Army Staff Sgt. Travis Mills awoke in a hospital on his 25th birthday to learn that an explosion in Afghanistan had robbed him of all four limbs. He later told his wife to take their daughter and their belongings, and just go. He didn't want her saddled with his burden.
"She assured me that's not how this works," Mills said, "and she stayed by my side."
Family support aided his recovery, Mills said, and now a foundation he created is bringing others with war injuries and their families to Maine to continue their healing while surrounded by others who understand what they've gone through.
The retreat at the lakeside estate of the late cosmetics magnate Elizabeth Arden will be dedicated this weekend after an overhaul that included accessibility upgrades.
Staff Sgt. Travis Mills discusses his foundation's resort on a Maine television program. Screenshot: YouTube/CentralMaineCATV
Mills uses his personal story to offer encouragement: "I don't look at myself and pity myself. I tell people to never give up, never quit, and to always keep pushing forward."
The soldier's life changed abruptly on April 10, 2012, when a bomb that evaded detection detonated when Mills unwittingly dropped his backpack on it.
The blast disintegrated his right arm and leg, shredded his wrist and blew several fingers off. His left leg dangled.
As life drained from him, Mills used what was left of his remaining hand to make a radio call for help for the others.
"My medic came up to me and I tried to fight him off, saying, 'Doc, you're not going to save me. There's really no reason to keep trying. It's OK. I accept what happened. Just tell my family I love them, and don't waste your time,'" he told The Associated Press.
DoD photo by Fred W. Baker III
At the field hospital, his remaining leg came off with his pants as he was undressed for surgery. Two days later, his left arm was removed.
When it came to recovery, Mills said, the support of his family was just as important as top-notch medical care. His wife remained with him. Their 6-month-old daughter lifted his spirits. His father-in-law lived with him at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and oversaw construction of a home adapted for his disabilities.
"Without my wife and daughter, I can't tell you that I'd be sitting here today doing as well as I'm doing," he said. "That's why we do what we do. Because we believe there is more healing with the family and other people in the same situation."
His wife, Kelsey, pregnant with their second child, said her husband has been competitive since his days as high school football captain in Vassar, Michigan. He was always the "life of the party," she said, which helps to explain his charisma, enthusiasm, and constant jokes.
"He's always had a strong drive, and getting injured was like a challenge to him to overcome it," she said.
These days, he travels 165 days a year, delivering motivational speeches, and it seems there's little he can't do thanks to grit and advanced prosthetics. He's gone skydiving, participated in adaptive skiing and mountain biking, and paddled on lakes. He's written a book, "Tough As They Come."
The retreat is an extension of Mills' work at Walter Reed, where he lifted others' spirits while recovering from his wounds over a 19-month period.
Walter Reed General Hospital. DoD photo by Samantha L. Quigley.
This summer, 56 families will be served free of charge.
They'll kayak, go tubing, and fish, allowing injured soldiers and Marines to see that they don't have to sit on the sidelines during family activities, Mills said.
Nearly $3 million in cash and in-kind contributions have gone into the camp, building on a pilot program. Mills hopes to raise enough money to create a permanent endowment.
Craig Buck said his son-in-law knows that not all injured military personnel have received the same family support. "This is his way of paying it forward," Buck said. "That's the reason we built the retreat."