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SSG Travis Mills – Bravery Beyond the Battlefield

Travis Mills outside the Travis Mills Foundation [Source]

In 2012, Staff Sergeant Travis ‘Big’ Mills became one of only five soldiers from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to survive injuries as a quadruple amputee. Since then, Travis founded the Travis Mills Foundation to assist recalibrated warriors and their families to overcome struggles in post-war life. SSG Mill’s story and cause has received attention from many influential people including President Donald Trump, Ellen DeGeneres, and Sylvester Stallone.

Though it has gained publicity, a story such as this is often overlooked in the textbooks of military history. It is not a story of a well-known battle such as Bull Run or Operation Neptune (D-Day), but it is a story of the battles that follow a soldier home. These battles can be physical, mental, or a mixture of both. The United States is currently suffering an epidemic of veterans ending their own lives. Whatever battles these veterans were fighting, it is evident that they did not find the help when they needed it. Programs like the Travis Mills Foundation help veterans find the help that they need to reacclimate to life after war and give them a hero to help their personal battles. SSG Mills became a hero for soldiers in their personal battles, just as he was a hero on the battlefields of Afghanistan and the hometown hero on the football field in high school. What one should take away from a story such as Mills’ is the importance of supporting the foundations that help our veterans.

Early Life

Mills was born and raised in the thumb of Michigan in the rural town of Vassar. He grew up with an older sister and a younger brother, and even though he was not the oldest, he was very protective of his siblings. This proved to be a quality that eventually saved lives and protected his brothers in arms. His outgoing personality steered him toward sports, where he became a star player of everything he played. Whether it was football, baseball, or basketball, he rose to the top as a natural leader. Travis Mills’ high school coach, Vince Levielle, spoke highly of his ability: “Travis’s work ethic motivated everybody. Everybody got stronger because Travis was their leader,” [1]. After high school, Mills attended Grand Rapids Community College and played for their football team. However, knowing that college was not going to result in the future he desired, he withdrew from his classes and talked to some recruiters. The Mills family had a history of involvement in the armed forces, and the trend continued as Mills enlisted into the Army. Travis ‘Big’ Mills’ big personality required a fast-paced role filled with action; therefore, he was drawn to the airborne infantry. For the duration of his military Career, Mills belonged to the 82nd Airborne Division.

Military Career

After training was out of the way, Mills was selected for the commander’s personal security detachment with two other soldiers. Eventually, Mills received orders for deployment. With deployment came many hard goodbyes. Travis left a note on his parent’s bathroom wall in washable marker the morning he left; “It said one short sentence of reassurance: ‘All will be fine’,” [1]. Traveling with and protecting Lieutenant Colonel Scottie D. Custer was Mills’ main mission in his first deployment beginning in 2007. Along with being on the security detachment, he took part in humanitarian aid drops to gain the local’s trust. Aside from one incident involving a suicide bombing at the grand opening of a hospital, the deployment was not very active. The only fatality during the hospital’s grand opening was the suicide bomber himself [1]. During this deployment, Mills was promoted up to the rank of Specialist (E-4). After this deployment, life sped up for Travis Mills. He married Kelsey Buck, the sister of one of his friends in the 82nd (Josh Buck). Shortly after that, he received another promotion.

Mills went into his second deployment as a Sergeant (E-5) and was no longer a part of the commander’s security detachment. This meant he was going to see much more action. Proof of that came when news of the death of Sergeant Tyler Juden, one of Mills’ friends, reached the Forward Operating Base (FOB) where Mills was stationed. With Mills being put in charge of other soldiers, he knew he was responsible for much more than himself. In his autobiography, Mills reminisces, “On my first deployment, I’d been a private. My only job was to take orders. Now I was not only taking orders but giving orders too… Lives were on the line like they’d always been, but now I was responsible for those lives” [1]. He excelled in his new leadership position. Though their stay was riddled with firefights, no one in Mills’ platoon was injured in his second deployment.

