On April 10, 2012, US Army Staff Sergeant Travis Mills of the 82nd Airborne was critically injured on his third tour of duty in Afghanistan by an IED (improvised explosive device) while on patrol, losing portions of both legs and both arms. He is one of only five quadruple amputees from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to survive his injuries.
Now retired from the military in Maine, Travis says he is a “recalibrated warrior,” along with being a motivational speaker, actor, author, and an advocate for veterans and amputees. Travis’s memoir, Tough as They Come, is on sale in bookstores, and he continues to overcome life’s challenges, breaking physical barriers and defying odds. He lives by his motto: “Never give up. Never quit.”
In 2013, Travis and his wife, Kelsey, founded the Travis Mills Foundation, a nonprofit organization formed to benefit and assist post-9/11 veterans who have been injured in active duty or as a result of their service. The veterans and their families receive an all-expenses paid, barrier-free vacation in Maine where they participate in adaptive activities, and bond with other veteran families in Maine’s great outdoors.
Travis also consults with and speaks to companies and organizations nationwide, inspiring all to overcome life’s challenges and adversity.
Recently, Mary Barstow caught up with Travis in between his amazingly busy life.
For more details, please visit travismillsfoundation.org
Mary: I’ve been watching your stand-up comedy, and you are one funny guy. You made me cry and laugh all morning.
Travis: I appreciate that. I get to have a good time. We’ve been on quite the tear lately. We had a huge gala with like 400 people Saturday. Then Sunday, we had an open house where people toured the retreat. Yesterday I was in Massachusetts all day at two golf tournaments. It raised a really good amount of funds for us.
Mary: Congratulations! So, tell me how you found yourself in Maine?
Travis: Well, my wonderful wife is originally from the Gardiner-Hollowell area.
Mary: Oh, she is?
Travis: Yeah. She has like 120 family members throughout the Central Maine area. It’s a really big, tight-knit family. She’d been through the ringer with me and the whole injury and stuff. I thought it’d be nice to be by her family, because I can adapt to anything and anywhere at any time thanks to the military. We never thought twice about it. It’s been a wonderful decision. We live in the Manchester-Augusta area.
Mary: You’ve made such a difference for so many, many people. So inspiring!
Travis: The write-ups are all very good about me. I’m pretty mediocre at the end of the day, but I have a wonderful staff and team around me. They really work hard and we have over 1,000 volunteers who come out and do everything. I’m so grateful for that. It’s really a community, but my name goes on the front of it, so I get to look great doing it. I can’t complain about that, right?
Mary: No. Your life changed so suddenly. What gave you the encouragement to keep going the way you have?
Travis: Well, I was always a go-getter. Get the job done. Don’t complain. You have to do it anyway, so you might as well make the best of it. But life changed for me drastically on September 27th, 2011. And on that day, there was a major event in my life … Chloe Lynn, my daughter. And she was born before I deployed. And then I got blown up.
At the darkest moments of life, it was, “This is terrible. Why did this happen? Why don’t I just give up?”
But she was right there with me. Six-month-old little butterball baby Chloe, squeezing my nose, laughing and playing and giggling and rolling a ball back and forth with me, and then riding in my wheelchair and learning how to walk. We learned how to walk together.
Mary: Tell me more about Chloe.
Travis: I don’t want to put the weight of the world on her shoulders, but I wouldn’t be the same person I am today without her. And you know what? At my gala I talked to everybody and told Chloe to come out. Tons of support for her and my son, Dax, to be there. And I told her to come on stage and she wouldn’t do it. She’s too shy.
Mary: How old is she now?
Travis: She’s nine, going to be 10 this year. And I said, “If you guys want me to sum up this place, why I am so passionate about doing it? Kelsey and I do it because of Chloe Lynn. I learned how to do things adaptively. It was okay that I was injured because there were things out there like horseback riding, downhill mountain bike riding, kayaking, canoeing, all the stuff we offer at the foundation. And we also offer it all to the families. It’s not just me. It’s what I can do with my family actively and adapt to it. But I think the true secret sauce, if you will, would definitely be Chloe. And now the reason I continue to do the work we do and expand and grow is because of my son Dax.
My wife hates the spotlight. She wants to just be in the background, have fun, smile and shake hands. But that’s not how I work. I get a lot of attention … probably because of my gorgeous looks.
