-year-old Army staff sergeant finds himself in now. The umpire has spoken. The call will not be reversed.

“I’m not going to go back in time. I’m not going to get myself fixed,” Mills said, leaning against a rock to balance himself, resting on two prosthetic legs, gesturing with a prosthetic left arm, pointing with the stump of his right. “I’m not going to regrow arms or legs. So I might as well move forward with my life. And that’s why I think this camp is beneficial.”

This camp has been called Camp Kennebec since 1907. More recently, it’s been the home of the Maine Golf and Tennis Academy.

And thanks to the vision of Mills and a partnership between camp owners Joel and Crista Lavenson and Bread of Life Ministries, Camp Kennebec will soon serve as the home of the National Veterans Recreation Center, where it will welcome disabled veterans to an accessible family-based facility on the shores of Salmon Lake.

“He had a dream and a vision to have a place in Maine, on a lake, that was fully handicap-accessible, for veterans from all over the country to be able to come to, who have differing ability needs and disability needs,” said Dean Lachance, executive director of Bread of Life Ministries, which provides high-end services for veterans in need. “And since we’re doing veterans’ projects, this was the perfect extension, [a way] of saying, ‘Let’s find a way to make this happen.’”

Joel Levanson is a veteran. His uncle was also veteran, a member of the “Band of Brothers” who died in World War II.

“His dream was to have this camp, but he died 69 years ago,” Joel Levanson said. “He was an Airborne trooper, just like Travis. And the two airborne troopers — though they never met — their dreams are meeting.”

On Tuesday, Mills took his first tour of the facility and was impressed. Work to modernize the first five cabins is progressing nicely, and Bread of Life and the Levansons hope to welcome their first crop of veterans in August. Further work will be done over the coming years.

Mills said focusing on outdoor recreation is something that’s relatively new to him: He was a three-sport athlete in Vassar, Mich., in high school, and spent more time hitting and throwing and shooting hoops as a youngster. But he did go camping, and always enjoyed family trips into the woods.

“[Now] I can’t really throw a softball. I can’t really throw a football. I can’t play baseball too awful well. I don’t have arms,” Mills said. “So now, for me, it’s more outdoors things: What can my daugher and I do? Can we go riding on the trails? Can we go fishing? Can we find a way to adaptively go out on a boat ride and find a way to have fun in the sun?”

The answers: Right now, maybe not. But before long, all of those options will be available to Mills, his wife, Kelsey, a Gardiner native, and his 21-month-old daughter, Chloe. And those options will just be a few of the activities that other military families will be able to enjoy in the Maine woods.

Third tour, an explosion

Mills doesn’t dwell on the past, but he doesn’t ignore it, either. He’ll tell you about that day — April 10, 2012 — so matter-of-factly that goosebumps will rise on your arms.

It was just another day in Afghanistan, he’ll say. Another day of work. And after three tours in that country, it probably seemed that way.

Until it didn’t.

“The minesweeper went over everything — it was a cleared area — and the mine just happened to be made up of plastic and glass,” Mills said. “As soon as I stepped on it, it went off.

“I lost my right arm, my right leg — disintegrated, never found. My left leg was blown off. Not all the way, it was taped to my thigh. My left arm was mangled up pretty good, but still there. So they got me secure, they stabilized me, got me from there to the helicopter.”

In the helicopter, Mills remained conscious. He says he felt no pain. Eventually, at the hospital, doctors put him to sleep.

“They started working on me. They pulled my pants off and my leg came with it,” Mills said, emotionless. “And then they knocked me out because I kept telling them, ‘Leave me alone.’”

Mills woke up two days later, on his 25th birthday. His brother-in-law was sitting beside his bed. The first thing the staff sergeant did was ask about his soldiers. Then he asked about himself.

“[I asked him] ‘Am I paralyzed?’ and he said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘Josh, you don’t have to lie to me. I can’t feel my fingers and toes.’ He said, ‘Travis, I’m not going to lie to you. You don’t have ’em.’

“I said, ‘Oh. OK.”

Then he was taken to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., where he soon got to work. And he had plenty of help.

One early visit from a fellow veteran made a huge impact, Mills said.

“I had a quadruple amputee — the second one from the war — Todd Nicely, come walk into my room with his two fake arms and his two fake legs, and talk to me and let me know everything [was going to be] OK,” Mills said.

Then Nicely did something Mills thought was amazing: He bent over, picked a soda up off the floor, and handed it to his new friend. And he said a few words.

“He’s like, ‘I don’t live here. I actually have a house in Missouri. I’m just here to visit you, and let you know it’s going to be fine,’” Mills said. “Right there, that kind of just set the tone. I’m three weeks after my explosion, but look at this guy. Look at what he’s doing. That was just amazing. Right there, I had it. And there it is.”

That was about a year ago.

Hard work remained, but Mills thrived. He did the work. Remained positive. And eventually, he decided he’d make a difference for others, as Nicely had done for him.

Over the winter, he went to Colorado and did some adaptive sports, including snowboarding and skiing. That experience opened his eyes, showing him what was possible. It also showed him where a void existed.

“There’s so many amazing things that they have set up just for amputees that I never would have thought of,” Mills said. “If I wasn’t blown up, I probably wouldn’t recognize [that] or had a second thought about it.”

But he was. And he began thinking about what else might be possible. How about a place in the woods? A camp? A place that could combine the healing powers of nature with recreational outlets that families could enjoy together?

Late last year, Lachance ended up sitting next to a relative of Mills’ wife. He heard the soldier’s story, and started thinking. In January, George O’Keefe Jr. of Bread of Life Ministries sat down with Travis Mills and some other disabled veterans. They began to hatch a plan.

O’Keefe said he emerged from the meeting feeling better about himself, and the challenges he’ll soon face.

O’Keefe is in the Army National Guard. He, too, has been to Afghanistan. In August, he’ll return for another tour.

“To see somebody who’s been through what is probably my own worst nightmare, and he came out OK on the other end, just gave me a gigantic sense of relief,” O’Keefe said.

And he learned from others what Mills had meant to their own recoveries.

“He chooses to help [other veterans] get to where he is [in their recoveries],” O’Keefe said. “And that’s what really makes him special. Not only does he have this incredible character that keeps holding on and keeps being strong, but he chooses to help others in a circumstance where he’s moving through this really big challenge of his own.”

That’s one way to look at it. Mills himself, as you might expect, sees things a bit differently.

One man’s challenge? Another man’s opportunity.

“I’m fortunate. I’ve got a 21-month-old daughter and I’ve got a beautiful wife who loves me and is by my side,” Mills said. “I still have the opportunity — and I’m fortunate — to have more children, and live a good life and hang out and just kind of have fun with it.”

To volunteer or provide financial support to the Travis Mills Project, go to travismills.org or call Bread of Life Ministries at 207-626-3434.