Travis Mills showing he is ready to fight while deployed [Source]

Between the second and third deployment, quite a bit happened in Mills’ life. He received a promotion to Staff Sergeant (E-6) and filled a weapons squad leader position. The pay raise was much appreciated and helped with the arrival of his daughter, Chloe. Only months after his daughter’s birth, Mills started his third deployment in February 2012. He was headed to an even more dangerous part of Afghanistan than the prior two deployments. Despite the constant danger, he led his squad and collaborated with other leaders through very successful missions. Those who had the pleasure of fighting beside him said they would follow him to hell and back. Judging from the stories, they did just that multiple times; Mills was said to be happily singing 82nd Airborne cadences and Britney Spears the whole way. SSG Mills had once even sprinted into a hailstorm of bullets to carry a fellow squad leader to safety, an action that later earned him a Bronze Star [1]. Firefights were happening almost every day after that incident. All was managed until an improvised explosive device (IED) was not detected by the minesweeper. Unfortunately, not every IED is detectable to a minesweeper because of the materials used.


“The backpack touching the dirt was all it took. Such a simple act of war.” [1]

Depiction of the scene in Travis: A Soldier’s Story [Source]

On April 10, 2012, SSG Mills set off an undetected IED with only the pressure of setting his backpack on the ground. Travis Mills along with two of his men were injured by the blast, but Mills caught the worst of it. He went through the air, two of his limbs not landing with him [3]. When a few medics leaned over him and went to work, he told them to assist anyone else injured before himself. They continued their work and got all three men loaded into a Black Hawk Helicopter headed to Kandahar, Afghanistan. On the flight to Kandahar, Mills showed more concern for his men than himself. One of the flight medics, 1SG Waite, mentioned in a letter to Kelsey Mills, “Other wounded soldiers in the aircraft were injured and screaming. But your husband was more worried about them than himself,” [1]. Josh Buck was deployed with Mills but stationed in a different part of Afghanistan. He received the news and was given permission to head to Kandahar to care for his brother-in-law. His remaining leg, barely hanging on, came off in the initial surgery. After being transported to a hospital in Germany, his remaining arm became necrotic, forcing them to amputate below the elbow [1]. This made him one of only five survivors of injuries resulting in a quadruple amputation in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan [3].

Travis, Kelsey, and Chloe Mills reunited after the injury [Source]

Five days after the explosion, he was transported to the United States and was able to meet with his family. It was a short meeting as he needed to go back into surgery; some of his stitches had come undone on the flight over. Seeing his daughter later helped him, but overall, he had no idea how he was to function and take care of his family. This devastated him. Eventually, the phantom pains had worsened to a point that they had to perform an experimental treatment involving a ketamine induced coma [1]. It was saved for only the most severe of cases and had been performed very few times in history before Mills [4]. After the five-day coma and the four-day period of hallucinations following, he was phantom pain free. This presented Mills with a new surge of motivation. He was prepared to work with what he had by any means necessary to care for his family again. The only problem that kept him down was that he didn’t know how.

One day while morale was low, USMC Corporal Todd Nicely walked into Mills’ room, grabbed him a soda, and proceeded to open it. Mills was awestruck. Two years prior to Mills’ injuries, Todd Nicely became the third soldier to survive becoming a quadruple amputee [9]. Nicely had done all of that with the use of his prosthetics. They talked for a while, and he was reassured it was possible to go back to living his life independently. This was the rest of the reassurance that Mills needed. He knew he could figure out a way to tackle any obstacle in his way of caring for his family. The following week, he called his doctor to his room and told him that he was going to physical therapy. After four hours of Travis calling him, the doctor caved in and agreed. With a slow start of being able to handle one hour the first day, Mills eventually started spending 40-hour weeks at rehab. Approximately two months after the explosion, he took his first steps on prosthetics.

Natural Born Leader

Once Mills was able to walk on his own again, he set off on the path to becoming a warrior for veteran’s post-war battles. A doctor realized that motivation radiated from SSG Mills, being carried to others by his natural leadership skills. He told Mills that someone needed to talk to him on another floor of the hospital; he immediately understood and headed to the floor where a nurse was waiting for him. She motioned toward a patient’s room. He walked in with his Staff Sergeant confidence and talked to the man, inspiring him, just as Corporal Todd Nicely had done for him. From that point, SSG Mills was called on by doctors frequently. On top of that, Mills made his own rounds to patient’s rooms and recruited others to do the same. He was a natural when it came to pushing other warriors into taking their first steps on the road to re-calibration.

