This Veteran Has a Heart of Gold and an Iron Will to Help Others

Travis Mills, quadruple amputee and co-founder of a retreat for vets and their families, cares deeply about showing others a path back to normalcy
November 10, 2020 Updated: November 10, 2020

Travis Mills may be one of the most inspirational young people in our country—but he likely won’t care for that characterization.  

That’s because, despite how extraordinary this man has been in the face of struggle, he prefers shining a light on other veterans and their families. He prefers leading others to healing. He’s proved it for years. 

As co-founder, with his wife, Kelsey, of the nonprofit Travis Mills Foundation, he focuses on helping post-9/11 wounded warriors enjoy life again. He wants them to get outside in the fresh air, be active with their families, and regain the vital understanding that they can do almost everything they did before they lost their legs, or their arms, or suffered other grave physical injuries in service to our country.

Wounded vets, no matter what they’ve endured, must want to get better, Travis Mills believes. As he told The Epoch Times in an exclusive interview, veterans must be willing to write the brave new chapter of their lives before he and his foundation can begin to help them. 

Once they do—“it’s just incredible,” says Mills of the experience he’s been able to create. “It’s impressive. When I think about what my foundation is doing for them and their families, I can’t help but smile.”

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Mills wrote the bestselling memoir “Tough as They Come.” (Courtesy of Travis Mills Foundation)

The Travis Mills Foundation offers a free, weeklong vacation for wounded warriors and their families at a fully adaptive getaway in gorgeous central Maine. Everything is paid for, including travel and expenses. What’s more, thousands of volunteers from all over the country, from all walks of life, apply to help out and keep things running smoothly. 

At the retreat, there’s boating, fishing, and snowshoeing. There’s canoeing and cooking, martial arts and massage therapy—and much more. The can-do getaway opened its doors in 2017 to 89 families. In 2018, 131 families took part. And in 2019, more than 200 families enjoyed themselves there. 

While COVID-19 threw a wrench into the 2020 schedule, the work continues in a big way, with the addition soon of a new health and wellness center. In February 2021, the foundation hopes to welcome guests to its winter programs—courtesy of donations, volunteers, and a lot of heart.

From Staff Sergeant to Quadruple Amputee

Travis Mills knows all about sacrifice, pain, and the excruciating road to healing. Mills, 33, is one of only five quadruple amputees from the post-9/11 conflicts to survive his wounds. 

As a staff sergeant with the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, he was severely injured during routine foot patrol in Afghanistan by an IED (improvised explosive device) during his third deployment, on April 10, 2012. He was just 24 years old. 

The bomb tore off his right arm and his right leg. He was thrown into the air by the explosion and landed on his head. When he rolled over and opened his eyes, he saw that his right limbs were gone and that his left leg had been “snapped through the bone at the femur, where the knee met.” It hung there, “draped over,” by mere muscle and tendon, as he tells the story. His left hand was still there, but two fingers were gone—“and my left wrist was blown out really bad.” 

A medic rushed in to tend to him, despite his pleas to “leave me and go save my men.” Within 10 minutes, Mills was flown by helicopter to a hospital as medical staff continued to care for him. After 14 hours in surgery and more than 30 blood transfusions, he woke up in Landstuhl, Germany, on his 25th birthday as a quadruple amputee. 

And on April 17, just a week after his world changed forever, he arrived at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center outside Washington, D.C. 

There, Mills came to understand his new mission: to get better again for his family. His wife, Kelsey, never left his side and assured him they were in this together. Their daughter, Chloe, was just six months old. His entire family rallied around him, including his parents and his in-laws. His father-in-law, Craig Buck, whom he calls his “best friend,” even moved into the couple’s Walter Reed apartment for months at a time to help the family in any way necessary.

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Mills with his wife Kelsey, their daughter Chloe, and their son Dax.

Showing nothing less than pure grit, Travis Mills walked again just two months after arriving at Walter Reed. Every single day, for hours on end, he worked on his strength, his rehab, and his ability to function with prostheses. 

“There aren’t many vets who can say they learned to walk at the same time as their young daughter did,” he says. “But that’s how it went. Chloe and I did it together.”

He enthusiastically credits his family for all the progress he made. “I’ve had amazing support along the way.” 

