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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

Tuesday
May292012

Wounded Warriors Helping Dogs Help Vets

Wounded warriors train service dogs to help other injured servicemen and women. (ABC News)(WASHINGTON) -- A group of disabled Iraq and Afghanistan military veterans has taken on an important mission -- training service dogs to aid other wounded vets on their road to recovery and beyond as part of a program just begun by the Pentagon.

Dogs like four-month-old puppy Cadence are part of a three-year training course that will eventually match them up to help wounded troops coming home who've suffered debilitating injuries such as loss of limbs.

Training man's best friends to assist those with physical disabilities has been done in the past -- but what's different about this program is that injured military vets do the training. And that training has had a positive impact on the trainers themselves -- giving them their own kind of canine therapy, as well as giving the dogs more specified training.

Sgt. Brian Bradley, who is training six dogs, lost his right arm in Afghanistan in 2010. He credits the program with helping him readjust to everyday life. And in return, he uses his prosthetic limb to better train the dogs to better understand the disabled soliders they'll be assigned once their training is finished.

"When I first got to the program last year, some of the puppies -- they were like, 'What is that?' They see the hook moving around and stuff," Bradley said. "I got other prosthetics, but they see the hook and we introduce that to them because they know they are going to be seeing it later. Also, we introduced the wheelchairs to them too and the power chairs."

Bradley believes that with disabled vets doing the training, the dogs will better serve wounded soldiers when they are done.

"When a service member gets a service dog from another company, most of those people are able bodied, have no issues, so they aren't really working around anybody who is disabled," Bradley said. "So we train them completely how every disabled service member would be."

The dogs in the program are trained to help out with everyday tasks like picking up wallets, money and credit cards to turning on lights and pushing automatic door buttons.

"I can open the door for myself -- but if I have a lot of stuff, he can push the buttons for me," Bradley said. "He can flip lights as well. I'll say 'light' and he'll jump up on the wall and he'll flip it. Sometimes he uses his paw, sometimes he uses his nose."

But they are also trained to help heal another kind of injury that plagues so many soldiers when they return home from war -- post-traumatic stress disorder.

"Mine kicks in every time I put on a new prosthetic that looks identical to my other arm," Bradley said. "It's like an instant memory of me actually losing my arm that day. So PTSD is there."

Specialist Cory Doane, who lost a leg in Afghanistan in 2011 when his vehicle was hit by an IED, says the program helps him even more than it helps the dogs he's training.

"It helped me a lot more than it's helped the dog for sure," Doane said. "It's nice just to get out and about again. Because, you know, after I was wounded I was kind of stationary for a bit. So it's nice to get out and actually do something productive, instead of just healing. It's nice to contribute back."

Those contributions -- from the trainers and the dogs -- are being recognized by the military community.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta praised the program and those who make it happen.

"To be able to have someone who can be close to you and be a part of you as you go through some very tough times, as you rehabilitate, as you come back and try to come back into society and have the company of a dog -- that is really a true friend because they don't question what you are doing, they're just your friend through thick and thin," Panetta told ABC News' Jake Tapper. "Having that kind of relationship I think is just great for the veterans who serve this country."

Panetta has his own canine friend, a golden retriever named Bravo, who has shown him the kind of difference a furry friend can make.

"We could not do our job of protecting this country without people like you who are willing to put their lives on the line," Panetta said to the wounded warrior trainers. "And I really appreciate your service and your sacrifice. I appreciate the effort to, you know, be able to have a dog help someone be able to lead a fuller life. In many ways that's what Bravo does for me in some very tough jobs that I've been in -- having the company of Bravo around and having him provide emotional support.

"Thanks for everything you're doing to help our veterans. We owe them an awful lot," he said. "I guess one of the ways we can repay it is to have them have the company of a dog."

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio







ABC News Radio