The Travis Mills Foundation [Source]

After recovering from his injuries, Travis Mills has completed many tasks that he once thought were not possible in his condition. He ran the Tunnel to Towers 5K, went skydiving with Maine’s first lady, and even learned to drive again with the help of a specially designed van [1]. As Travis was opened to a world of possibilities, he established the Travis Mills Foundation. This foundation invites re-calibrated veterans and their families to the location in Maine for relaxation and learning different skills and hobbies despite the disadvantages. Veterans have been able to find ways to participate in the activities they used to love or even picked up a new hobby to enjoy. In 2017, the foundation hosted 84 veteran families that participated in various activities that had been adapted to each individual veteran’s needs [5].

No Man Left Behind

Mills with fellow recalibrated warriors and their families [Source]

Many of this great nation’s warriors do not face the all their trials in a physical war-zone. A soldier may be safe at home, yet the battle rages on in other ways. Some may be unable to complete tasks that were once effortless. Some may be kept up with nightmares of the decisions that had to be made. Some may even refuse to go in public and leap for cover when something startles them. It is a trying time for soldiers and their families alike; but, whatever the battle may be, the phrase ‘no man left behind’ retains its value for people like Travis Mills.

Putting numbers to the epidemics to current and former military personnel is heart-wrenching. According to data provided by a study by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, a total of 78,830 veterans committed suicide between 2005 and 2017 [7]. This means that approximately 16.7 veterans committed suicide daily over that time period. Another study reported that a total of 3,868 active-duty U.S. military personnel had a ‘self-inflicted’ death [8]. That is approximately 0.8 active-duty servicemen per day. This is not even including statistics from the reserves. Certain types of military personnel also have had increased representation in these numbers. A study also conducted by the VA shows that suicide rates among veterans reach a maximum at three years after leaving the service [6]. It is obvious that the men and women who protect this country are not getting the care they need. Just recently Todd Nicely, the quadruple amputee who came in to talk to Travis Mills at Walter Reed, had reported he did not have functioning prosthetics for four months due to the VA. Shortly after a heated phone call with the VA, Nicely attempted suicide [10]. Action is obviously required in a situation such as this. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is failing the people who fight for our freedom.

What can we do?

Remember to thank those who fight for our freedom [Source]

Supporting the armed forces and the organizations that help them is the best way forward in making sure every veteran is served properly. Donating to the organizations through volunteering your time or through money can help them help more veterans. If you see a veteran or current service member who is struggling, and you cannot help them yourself, you can refer them to a foundation for help. Here are some of the foundations and the links to their websites: Travis Mills Foundation, Gary Sinise Foundation, Wounded Warrior Project, and a list of many more at Veterans Advantage. In times that require immediate help, the Veterans Crisis Line can be reached by calling 1-800-273-8255 and pressing 1.

Primary Sources:

  1. Mills, Travis (2015). “Tough As They Come“, Travis Mills Group, LLC
  2. Miller, Joshua R. (2012). “Quadruple amputee undergoes surgery after Afghanistan blast,” Fox News
  3. Schmidt, Mackenzie (June 19, 2017). “A Quadruple Amputee Vet Transforms a Crumbling Estate into a Beautiful (and Free!) Vacation Retreat for Military Families,” People
  4. DallasNews Administrator (Jun 30, 2012). “Combat medicine advances deliver quadruple amputee from brink”. The Dallas Morning News
  5. Mills, Travis (2013). “Travis Mills Foundation”

Secondary Sources:

  1. Kang, HK, et al. (2015). “Suicide Risk and Risk of Death Among Recent Veterans,” U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
  2. Veterans Affairs. (2019) “2019 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual ReportU.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
  3. Congressional Research Service. (May 20, 2019). “Recent Trends in Active-Duty Military Deaths” Congressional Research Service
  4. Wallace, Duncan (2012). “Trends in traumatic limb amputation in Allied Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Volume 20 no. 2 (pages 31-35): Journal of Military and Veteran’s Health
  5. Popular Military (2018). “Quadruple amputee says VA is failing him, hasn’t had any prosthetics for monthsPopular Military

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