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Friday
Oct052012

Michigan 'Hero's Welcome' for Staff Sgt. Travis Mills, Who Lost Four Limbs

Hemera/Thinkstock(VASSAR, Mich.) -- Two rival teams will face off Friday night at a Michigan homecoming football game, but this year fans from both sides will be sporting the same T-shirts with the motto, "Two Teams, One Hero."

The "hero" to whom they refer is Army Staff Sgt. Travis Mills, who's returning to his hometown for the first time since an IED explosion caused him to lose both his arms and legs. Mills, 25, is one of five surviving quadruple amputee servicemen from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

He has been at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., for the past six months and was waiting until he was ready to visit his small hometown of Vassar, Mich. Everyone had known him in the town as a popular football, basketball and baseball player.

"I decided that I would wait until I was ready to walk and show people the progress I'm making, not that they would ever doubt me or make fun of me," Mills told ABC News. "It was a personal thing."

He has been stunned by his welcome home. Mills and wife Kelsey Mills, 23, and their 1-year-old daughter, Chloe, were grand marshals Thursday night at a homecoming parade. He will address the crowds Friday night at Vassar High School, his alma mater, before the homecoming game.

Mills said his community has welcomed him, "Just arms wide open, big hugs, everybody's cheering, thanking me for my service. It's just wonderful."

Mills' life changed in April while he was serving his third tour in Afghanistan. He went out on foot patrol at around 4:30 p.m. A mine-sweeper surveyed the area, but did not pick up on an IED made of plastic and copper wire that was in the exact spot where Mills set down an ammunition bag.

"As soon as I set it down, five or six seconds later, I woke up on the ground and I looked at my hand and said, 'This isn't good,'" he recalls.

A medic rushed over to him and Mills told him, "Get away from me, doc. You go save my men. Let me go. Save my men."

Mills laughingly recalled the medic saying, "With all due respect, shut up."

The next few weeks were fuzzily spent being transferred from hospital to hospital and town to town under a medically induced coma.

When Mills woke up, he was with his brother-in-law, a fellow soldier who had stayed with him. Mills' first question was about his soldiers and whether they were OK. They were. His next question was whether he was paralyzed. He was not, his brother-in-law said.

Mills told his brother-in-law that he couldn't feel his fingers and toes and not to lie to him.

"Travis, you don't have them anymore but you're alive," Mills recalls his saying. "I said OK."

His limbs could not be saved and Mills lost most of both arms and both legs.

"You have a lot of emotions. At first you're upset. Why did it happen? What did I do wrong? Am I a bad person?" he said. "Then you realize it just happened because it happens. There's no reason to dwell on the past or live in the past. I have a beautiful wife and a beautiful, young 1-year-old daughter and I'm never going to give up on them or my family or the people who support me."

At Walter Reed, Mills' doctor told him that he would probably spend two years recovering in the hospital. Mills told him he could do it in a year.

For the past six months, he has spent every day doing occupational therapy and physical therapy. He works on his therapies from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. every day. He has received support from his medical team, family friends and the few other surviving quadruple amputees. And he has already begun to pay that support forward.

"He has got such an unbelievable attitude," Mills' father-in-law, Craig Buck, said. "He takes time out of his week each week to go up to the fourth floor of Walter Reed. That's where the most critically wounded guys that are coming back home are, and he'll put on all of his prosthetics and go visit them to encourage them."

Buck, 49, has spent the past six weeks at Walter Reed with Mills and his family and has been amazed by his resilience.

"Just his spirit, he lifts everyone up around him even though he's had such devastating injuries," Buck said. "Of course there's down times, which is to be expected, where he's not feeling so chipper, but 90 percent of the time he's positive, motivated and just works so hard at getting better."

Mills has prosthetics for both legs and both arms. He uses a wheelchair sometimes, but is already walking on his prosthetics. He hopes to be completely out of the wheelchair by November, using it only occasionally.

Mills calls his wife "a real hero" for helping him and staying by his side. He says his wedding band is his most prized possession. His brother-in-law pulled it off of his mangled finger after the explosion and Mills marvels that it does not even have a scratch on it. He wears it around his neck.