Mary: Yes, that’s right.
Travis: I don’t mind it because it’s all for positive and good.
Mary: So, what do you do with your free time, if you have any?
Travis: I’m also a part owner in CBU Benefits insurance company. I’m putting in a restaurant and brewery right now, and I own a lodge and marina and a few rental properties, as well. And I have my motivational speaking that I do.
Everybody’s like, “Do you ever sleep?” I’m like, “Yeah, at nighttime.” But when I’m not sleeping, I’m off working, doing something to make the world a better place, hopefully.
Mary: Well, it’s obvious you haven’t given up your personal dreams at all. You’re a total entrepreneur!
Travis: Yeah. I mean, my dreams were accelerated. I wanted to retire from the military at 20 years and I found a way to do it early, so I took that route and walked right into retirement. I walked right into it.
Mary: Yes, you did.
Travis: Yeah. I had plans to be a teacher and football coach. That didn’t work out, but I’ve been fortunate to do a lot of other cool things and I’m going to keep growing and expanding and live out the slogan that I say every day: “Never give up, never quit.”
Mary: Do you ever have down moments?
Travis: I don’t. And I think people really think I’m lying when I say that. I’ve accepted what happened. I realize that this is how my life is now. It’s not beneficial to keep asking why this happened. I’ll never know why I had to be the one to get blown up. But I do know that I’ve been given the opportunity to still be here, compared to the guys that didn’t make it back home. And I just feel when you look at how lucky and grateful, I really should be, and how lucky and grateful I really am, it’s because I have friends who didn’t make it back to their kids, their wives, their family. And I did.
There’s definitely rough moments. Like the other morning, my son was lying in bed. He’s four. And he was lying in my bed and we were talking. He goes, “Why don’t you have legs?” And I said, “I got hurt in the army.” He goes, “Well, I don’t like the army,” and he starts tearing up.
Those are hard things to explain to my four-year-old. I try to spin it like, “Hey, I’ve got magic legs now” or “robot legs.” And he’s like, “Yeah, but I still wish …”
And then he’s asking how they’re going to grow back. Yeah, and it’s hard to explain, but that’s about as bad as it gets for me.
I realized no matter how many times I hoped and wished this didn’t happen, that I’d wake up from this nightmare? It wasn’t going to happen, and this is my new reality and I might as well recalibrate my thinking. That’s why I say I’m a recalibrated warrior, if anything, because I don’t like to be called wounded or injured. I was injured. I’m no longer injured. I had wounds. I have scars now, because they’ve healed and it’s time to go forward in life. And that’s what I do.
Mary: Are you in pain at all, Travis?
Travis: No. I am a pain, if you ask my wife, but I am not in pain. No, I had an experimental ketamine-coma that was the second in the nation.
Mary: Tell me about that.
Travis: It reset my brain to think without my nerves.
Mary: What did you have to do?
Travis: I had such bad pain that they thought I was either going to be in pain the rest of my life, or I would eventually overdose from all the medications. I was taking so much of it and I was getting tolerant to the effects. But they had these new experimental trials, so they tried three on me. The third one was this ketamine-coma. They gave me ketamine, which is a horse tranquilizer. It was, in theory, supposed to shut my nerves off from trying to find my hands and feet. That’s where the pain is from. It’s from your nerves trying to find your hands and feet.
I woke up and it was a bad hallucinogen. It’s crazy. But you know, fast forward a couple of weeks later, hallucinations and all that stopped and I didn’t have the pain as much. Then I was on dilaudids and all that stuff, and then I guess maybe two months or three months after that, I just kind of quit everything cold turkey. I was like, “I’m done with this stuff. I don’t want the medication anymore.” And my wife was like, “You can’t do that.” I’m like, “Well no, I can because I am.” And then I just quit taking all medications and I haven’t looked back. It’s been 10 years since I was injured and I don’t have any pain and I have no medication and I’m just living life.
Mary: Where did you find your courage?
Travis: I was thrown into it. The biggest fear I had was being a burden, and that’s what everybody feels like when they get injured. But in five weeks I got a hand, so I was feeding myself and dressing myself and going to the restroom by myself. Then after that I was walking again in just shy of two months, and I got my tall legs at three months and I recovered and I worked out hard and I did the best I could just so I could get better.
