13 June, 2017
This Soldier Lost His Arms and Legs and Now He Runs and Snowboards
In a single moment, Travis Mills' life changed radically. But he hasn't let his new reality as a quadruple amputee stop him from doing all that he can.
I've always been a big, athletic guy. At my peak, I was 6-foot-3, 275 pounds, with 22-inch biceps and a 64-inch chest. My whole body was rock-solid. I could run the 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds -- fast enough to play professional football.
I went into the military instead and served three tours in Afghanistan with the legendary 82nd Airborne Division. I loved my job. I married a beautiful woman, Kelsey, and we had an incredibly precious daughter, Chloe. I loved being a husband, a father and a soldier.
That was before April 10, 2012.
A Life-changing Event in a Split-Second
My men and I were on a routine mission near a remote village in southern Afghanistan. We swept the area for mines and everything came back clean. Then I set my backpack down on the dirt.
That's all it took: I saw a flash of flame and heard a huge kaboom! My backpack had triggered a hidden IED (improvised explosive devise). That day my world changed forever.
One arm and one leg were blown off immediately. My remaining leg stayed attached -- barely. Medics lashed it underneath me for the helicopter flight to Kandahar, but when doctors removed my clothing on the operating table, my leg came off. Two days later at a different hospital, my remaining arm became necrotic and was amputated.
When I regained consciousness, I thought I was paralyzed. My brother-in-law, Josh, was at my bedside. "You don't need to lie to me," I whispered. "I can take it. How bad is it?"
"I'm going to tell it to you straight," Josh said. "You're not paralyzed, but both of your arms and legs are gone."
The day I heard the news I was a quadruple amputee was April 14, 2012.
It was my 25th birthday.
Life As an Amputee
That was the beginning of my new life. At first, I hated who I'd become. My face puffed up from all the drugs. My weight dropped to 140 pounds. I was ashamed of how I looked, fearful my wife would leave me, scared my daughter would think I was a monster. I felt out of control. Dependent. Grieving over what I'd lost.
Altogether, I went through 13 surgeries. Phantom pains wracked my body. Nerve fibers in my limbs were damaged and produced a constant, searing pain. Doctors tried everything, but nothing helped.
I wanted to die.
Finally, I underwent an experimental procedure in which doctors pumped me full of ketamine and put me in a coma for five days. I hallucinated wildly, but the procedure reset my pain levels.
At least I could think straight again. I knew I couldn't change things. Being a quadruple amputee was my new reality. But I had a decision to make. I could either choose to quit and shut myself off from the world, or I could keep on living.
Don't Call Me a "Wounded Warrior"
My wife and daughter became my motivation. Kelsey insisted she wouldn't leave me. In the hospital, she stayed with me around the clock. My baby daughter loved being with me. I was the same dad to her -- limbs or not.
I kept photos of them on the wall near my bed to spur me forward. I needed to become again the husband and father I'd always been -- for their sake as well as mine.
I attacked rehabilitation with a vengeance. My first day was nothing to write home about. I was so physically weak that I stayed only an hour.
But I came back the next day and the next and the next. Quickly, my rehabilitation morphed into a regular 40-hour workweek. Everything needed to be learned again.
I figured out how to roll over. I did ab crunches until I thought I'd pass out. I did leg raises with my remaining stumps. Eventually I was fitted for prosthetics. I learned how to stand again -- and then walk.
My first steps felt shaky and painful. But I kept going. On my first day walking, hospital staff set a goal for me of once around the room. I wobbled and trembled, but I kept going. That first day I walked three laps.
Then I cried. It wasn't sadness -- it was elation. Doctors told me rehabilitation would take three years, but I did it in nine months.
Today, despite the loss of all four limbs, I walk, run, drive, swim, dance, skydive, ride a mountain bike, snowboard, and do CrossFit workouts. Sure, I miss my old life. But there's no point living in the past and dwelling on what can't be changed.
I purposely don't call myself a "wounded warrior." If you think of yourself as wounded, then you're still focusing on your injury. I'm the same "me" as before, only now I'm a man with scars who chooses to live life to the fullest and best.