Staff Sgt. Travis Mills was lying on a stretcher in a helicopter just minutes after his arms and legs were blown off by a buried bomb in Afghanistan, almost certain he was going to die.
He did not know if he would see his wife and baby daughter again. He did not know if he even wanted to live.
Then he turned his head toward one of his wounded men, who was screaming and writhing in pain. Mills smiled and winked to let him know everything was going to be OK.
That’s who he is. Lying on the ground after a bomb blew up next to him, Mills was already aware that all his limbs were blown off, but he told his medic to make sure his men were OK.
But in the following months, he did not know if he would be OK. Although he had been trained by his parents, coaches and the U.S. Army to never give up, he was not sure why he should go on. He had been a star in baseball, basketball and football back in high school in Michigan, entered the 82nd Airborne at 6 foot-3 inches, 250 pounds, capable of lifting 550 pounds for a total of 11 sets of 10 squats. Now he didn’t know what he was.
Besides the searing pain that comes with severed limbs, the guilt and anxiety about the future dragged him into the deepest despair. The man who could smile through agony was buried under the trauma.
He would later tell his wife she should leave him. She told him he was being ridiculous.
Little by little, he rebuilt himself from the inside out, eventually becoming one of only five quadruple amputees from the Iraq and Afghan wars to survive.
People can read his story in his book Tough As They Come or watch it in the movie Travis: A Soldier’s Story on Netflix. Or they might be lucky enough to hear him tell it on stage during one of his many speaking engagements.
He and his wife Kelsey created the Travis Mills Foundation, which treats post-9/11 veterans who were injured on duty to “an all-inclusive, all-expenses paid, barrier-free vacation to Maine where they participate in adaptive activities, bond with other veteran families, and enjoy much-needed rest and relaxation in Maine’s great outdoors.”
Mills also is involved with Combined Benefits United to promote insurance benefits that help families cope with traumatic events.
In this interview with InsuranceNewsNet Publisher Paul Feldman, Mills tells how he got through his own trauma and what he can tell others about resilience.
FELDMAN: In your book and documentary, the thing that comes across most is your positive attitude throughout your life. You focus on other people. Like for example, even though you had just gone through this explosion and you’re on the helicopter, you turn to your friend and you smile.
MILLS: Yeah, well, he was freaking out. He had every right to freak out. But for me I was just like, “It’s going to be OK. Calm down.” At the end of the day, it was in the doctor’s hands. So I wasn’t going to show any fear and I figured whatever happens, happens and let’s make the best of it.
FELDMAN: What’s your secret to maintaining that positive attitude?
MILLS: I think the secret to me maintaining that positive attitude was, I’m not going to be able to change the fact of what happened, I might as well make the best of it. And I have my wife and my daughter on my side. And we always live as normal a life as possible. And luckily, we’ve been able to welcome a new son into the world, so we have two kids now.
But if you really strip it down, I still have so much life to live when a lot of my buddies are no longer with me. And they left behind wives and children. I’m never going to let them down. So, I might as well be as positive as possible because what’s the point of living angry when I can’t change what happened?
FELDMAN: Were you angry at times?
MILLS: Oh yeah. At the very beginning, I was definitely angry. I was questioning, “Am I a bad person? Why did this happen?” I told my wife she should leave me. She just said she’s going to stay.
I also was saying to myself, “Why didn’t I just die? How is this even better?” At the end of the day, you can’t change it, so might as well just push forward and make the best of it.
I’ve been trying to be a positive role model for anybody. Not just in the military, but anybody who is in a bad situation.
With my foundation, my story is out there to where people will follow me on Facebook just to find out what I’m up to and how I’m staying positive.
Like for the Super Bowl, we’re in New England, so my kids wore Patriots stuff. I had a Patriots jersey on. I’m a Lions fan first but my kids were dancing around. My daughter’s 7, my son’s 17 months old. They’re running around the house, dancing, having a good time. That’s why I put it on Facebook. People love it because I live an everyday normal life and I don’t want this to get in my way.
FELDMAN: What has been your biggest lesson in civilian life?
MILLS: I don’t dwell on the past. I don’t feel sorry for myself. I don’t sit there and complain. I don’t wonder why this happened anymore. I don’t question if God hates me. Best thing is just look forward and be positive.
For me, I’m fortunate my buddy and I bought a marina. My mom and dad moved from Michigan to Maine to run it for me. It’s two miles from my house.
