Wounded warrior's path to recovery includes ski slopes
By CARLOS BONGIOANNI | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 5, 2013
BETHESDA, Md. — Like most people learning to ski, Travis Mills had a few falls at Breckenridge, Colo.
“I hit pretty good, you know. I’m not going to lie,” Mills said of his December experience on the slopes. “There were some times where I went, ‘Ooh, that’s a rib.’ But you get back up.”
That’s no trivial feat for Mills, an Army staff sergeant who lost his arms and legs after he stepped on an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan on April 10, 2012.
Mills has overcome great odds in not only surviving but also in learning how to live as a quadruple amputee. And part of his recovery has included challenging outings like the Breckenridge trip put on by Disabled Sports USA, a nonprofit group that offers sporting programs to disabled people throughout the United States.
The annual Ski Spectacular was sponsored by DSUSA’s War Fighter Sports rehab program, which specifically aims to help severely wounded troops realize they can have a fulfilling life despite disabilities.
“Whatever the sport is, they can feel that feeling of success, of achievement, of being back in control of their bodies again, sometimes within a few months of their injury,” said Kirk Bauer, DSUSA’s executive director.
It is imperative that troops realize they can “conquer the world again” as soon as possible after their injury, before they start “reinforcing negative images of themselves.” Bauer, whose leg was amputated above the knee after a blast in Vietnam, was introduced to adapted skiing just four months after his seventh surgery.
Breckenridge was a confidence builder, Mills said of the weeklong trip. He said he had the time of his life on those snowy Colorado peaks — just eight months after his life had come crashing down on him.
‘I wasn’t supposed to make it’
On his third tour of duty in Afghanistan, Mills was serving with the 82nd Airborne Division, 4th Brigade Combat Team out of Fort Bragg, N.C., when he stepped on the IED.
“I wasn’t supposed to make it,” he said in Bethesda, near the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center where he is undergoing physical therapy and treatment for his injuries.
Mills recalled how medics kept him from bleeding to death by putting tourniquets on what remained of his four limbs and by clamping a severed artery, all within seconds of the blast, before he passed out. It was all he would know for the next few days.
Mills said his chances of surviving looked so slim he was presented a Purple Heart while on the operating table at the hospital in Kandahar. “They wanted to be able to say that they gave it to me while I was still alive. … They didn’t expect me to pull through.”
On April 14, four days after the blast, Mills woke up. It was his 25th birthday. His brother-in-law, Staff Sgt. Josh Buck, a medic with the 82nd Airborne, was at his bedside.
“I guess my first words were, ‘My soldiers, how are my soldiers?’
“My second was, ‘Am I paralyzed?’
Buck said no.
“I said, ‘Josh, don’t lie to me. I can’t feel my fingers or my toes.’
“He said to me, ‘Travis, you don’t have them anymore.’ ”
‘I was fortunate’
Mills arrived at Walter Reed on April 17, and after five weeks of inpatient care, was moved to an outpatient barracks facility at the military hospital campus. A few weeks after that, he was taking his first steps using prosthetic limbs.
Mills said he isn’t typically one to get depressed, but he admitted he has had some battles of the mind. He recalled lying on his bed, early in his recovery, wondering how he was going to get through his ordeal.
“I’d be lying if I told you there weren’t days when I wake up and say, ‘Man, this is horrible. What am I going to do? I have a daughter. I can’t teach her to play softball, like I was going to … like I had planned. I don’t have arms to throw the ball.’ ”
And just like that, Mills shifted gears. “I can figure something out,” he remembers thinking.
He’d get a pitching machine that could throw for him. He’d get a glove designed to go on his prosthetic hand so he could catch the return balls thrown by his daughter, Chloe. “We’ll figure something out. That’s just the way you got to tell yourself. Just make sure you know you can push through, and you’ll be OK.”
Mills said his lack of internal injuries and infection made his recovery relatively quick. One patient, he said, had to have 130 surgeries — compared with 10 for Mills.
“I was fortunate in the way I was hit,” he said. “My arms, my legs were hit. That was it.”
Hope for the future
A turning point for Mills was a visit from Marine Cpl. Todd Nicely, another quadruple amputee from the war in Afghanistan. Mills recalled how Nicely, walking on two prosthetic limbs, came into his hospital room with words of comfort: “You will make it through this. It’s not as big of a deal as your head is telling you it is right now.”
On that visit, Mills said he offered Nicely a Vernors ginger soda from a stash under his bed. “He bent down on his prosthetic knee, reached down with his prosthetic hand, grabbed me a Vernors, stood back up and gave it to me. And I thought, ‘OK, if this guy can do all this, then it’s obvious it can be done.’ ”
Like Nicely, Mills goes from room to room at Walter Reed offering words of encouragement to wounded warriors. He also takes advantage of programs, like DSUSA, that help wounded people realize there is much they can still do.
“Life isn’t over,” Mills reflected. “It’s altered, but it’s not over.”
Mills focuses on learning things he can do with his family: recumbent cycling so he and his wife can go for rides with their daughter in a carrier while she’s young and alongside her when she gets older; and kayaking because his wife likes that. He’s learning to fish as a quadruple amputee, and he has plans to learn jujitsu.
“It’s amazing to see what they have to offer someone with my situation and to see how much fun it is,” Mills said.
DSUSA offers more than 30 adapted sports for the severely injured, Bauer said. “And we can teach the basics in one day. … All they have to do is sign up and show up.” The War Fighter Sports program covers the cost for the wounded servicemember and one family member.
Of his trip to Breckenridge with his wife, Mills said, “It was a joy all around. … It wasn’t just about me. She was out there hitting the slopes. … We had a great time.”