Then I got out of the military. There were a couple of days where I was like, “Who am I now? I’m not Staff Sergeant Mills, leader of combat soldiers. And I had a readjusting, if you will, for a couple of days. But then I started working out with a trainer who’s a friend of mine and I had my nonprofit I started, as well as I started speaking, and I just found that I really enjoyed all of it.
Mary: Is God part of your life?
Travis: Yes, but I don’t use it for anything other than personally. My book even starts off with a Psalm that was in my room. “Do not be afraid for the glory of God walks beside you,” and I started to get angry the more I read it. My sister-in-law gave it to me because I was like, “What’d he do, take a smoke break? Did he give up on me?” I’m not even embarrassed a little bit to tell you I was angry. I had a lot going on in life. I didn’t know why this had to happen, but then you have to come to the realization that sometimes bad things happen, and it’s not because of God. You can’t just believe in Jesus Christ if things are going your way.
Mary: Thank you for that. What do you want to do that you haven’t done?
Travis: I don’t know. I always think it sounds corny when I say I want to be a good dad and a great husband. I want to be known as Travis Mills, you know Chloe Lynn’s dad? Or Dax Fieldyen’s dad, or Kelsey’s husband.” Not Travis Mills, got no arms, no legs. I think I rounded the corner on that, and that’s why I use a lot of humor.
So, my future plan is to do everything, crawl, walk, run, just like the army taught me, right? Slow smooth, smooth and fast, and stay steady and incline when you can.
I have been offered the chance to duplicate what I do here throughout the US and I think we might go that route. If we get the right funding maybe we’ll open up a place in Texas or Michigan, where I’m from, or out west, because as much as I love having people come to Maine, I want to do the right thing. I never take a dollar from the foundation. We stretch every dollar to the maximum, but if we could build three or four centers, we could really keep doing a lot of good in the world.
Mary: What are the goals for the foundation?
Travis: When it comes to people who had physical injuries, we bring them and their families out and we show them how to do things adaptively. And when we have those weeks going on, the family comes out and it’s a great time.
People ask what we do for post-traumatic stress, and I always tell them to visit this website or check this foundation out. And now we are a partner with Boulder Crest Foundation on their Warrior PATH program, which is one of the best-in-the-nation programs for PTSD.
So, they sign up for one week with us and then there’s a bunch of follow on for 18 months, but it’s about the triggers and it’s about understanding it and getting past what’s going on in life.
Mary: What you’ve accomplished is amazing.
Travis: Well, it’s everybody together. And also this new building we’re putting up will help us operate up to 42-weeks out of the year for retreats. The real goal is how do we help more people. And we also don’t want to make this the best weekend of their life and then they go back home and not have all this stuff we do. So, we definitely make it accessible for them to do it at home as well.
Mary: Are you planning other things?
Travis: Well, we’ll see. I’m writing another book right now on resiliency. I thought I would have it done by December. I don’t think I will. So, I think I’ll have to release it next year, maybe during the July 4th timeframe, but it’s all about resiliency and bouncing back and understanding that life’s going to throw punches, but you have to make sure you get up and punch back, because you’re in charge of your own destiny.
Mary: What about politics? Have you ever thought about going into politics?
Travis: When my son’s out of high school, I’ll have that conversation because people are getting very mad at me, saying, “Hey, I need you to run. Blah, blah, blah,” and I just never get the chance to think about it.
Mary: So, do you get away on vacation? Do you get to go anywhere and have fun?
Travis: Yeah, I do. I keep the phone glued to my ear a lot, unfortunately, but it’s the way of my world right now. We’re going up to Moosehead this weekend. We have a big vacation planned to Disney World in February, so that should be fun.
Mary: I’m sure Chloe and Dax will love that.
Travis: My wife loves Disney more than the kids, I think. But that’s great.
Mary: Do you see staying in Maine as your future?
Travis: Oh yeah. My house is built adaptively for me special because that’s what the plan was. Maine’s the plan. Whether I get a house in Florida later on in life where I spend time down there as a snowbird, we’ll see.
Mary: I know you’re busy and I want to thank you so much for your time. We have great photos for our interview. It’ll be great.
Travis: If you want to Photoshop a little more hair on my head and a little less belly on my stomach, I’d be appreciative. But you do whatever you think is right.
Mary: We’ll make it beautiful, I promise.