Standing on his new prosthetic legs, wearing artificial arms and dressed in combat fatigues, Staff Sgt. Travis Mills showed up in the pre-dawn darkness to greet soldiers as they stepped off the plane in Fort Bragg, N.C.
He was fulfilling a promise he had made to himself just weeks after an April explosion in Afghanistan left him a quadruple amputee.
Mills flew last week from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., to North Carolina to meet his fellow paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division. They had just completed a tough seven-month assignment in southern Afghanistan.
He shook hands and received hugs, trying hard to control his emotions. Mills spotted Sgt. Daniel Bateson, the medic who first came to his aid. Mills embraced him. "Here's the guy who saved my life," he shouted.
Mills, 25, who was on his third combat deployment when he was injured, talked about his whirlwind reunion and his road to recovery as one of only five quadruple amputees to survive the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He spoke during a recent visit with his wife's parents in Frisco.
His goal meant he had to work at least as hard at his rehabilitation as his fellow soldiers fighting in Afghanistan. "Honestly, they're working hard overseas every day," he said, "so I better be working hard where I'm at, doing whatever I can do to get better."
To show up for his unit's homecoming was his way of paying respect and letting them know, "Hey guys, I care," he said. "I've done all this hard work for you, because you guys don't stop working."
After visiting Fort Bragg, Mills and his wife, Kelsey, and their 11-month-old daughter, Chloe, flew to North Texas for a weekend visit as guests of a local business, SRS Distribution, which helps wounded soldiers through a nonprofit organization.
The McKinney roofing supply company invited the Mills family to attend Saturday's Cowboys Stadium Classic in Arlington between the University of Michigan and the University of Alabama.
A native of Vassar, Mich., Mills described himself as a "huge fan" of the Michigan Wolverines. Sporting a maize-and-blue Michigan T-shirt, Mills conceded a day before the game that his team faced an uphill battle. But he offered himself as an example of how to beat long odds. (The Crimson Tide ended up dominating the Wolverines, 41-14.
Sitting on a living room couch, Mills explained how he uses his artificial limbs, including a battery-powered left arm with a realistic-looking, flexible hand capable of a wide range of movements. In the last week, he started walking on a set of new prosthetic legs that can bend at the knee.
Mills spends up to eight hours a day working in Walter Reed's gym and rehabilitation facilities, strengthening his muscles and doing occupational therapy exercises with his prosthetic arms and legs. Tasks as simple as drinking from a plastic water bottle can take dozens of hours of practice.
Since beginning his rehab exercises in mid-May, he's made remarkable progress toward increased mobility and independence. At the Walter Reed complex, he lives with his wife and daughter in an apartment and tries to do as much for himself as possible. The moment he wakes up, he puts on his artificial arm. He can go to the bathroom, take a shower and brush his teeth on his own. "It's my new normal," he said.
He's learned to make his own sandwiches and jokes that he could probably make a gourmet meal -- but it would take about 50 hours.
Mills has been inspired by Todd Nicely, a Marine veteran who lost his arms and legs after stepping on a buried bomb in Afghanistan in 2010. Nicely visited Mills and told him, "It's hard, but it gets better."
Mills and Nicely have signed up for the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Run in New York City on Sept. 30. The 5K run/walk honors the memory of Siller, a New York City firefighter who was killed while trying to rescue workers at the World Trade Center after the Sept. 11 attacks.
As he gets out more, Mills said he doesn't shy away from talking about his injuries with people -- especially children, who stare at him. They act shy at first, he said, until he shows them all the cool things he can do with his arms. "And then they call me 'Transformer,'" he said.
He also reminds the people he meets that American soldiers are still fighting and dying in a war in Afghanistan. "People say the word 'hero' to me," Mills said. "And I say, 'Hey, the heroes are the ones over there still fighting every day.'"