Retired soldier Travis Mills is one of only 5 surviving quadruple amputees. Now he's helping others live full lives.
Nov 10, 2016
There are only 5 surviving veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars that have quadruple amputations. United States Army Staff Sergeant (Ret.) Travis Mills is one of them.
On April 10, 2012, just six weeks into his third deployment to Afghanistan, Mills and his team were called into sweep an area for IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices). After the area was deemed clear, the athletic, jovial soldier set down his backpack and an IED exploded, instantly making him a triple amputee. Two days later, his remaining arm was removed. He woke up on his 25th birthday to a terrifying new reality.
“For a little while there, I questioned everything. ‘Does God hate me? Am I bad person? Did I do something in my life to deserve this?’ My faith was obviously shaken,” Mills, now a motivational speaker and author of the new book Tough as They Come tells Guideposts.org. “But then you have to realize that bad things happen to good people. It's not that I did anything wrong in life, it's just the way the cookie crumbles.”
Mills’ acceptance of the drastic change to his life came slowly. “There was a plaque on my wall with Joshua 1:9 on it [“Have not I commanded thee? Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the Lord thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest.”] that used to make me angry to read it. I asked my mom to take it down and she said, ‘Quit being silly.’ I told my wife that she could take everything we had, the house the cars, the money that we had, not that it was a lot, and just go and live her life without me, and she said, ‘That's not how this works.’ My [6 month old] daughter was still looking to me because I’m still her father. So I thought, ‘You know what? You might as well get up and get better.”
Gratitude was one way Mills began to find peace and joy again. “I remembered all those doctors and nurses who worked on me,” he says of the hours of surgeries he undertook to save his life. “Nine doctors and seven nurses. Two nurses for 9 hours pumped air in and out of my lungs to keep me breathing and I had over 30 blood transfusions. People were rushing to donate blood from them right to me.”
Stubbornness was the other tool that helped him heal. “I didn’t like people spoon feeding me,” he says. “[The military] brought a guy in from Missouri who was in the same situation, and he walked into my room. He showed me that you can go on. And I just said, ‘It’s time to stop feeling sorry for myself and get moving.’ You realize you’re still alive.”
After thirteen surgeries and hundreds of hours of rehabilitation, Mills can now “walk, drive, skydive, hold his wife’s hand and fix his daughter’s breakfast.” Fresh off of a motivational speech in Boston where he was also promoting his new memoir, Tough as They Come, Mills shares just how normal his new life is.
“I’m going to get home [to Maine at] about 5 o’clock,” he says, “and I’m going to hop into my truck and drive my [now 5-year-old] daughter to swim lessons.”
He’s also had the opportunity to help many other veterans who have been injured in combat through his non-profit organization, the Travis Mills Foundation. Beyond fellow veterans, Mills recently had a divinely orchestrated meeting with a man in Utah who was tasked with driving him to a speech he was giving. The driver stuck around for the speech and spoke to Mills afterward, saying, “You saved my life. I was going to kill myself next week, but you just totally changed everything,” Mills shares of the man’s comments to him. “I was just taken aback,” Mills says of the encounter. “I said, ‘Keep fighting, man.’ I’m just grateful to have had that conversation.”
These interactions help remind Mills of the greater purpose of his injuries. “People ask me all the time if I would go back [in time and redeploy to Afghanistan] and do it all over again, knowing what I know. I would absolutely not go back, but this is not me making the calls for my life,” he says.
Now, he says he no longer wonders why, but continues to move forward.
“There’s a big difference in dwelling on the past and reminiscing about the past. I’m very thankful to have had my arms and legs until age 25. Now I’m just focused on the positive; I have my wife and child, I’m able to go and run my foundation and be a positive message for other people, to show them life does go on.”
Mills exudes joy when he says, “all of us are classified as ‘wounded warriors,’ but I’m not wounded anymore. Yes, I was injured, but I’m healed.”