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A Life Reclaimed

The Travis Mills story.

This year, at the 39th annual Michigan Brain Injury Association fall conference, I met a remarkable man who was one of the key note speakers. Travis Mills is from a small town in Michigan and was captain of his high school football team. He joined the Army, and while on patrol during his third deployment to Afghanistan in 2012, dropped his backpack and triggered an improvised explosive device buried in the ground. As a result of the explosion, he is now one of only five soldiers from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to survive his injuries as a quadruple amputee.

Travis made a decision to not let his injuries define him. He lives his life fully with his wife and two children, is a much sought after inspirational public speaker and founder of the Travis Mills Foundation, which supports injured veterans and their families find new ways of living fully. His public speaking style leaves you laughing and crying throughout his talk, and leaves you with a sense you can overcome anything life has to throw at you. Travis practices gratitude, service to others, and humor to live a life worth living. Watch his YouTube talks and be empowered. He is also the author of a New York Times bestselling book, Tough as They Come about his experiences in the war in Afghanistan, his injury, his recovery, and his mission.

Working with many severely injured people who have survived horrific car crashes, I daily see the challenges living with pain and disabilities present. Frequently, my patients tell me that even greater than living with chronic pain and symptoms like constant tinnitus, the emotional side of dealing with what has happened to them is greater still. I now have a powerful tool to share with them in the story of Travis Mills. Besides putting his life on the line to serve in the military, his even greater service is to teach us all the importance of never giving up, of always moving forward in life, and to not let the small stuff grind us down.

By embracing his “new normal,” Travis Mills lives by example and embodies Scott Hamilton’s quote, “The only true disability in life is a bad attitude.” While initially recovering at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Mills discovered his passion for encouraging other injured veterans in their recovery. He would go room to room, connect with them, and encourage them to not give up and keep moving forward. Later, he and his wife Kelsey dedicated themselves to creating a foundation that would serve as a retreat and support center for other wounded veterans and their families. The foundation they formed was able to purchase the Maine Chance Lodge that was once owned by cosmetic giant Elizabeth Arden. Now veterans and their families can spend a week at the lodge gaining the support, encouragement and training they need to move forward with confidence.

If there is one thing Travis Mills exudes it is confidence. In his book, he describes the incident of lying on the ground injured from the bomb explosion. He tells how one of the medics who saved his life told him that he was going to be okay. Travis told the medic not to say that because he was already confident, he was going to be okay. Today he is showing others how not to let an injury or condition define their self-identity and how to move forward confidently in life. He practices positivity and does not permit himself to fall into remorse and bitterness for what has happened, so he can taste the sweetness of what his life now has to offer.

Doing the simple things with his family causes Travis joy, as does being of service to others. He is also not one to back off from parachuting out of an airplane with the First Lady of Maine, Ann LePage, as he did to support veteran causes. An award-winning documentary, "Travis: A Soldier’s Story," was made about him by Katie Norris and her team that chronicles his inspiring journey. As Helen Keller said, “Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.” It has been said that suffering depends on how we interpret the perception of pain. Travis is all about the overcome.

More from James F. Zender Ph.D.
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