Mills understands he’s lucky—and he knows the great sacrifices others have made to help him heal and learn to adapt anew to a variety of everyday living situations. It’s why his foundation offers a special week’s getaway for caregiver mothers of wounded vets—and another one for caregiver fathers as well. 

“The whole goal of our Maine program is for veterans to have a good time with their families again,” he says. “Wounded warriors should not live a life on the sidelines. They can get out there and be active.”

But it’s not just about the vets having “the best week of their lives,” he says. Mills and his foundation also offer what he calls “recalibrate programs,” since he understands there are “mental health aspects to all of this.”

Travis and Kelsey Mills started their foundation in 2013, just a year and a half after he was wounded. They wanted to give back to others in a big way after so many people, he says, “showed him so much love” during his time at Walter Reed (he was there for a total of 19 months). With the help of charitable donations, they bought property in Maine and renovated it over a long period of time to make it completely barrier-free and user-friendly for wounded warriors. 

At the retreat, veterans and their families “participate in adaptive activities, bond with other veteran families, and enjoy rest and relaxation in Maine’s outdoors,” as his website notes.  

The chance to go fishing, boating, and biking is a huge gift to these warriors, as is the opportunity to be around other vets like themselves. The family members benefit enormously as well, Mills says. They look around and see others coping with challenges and issues just as they are—and they are boosted by new friendships. 

No longer are they alone in their journey. No longer is their family the only one that’s “different.” Now, they have buddies. They have bonds. And they have the bonus of confidence in their futures. 

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The Travis Mills Foundation supports veterans and their loved ones through all-expenses-paid retreats in Maine’s Belgrade Lakes region. They participate in adaptive activities, bond with other veteran families, and enjoy rest and recreation. (Courtesy of Travis Mills Foundation)
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(Courtesy of Travis Mills Foundation)
travis mills foundation
(Courtesy of Travis Mills Foundation)
travis mills foundation
(Courtesy of Travis Mills Foundation)

‘Grateful That People Believe in Me’ 

The Epoch Times asked Mills: Does faith play a role in the life he leads today, where others are his focus?

“Yes,” he said quietly. “But I don’t publicly announce anything like this. People don’t have to be Christian to be part of who we are or what we do. Anybody and everybody is welcome here.” 

It’s about revitalization for the wounded warriors and their families, he stresses. It’s about rediscovering an active lifestyle. And, by the way, “it’s really fun!” 

“I’m grateful that people believe in me,” he says about the foundation that bears his name. “I’m a small-town kid from Vassar, Michigan. I’m fortunate.” 

Mills also gives motivational speeches to groups across the country; he’s part-owner, as well, of several local businesses. Above all, he has a “don’t-pity-me” demeanor and a self-deprecating sense of humor. He believes in never giving up. 

“There are maybe three minutes of my day that I don’t truly enjoy,” he says, “when I need some help putting on my legs and my arm in the morning. But once I’m all put together, then I go about my day like anyone else.” 

In addition to their daughter Chloe, who is now nine, Mills and his wife have a young son, Dax, who’s three. Life is very full. 

“I get out and I do everything I can to make sure that my kids see a father who’s just like everyone else—just as normal as can be,” he says. “I can drive wherever I need to drive. I can walk wherever I need to walk. I can feed myself. Whatever I need to do, I do it.”

Mills says he learned early on from his parents that “just because something’s difficult, that’s no excuse for giving up.” That and scores of other upbeat messages fill the book he wrote about his life, “Tough As They Come.” Gary Sinise wrote the foreword; it was a New York Times bestseller.

On Amazon, plenty of readers praised the book: “Every American should read this book,” one person wrote. Another said, “We need a Travis in our life.” 

Among those who took note of his personal story and the retreat he offers to vets is Mike Rowe, whose show, “Returning the Favor,” did a full program on Mills and his foundation. Rowe’s team also surprised Mills by building a challenging ropes course on the retreat property. 

Mills remains unaffected by any such attention. His eyes are fully focused on helping other veterans and those who love them. 

“For all the people we bring to Maine, we show them that life goes on. Yes, bad things happen to good people,” says Travis Mills. “But we have to keep pushing forward.”

Or, as he also puts it: “What is this all for, if not for my family?”

Maureen Mackey, a contributor to The Epoch Times, Parade Magazine, and other publications, is a digital content executive, writer, and editor based in the New York City area. Find her on Twitter @maurmack