A soldier who lost all his limbs after an explosion in Afghanistan and created a retreat to help others like him understands that injuries can run deeper than shattered bones.
So, the Travis Mills Foundation plans to address post-traumatic stress disorder when it embarks on a major expansion of its facility in Rome.
For one week each month, the retreat that opened two years ago will dedicate itself to PTSD recovery by getting participants started in a series called Warrior’s PATHH, operated by a partner. Participants must be willing to commit to the 18-month program that helps veterans recover from the invisible wounds of war.
“There’s no free vacation,” Mills told The Associated Press. “I’ve been able to rebuild myself with true grit and having wonderful people who were there for me. We’re trying to provide a way for them to push forward and to get through it.”
Plans for the $5.4-million expansion, to be unveiled Sunday, also include an addition with a swimming pool and gym equipment, along with the expanded calendar with dozens of weekly PTSD treatment sessions.
Mills, 32, said the expansion is gratifying.
He opened the facility to help those with amputations and spinal cord injuries by bringing together the entire family, including service dogs. The goal, he said, is to show combat-injured veterans how they can continue to participate in family activities, whether it’s yoga, ropes courses, bicycling, or cooking.
The retreat shows them how to keep it going when they return home.
“We don’t want to show them something that they can do here that’s great and awesome that they can’t do at home. We want them to be able to do it there, as well,” he said.
Despite his horrific injuries, Mills said he doesn’t have PTSD.
But it’s a problem for thousands of military personnel who’ve served since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Thankfully, the stigma that keeps some veterans from seeking help is lessening now that the problem is becoming better understood, said Dan Clare of Disabled Americans Veterans.
Mills’ example is important to those veterans recovering from injury, Clare said. He said Mills “represents resiliency and spirit that some people think that they’ve lost.”
An explosive device in Afghanistan claimed all of Mills’ limbs but not his competitive, wise-cracking spirit. He has remained active after a nearly two-year recovery and has gone skydiving, participated in adaptive skiing and mountain biking, and paddled on lakes.
His retreat opened in 2017 at the lakeside estate of the late cosmetics magnate Elizabeth Arden. The home was overhauled from top to bottom for accessibility. All participants attend for free.
Marcus Hayward of West Palm Beach, Florida, said it’s a place where veterans have fun, lift each other up and inspire each other.
“It’s cool to see people with disabilities crushing life,” said Hayward, who lost one of his legs to a land mine blast in Afghanistan.
It’s also a relaxing place for families to bond. His family experienced snow and his daughter made a snowman for the first time on one of the visits, he said.
Mills said participants are surrounded by those who understand what they’ve gone through.
“It’s the community aspect. It’s sitting around the campfire,” Mills said. “There aren’t a lot of nonprofits that specialize in what we specialize in. That’s magic.”
Related: Orono veteran raises awareness of living with PTSD