U.S Army Staff Sgt. Travis Mills was recovering at Walter Reed Hospital when another wounded warrior introduced himself.
“I had a guy walk into my room with no arms and legs and say: ‘Hey, welcome to the club!’” Mills told Fox News. “I said: ‘Huh? What? I don’t want to be in your club.’ And he’s like: ‘Kind of late now, don’t you think?’”
Like the Marine who introduced himself that day, Mills is one of only five total quadruple amputees to survive their wounds in Afghanistan and Iraq. That conversation made him realize it was time to take action.
“I could sit there and sulk and mope and be upset. But why? It does me no good, and I learned a couple of life lessons through this,” Mills said. “The first one is I can’t control my situation but I can always control my attitude – so I decided to have a good attitude. Be bright and go.”
And go he has. He’s a New York Times best-selling author and a motivational speaker. But his latest venture is perhaps the one dearest to his heart, something he dreamed about during endless hours of physical therapy at Walter Reed. Nestled in the woods of Maine, on an estate once owned by the cosmetics magnate Elizabeth Arden, sits a special retreat specifically designed for wounded veterans.
The Travis Mills Retreat, which provides free vacations to wounded veterans, is entirely donor funded.
“My biggest part of recovery, the reason I got better, was my little girl Chloe and my wife Kelsey,” Mills said. “So I wanted to bring my family with me so we could achieve the goal of kayaking together or swimming, or any activity and I thought: Why not have a place that’s 100 percent ADA accessible?”
At the Travis Mills Retreat, every one of the eight guest rooms is set up to accommodate physical challenges. Mills said his goal was simple.
“Why not bring families together and let them talk and be a part of something and believe in this mission? Because, really, these people pay a price,” he said. “They’ve made a sacrifice, they’ve served our country and this is a way that myself, personally, can thank them and say: 'Hey, thanks for the sacrifice that you've made and we appreciate what you've done.’”
This is the first summer the retreat is open, and many of the families have known each other since they were at Walter Reed.
U.S Army Sgt. (Ret.) Marc Owens lost both of his legs and said Mills was definitely a mentor.
“I was going through a rough time and he came up to me and said: ‘Mark, you’ve got to work hard because it gets better.’ And I took his advice and worked hard to be able to walk again.”
At the retreat, Owens pushed himself out of his comfort zone, kayaking with his wife. He had to remove his prosthetic legs and leave them on the dock just in case the kayak overturned.
Volunteers are with the veterans throughout the day, ensuring they can do as much as possible. Besides boating, activities include fly fishing and horseback riding.
After returning to the dock, Owens credited Mills for his sunny disposition.
“I never forgot what he told me and instilled in me,” Owens said. “You work hard and you’ll get the payoff and then we do a 10-second happy dance.”
And with that, he swayed to silent music, a big smile on his face.
The sounds of laughter and cheers echoed off the lake but, as a quadruple amputee, Mills appreciates the stares fellow veterans and their families get. His hope is that between the fun activities, some serious bonding takes place.
Sgt. Kevin Jaye was at the camp with his wife and their infant daughter, Claire.
“It's nice to have a community of people that know what our life is like,” said Lauren Jaye, “because our normal is a little different than everyone else's normal."
It has taken three years of hard work and millions of dollars in donations to turn what was once a dilapidated estate into what it is today.
“Look, it’s really grass roots up here,” said Mills. “Our big donors are $500,000 and we have our small donors of $1.37 that they found in their 1980s Cutlass and it’s a grandmother from Las Vegas that was just like: ‘This is all I have. Hopefully, it will help. We really appreciate what you’re doing.’ And she sends that in the mail to us, so donations help.”
Next year, Mills hopes to expand the number of weeks the retreat will be open so he can invite more families. Fifty-six families will visit the retreat this summer.
“I get told all the time: ‘Travis, I love what you’re doing, it’s so amazing.’ I’ve got to stop them and say I appreciate that, but it’s the community here and people all around the nation that believe in and support us and got us where we are today.”