Then we also were fortunate to write a book called Tough As They Come. It’s a New York Times bestseller and potentially is going to be made into a motion picture.
And now, luckily, I’ve been able to get into this insurance business at the right time and understand that it’s a very important market. It’s an untouched market. This is where you can take care of your family and know you’re supporting other people in a healthy lifestyle to make sure they’re taken care of as well. I’m all about the win-win. I don’t do things that aren’t win to win.
I had been speaking as a motivational speaker for about three years. I spoke for a company called CBU, which is Combined Benefits United, and I happen to know the owners from living in Maine.
I didn’t know much about what to do for work. They hired me to come speak and I thought it would be a fun time to just go and address the crowd. Then they were talking about supplemental with CBU and I thought, “Man, this is awesome.”
I was hearing more about how if people have an accident, they are covered by their insurance, but they’re not covered for the work they had to take off or unforeseen medical expenses. And that’s where the supplemental side comes in. I also thought since a lot of people were getting off the
Affordable Care Act or Obamacare, that this will be a great substitute.
I became a spokesperson and actually go to events and talk about being protected from things that you can’t really see coming, and it’s worked out great. I feel like we are protecting people.
You can get a coverage plan that’s $3.80 a week for a cancer plan. So that’s maybe a Starbucks coffee. If something happens, you’re going to get money to help with your bills, to help with your house payments, to help with paying somebody to take care of things.
It was kind of a weird but good fit — never would’ve seen it coming. When I was in the military, I didn’t think I was going to be selling insurance someday. But now, it just happened to go together.
FELDMAN: Did you and your family have financial difficulty after your injuries or did the military take care of all of it?
MILLS: Because of the military, I didn’t have to suffer through anything financially. There are some guys who suffer when they get injured because they take their money and do stupid things with it but you can’t fix stupid.
But, my wife and I were taken care of very well. They have a payment they give you for each limb. I was able to take that and reinvest it into what I’ve created today. I bought a few houses and my marina. I took it head-on to make it as successful for me as I could.
FELDMAN: You have a lot of will power and a lot of energy. What can you tell somebody else about how to power through a very difficult time like you faced?
MILLS: I think it’s all about finding a way to look at it and understanding. My wife’s aunt had cancer and I am close to her. I gave her a call and said, “Well, Patty, I think you need to know the worst part’s over. You got the diagnosis and all we can do now is try to get better. We can just figure out what it’s going to take to get better.”
And she luckily did recover, she’s cancer-free. I think people dwell too much. I think you get the bad news like “Oh, my gosh.” But I say, “Hey, look, you got the news. Time’s not going to stop.”
Like for instance, when I was blown up on the ground, I knew for a fact that nothing’s going to change with me freaking out. So instead of me freaking out and saying why did his happen, and being scared, I just decided that whatever happens, happens. Kind of like the Carrie Underwood “Jesus Take the Wheel” song, right? And I made sure I just kept a cool-level head. And my medic ran up, I told him to just save my guys and calm down and it was going to be OK.
FELDMAN: If you could just say anything to the insurance industry, what would it be?
MILLS: I hope people understand that this isn’t fear-mongering that we’re doing. We’re not trying to scare people into buying this insurance. We’re trying to say, “Hey, this is a way for you to be protected in case you have to stay in the hospital or you have to take a week of work off, or you have to do something that you didn’t see coming.”
Your health bills are paid by your insurance but the house payment is not going to get taken care of if you can’t go to work and make income. In this way, if you take a week or two of work off that’s unpaid, you’re covered.
It’s just about how you present it. It’s making sure people understand that it’s in their best interest and it’s not that we’re trying to be conniving or we’re trying to be sneaky. But I think we’re just trying to say deductibles have increased substantially in the past couple of years to where they are almost unaffordable.
There’s a study out there that says if an average American had to write a $400 check today, about 30% wouldn’t have the ability to take $400 out of their budget. It’s a staggering fact.
Consider a mortgage like my house mortgage when I was in North Carolina, at Fort Bragg, was $1,200 a month. I was living paycheck to paycheck.
But I worked for the government, so it was kind of a guarantee that I was going to get paid as long as I didn’t get kicked out of military. But I wouldn’t have been able to write a $1,200 mortgage check right there on the spot to cover me if I had to take a month off of work because of an injury.