Students, faculty, and staff at the North Pocono High School welcomed a very special guest to this year’s Veterans Day assembly. The keynote speaker for the event was retired SSG Travis Mills, a motivational speaker who is one of only five surviving quadruple amputees from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Organized for the seventh year by North Pocono social studies teacher Cheri Gensel, the event was sponsored by local Lions, VFW, and Freemasons groups. SGT Jessica Milewski, a North Pocono graduate, performed the National Anthem, while patriotic music was provided by the 198th Army Band commanded by Chief Warrant Officer Matthew Stephens.
The well-attended event was open to the public and a number of North Pocono veterans were present to hear Mills speak. Students taking part in the program gave a brief history of Veterans Day as a national holiday and included information on the wars fought by the United States, bringing a sense of timelessness to the gathering.
Mills took to the stage to the sound of enthusiastic applause. He began his narrative by telling those gathered that “there are two things you need to know about me: I’m awesome and I’m humble.” This humorous remark immediately put the audience at ease and set the stage for an enthralling story of a man who not only survived horrific injuries, but who went on to build a successful life for himself and his family.
Mills described his early life and high school days, then talked a bit about his life now with his wife and two children in Maine. He went on to talk about his third tour of duty, where Mills, then just days short of his twenty-fifth birthday, was injured in Afghanistan by a concealed improvised explosive device (IED) when he set his backpack down on it.
In the initial explosion, he lost his right arm and leg. He was flown back to the United States, where he endured a fourteen-hour surgery only to find that doctors had to amputate his shattered left leg. A few days later, the skin on his left hand began to die and that limb also had to be removed.
“I questioned how I was going to be a husband and a father. I asked ‘Why does God hate me? Why didn’t I just die?”, recounted Mills. But Mills is a fighter, with a resilient spirit and an abundance of positivity and ambition. He didn’t waste much time feeling sorry for himself, but with encouragement from other wounded veterans at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, he began setting recovery goals almost immediately.
Soon after being injured, Mills was fitted with a prosthetic arm. He quickly grew weary of sitting in a wheelchair, so he was outfitted with prosthetic legs and took his first steps a mere seven weeks and four days after being injured.
Soon, despite encountering new obstacles as he relearned how to accomplish the tasks of daily living, Mills was able to complete a 5K race in New York City in honor of 9/11, appeared onstage with veterans’ advocate Gary Sinise, and learned to drive using a specially-equipped van and pickup truck. He also attended a wounded veterans retreat in Colorado where he was able to participate in activities such as canoeing, rafting, and riding a modified bicycle.
The Colorado experience was both uplifting and inspirational. Recognizing how important it is for wounded (or “recalibrated,” as Mills prefers) veterans to spend time doing normal, fun, family-based activities, and regretting that wives and children were not allowed to participate in most programs of that type, Mills and his wife, Kelsey, decided to do something.
They had already founded the Travis Mills Foundation to help veterans with things like care packages, but in 2015 the couple purchased and (with generous donations) renovated the former Elizabeth Arden estate in Rome, Maine. The couple opened the doors of the facility in 2017, creating a place where wounded warriors and their families could experience relaxation, fun, and support for families in similar situations.
“I wanted to offer vets and their families the opportunity to experience a lot of different things, and to give them the message to never give up” said Mills, paraphrasing his motto of ‘Never give up. Never quit.’ In 2017, the retreat center hosted over 80 families, and welcomes the opportunity to serve more in the future. All families attend the center for free with the help of financial donors.
Mills, who penned the New York Times bestseller Tough as They Come and was the subject of the documentary “Travis: A Soldier’s Story,” also runs three businesses in addition to heading the Travis Mills Foundation. He travels extensively on speaking engagements and for veterans’ events, and enjoys being a husband to his wife of ten years and a father to their children, Chloe and Dax. His message is one of perseverance and hope, a testament to the what a person can overcome and accomplish in the face of seemingly overwhelming adversity.
“In light of the sacrifices of others, those who died, I couldn’t give up,” said Mills, adding “I’m going to keep pushing forward because I realize how fortunate I am just to be here. Life’s not always going to be easy. It will throw you curveballs, but you keep pushing forward.”
As he concluded his narrative, Mills told his audience that he hoped his story impacted them in a positive way. His parting words drove home the point of his compelling and heroic tale. Mills said that there are two life lessons to be learned from his story: Don’t dwell in the past, and you can’t always control your situation, but you can always control your attitude. Compelling words, indeed, from a man whose courage, resilience, and strength should serve as an example for us all.