He is confident that his military career is far from over. His goal of being in the military for 20 years is unchanged after his accident. He hopes to be an instructor.

"I still have plans to stay in the military, if they'll have me," he said. "If I can give anything to the war effort, to the soldiers, to the guys that are signing up, I'm definitely willing to do it and I would love to."

He'll get a chance to address his thousands of supporters and thank them Friday night for their support. His only concern is he hopes he'll be able to get to everyone.

"I've never stopped wanting to help and I'll never stop training, teaching and pushing guys through what they need to push through," he said. "I'll give inspiration and motivation to anyone because that's my purpose. I don't take life for granted and I'm thankful I get to see my kid grow up and teach her to ride a bike."

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

Friday
Apr152011

Marines Battalion Mentally Upbeat, Despite Record Deaths 

Jupiterimages/Comstock(NEW YORK) -- The 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment returned home from one of Afghanistan's deadliest war zones this week after a grueling eight-month deployment with record casualties. Remarkably, military psychiatrists say the men appear to be relatively unscathed mentally.

"So far so good," said their second-in-command, Maj. Mark Carlton, who endured the 20-hour flight back with the first wave of Marines and Navy personnel from Afghanistan's Helmand Province to California's Camp Pendleton.

The battalion witnessed 25 dead, 140 wounded and more than a dozen amputees. But overall rates of combat stress among the 250 mostly infantrymen, at least in their first medical evaluations, appeared to be no higher than other units in the southern province, experts said.

Some wonder why that battalion -- nearly 1,000 in all in the heart of the Taliban insurgency -- appears so psychologically intact, when some reports show as many 37 percent of recent war veterans are being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD.

Carlton attributed much of the good mental health to the battalion's "proactive" small-unit leadership structure.

"They know each other and live with each other the entire deployment and are never far from someone on the team," he said. "If there's a change in behavior or signs of stress, it's immediately picked up by someone who knows the guy really well."

"You absolutely see that in a lot of places and not just the military," he said. "On high school sports teams, kids get tight over time. Common understanding can't be replicated."

The battalion faced combat almost immediately when they took control of the Sangin District from the British last September. One of the fatalities was 2nd Lt. Robert Kelly, son of Lt. Gen. John Kelly, the personal military aide to Defense Secretary William Gates, the most senior officer to lose a child since American troops arrived in the country in 2001.

But as casualties mounted, visiting mental health professionals said they didn't see a comparable rise in mental health issues and were surprised by the unit's resiliency.

Now, back at Camp Pendleton, the Marines have ordered the unit to stay intact with their families for three months to allow them to decompress together. There, additional mental health professionals have been brought in to watch for signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.

An estimated 1 in 5 combat veterans will eventually be diagnosed with PTSD and 1 in 3 will have some emotional or neurological problems related to war, according to a New York University study of 300,000 returning soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan at veterans' hospitals.

"The majority of people are highly resilient," said Dr. Charles Marmar, chair of the psychology department at NYU's Langone School of Medicine and a psychiatrist who has studied PTSD among veterans since the Vietnam War.

He said unit cohesion, proper training and a healthy personal life are all protectors against PTSD.

PTSD was first known as "soldier's heart" during the Civil War. Later, in World War I, it was called "shell shock." Symptoms usually start soon after a traumatic event, but may not emerge until months or years later, according to the National Center for PTSD, run by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Sufferers can relive the event in nightmares and flashbacks or even when just hearing a car back fire or seeing a car accident. Emotional numbness, hyperarousal and feelings of hopelessness are also symptoms.

Rates of post-traumatic stress disorder among troops serving nearly a decade in Afghanistan and Iraq have been on the rise and has been directly related directly to combat exposure. Soldiers at greatest risk were under the age of 25, according to 2009 ABC reports. Suicides in that age group were also up.

In May, the American Psychiatric Association will devote part of its upcoming annual meeting to promising approaches in intervention and treatment in the military.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio







ABC News Radio