February 15

Travis Mills battles for veterans’ camp in Belgrade

An explosion in Afghanistan left Mills without limbs, but he and Maine first lady Ann LePage push for a $3.5 million campaign to open a veterans camp.

By Matt Hongoltz-Hetling mhhetling@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

When Travis Mills woke up in a tent in the rugged Afghanistan province of Kandahar on the morning of April 10, 2012, he knew he probably would be fighting the Taliban that day.

click image to enlarge

Promoting his Project: Wounded Army veteran Travis Mills, speaking on Wednesday during a meeting with Maine first lady Ann LePage at the Blaine House in Augusta, talks about the effort to raise money for a recreation center on Salmon Lake in Belgrade that would help other disabled veterans recover from their injuries.

Staff photo by David Leaming

click image to enlarge

INSPIRED: First lady Ann LePage listens to Travis Mills talk on Wednesday at the Blaine House in Augusta about the effort to raise money for a recreation center on Salmon Lake in Belgrade for wounded warriors. The site’s purpose would be to help the veterans recover from their injuries.

Staff photo by David Leaming

To Donate to Travis Mills

War veteran Travis Mills, one of only five quadriplegic U.S. veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is accepting donations at his website, www.travismills.org.

Donations can be made to the Mills Family Fund, which benefit Mills directly by helping him to meet secondary expenses that are not covered by his insurance and assistance from the Army.

They can also be made to the Travis Mills Foundation, a nonprofit group which he formed to benefit and assist wounded and injured veterans. Donations made to this group can be earmarked for the National Veterans Family Center. The foundation is trying to raise $3.5 million to purchase Camp Kennebec, which is also known as the Maine Golf & Tennis Academy, on Salmon Lake in Belgrade.

Checks supporting the family center can also be made payable to “The Travis Mills Project” and mailed to:

Bread of Life Ministries

157 Water St.

Augusta, ME 04330.

It was the third and by far the most difficult deployment the 24-year-old Army staff sergeant had faced, part of the United States’ ongoing 12-year war in the country.

What Mills didn’t know was that it was his last day as an able-bodied man. He didn’t know it was the last day he would walk across the ground on his own two feet.

He didn’t know it was the day that would change his life forever. He would suffer near-mortal wounds, making him one of only five quadriplegic veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

When Mills was a private, his first deployment as part of the personal security detachment of a colonel had been “pretty awesome.”

“Hot food, showers, a gym to work out in,” he said Thursday, speaking from the sun room of the Blaine House, home of Gov. Paul LePage.

First lady Ann LePage, who has become a champion of Mills’ cause to buy a camp for veterans at Camp Kennebec, near Salmon Lake in Belgrade, sat next to him, occasionally supplying a relevant detail.

Each deployment grew more challenging, Mills said.

“Then I went out a second time, and then it was fighting, fighting, take a compound, barricade it,” Mills said. “Fight some more, take another compound, barricade it. And uh, you know, the last six months of my last deployment was like basically every day, fighting. I didn’t mind it. It was part of my job.”

On the afternoon of that fateful day nearly two years ago, Mills and his fellow soldiers received a report of an improvised explosive device in a nearby village.

In all, there are about 1,000 villages in the province, which is characterized by rocky terrain and looming mountains.

The soldiers’ relationship with the local villagers was ambivalent, he said. For the most part, they just wanted to live in peace and be left alone.

“The people in the town, they don’t care either way,” Mills said. “There, towns were people living in mud huts. You know, work all day, sun-up to sun down. They don’t want to help us out because if they help us out, they don’t want the Taliban to know.”

Part of the military’s objective in the region, Mills said, was to disrupt the supply chain of large amounts of heroin, used to fund Taliban efforts.

“Like, 80 percent of the world’s heroin goes through there, in Afghanistan,” he said. “We were disrupting that and they didn’t like us being there, the Taliban.”

It happened after he and a group of about 20 others from the 82nd Airborne Division descended on the village.

“I just set my bag down,” Mills said. “And just — my bag blew up on me. There was 13 in a row. I happened to set it down in the wrong spot.”

In the blast, Mills’ right arm and leg were blown to bits.

It also knocked him unconscious, but only for five or six seconds.

“I was awake over here on the ground. This arm and this leg disintegrated. This leg was hanging on by tissue. It was like taped to my thigh.”

His left arm, which had a tattoo of the ring that symbolized his marriage to his wife, Kelsey Mills, a Gardiner High School graduate, remained mostly intact.

Mills remained conscious as a medic began applying tourniquets to what remained of his limbs. His thoughts were not of his own safety, but of his fellow soldiers and friends.

(Continued on page 2)

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