…Learning to laugh it off — A good sense of humor goes a long way. I always say that I had one bad day at work, and 25 good years of arms and legs. I don’t let my injury define who I am. I’ve got at least another 60 or 70 amazing years left to use my experiences to help others, whether it’s through the Travis Mills Foundation or through one of the hundreds of speeches I deliver each year.
Resilience has been described as the ability to withstand adversity and bounce back from difficult life events. Times are not easy now. How do we develop greater resilience to withstand the challenges that keep being thrown at us? In this interview series, we are talking to mental health experts, authors, resilience experts, coaches, and business leaders who can talk about how we can develop greater resilience to improve our lives.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing SSG Travis Mills.
Retired United States Army Staff Sergeant (SSG) Travis Mills is a recalibrated warrior, motivational speaker, actor, author, entrepreneur and an advocate for veterans and amputees. On April 10, 2012, SSG Travis Mills of the 82nd Airborne was critically injured on his third tour of duty in Afghanistan by an IED (improvised explosive device) while on patrol, losing portions of both legs and both arms. He is one of only five quadruple amputees from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to survive his injuries. SSG Travis Mills channels his own experiences into helping other recalibrated veterans around the country through the Travis Mills Foundation, a nonprofit organization formed to benefit and assist post 9/11 veterans who have been injured in active duty or as a result of their service to our nation.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory?
I was pretty much your normal, average kid growing up in Vassar, Michigan. I played a lot of sports including high school football which was one of my first experiences dealing with resilience. I’ll get to that later. When I graduated, I tried college, but it just wasn’t for me. There was no shame in that — everyone takes a different path. Instead, that different path led me to the Army where I found that it did so much more for me. I found the same comradery that I enjoyed in high school also on the battlefield, and I honed my leadership skills all while fighting for our country. It was the best job I ever had.
I had completed two tours to Afghanistan, and I actually had a choice when it came to my third deployment. Even though I had a wife and young daughter at home, I couldn’t let my guys go alone. Little did I know that deployment would change my life. While conducting a routine IED (Improvised Explosive Device) sweep on April 10, 2012, I put my backpack down right on top of what happened to be an IED. I lost portions of all of my limbs in the explosion. In that moment, I became the fourth surviving quadruple amputee from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
My brother-in-law, who was in my unit, was there and broke the news to me on my 25th birthday that I didn’t have arms and legs. At first, I struggled to cope with my new reality. I told my wife to leave me — I couldn’t imagine what kind of life I was or wasn’t going to be able to give her after this. But, my wife, Kelsey, stayed by my side and my daughter, Chloe, only six months old at the time, showed me a love that I will never forget. She and I learned to walk again during my 19-month recovery at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. My father-in-law, Craig, quit his job to help with my recovery and take care of me, Kelsey and Chloe, and eventually I learned a new normal. During this time, I coined the term “recalibrated veteran.” I didn’t want to be called a wounded warrior — my wounds had healed. I had to adjust my life based on my new circumstances — so I say I “recalibrated.”
A few years after my injury in 2015, Craig, Kelsey and I wanted to give back to our fellow veterans, so we started sending care packages to the guys in my unit. Eventually, after attending some adaptive sports programs with Kelsey, I had the idea to start the Travis Mills Foundation Veterans Retreat.
Now in 2022, we’ve served thousands of veterans and their families from nearly all 50 states and afforded them a variety of programming in a relaxing, barrier-free experience in the Belgrade Lakes Region of Maine.
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
Is the one bad day I had at work stepping on an IED not interesting enough? Just kidding. I think the most interesting story comes from one of my tours in Afghanistan when we were supposed to only be on a five-hour mission. Five hours turned into 36 hours of non-stop fighting back-to-back. We were beyond exhausted, and we had no time to rest. Resting meant the difference between life and death. I remember coming to the point where more than 24 hours into the mission, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. You can’t fix a firefight or the exhaustion that comes with it. So instead of crying, I decided to laugh. This is my approach to everything I do. The lesson I learned from this experience is that no matter how bad things get, you have to make the best of every situation. Laughter may not be the best medicine, but it is a good coping mechanism to help carry you through a difficult situation.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Our veterans retreat was once the long-time summer home for beauty entrepreneur Elizabeth Arden until we purchased the estate from Ms. Arden more than seven years ago. While we kept the original building to preserve the stateliness of Elizabeth’s vision, we otherwise transformed it and turned it into the nation’s first fully accessible smart home retreat to serve our nation’s recalibrated veterans. Since we founded the Travis Mills Foundation in 2013 and opened our doors in 2017, the retreat has provided an all-inclusive, all-expenses-paid, barrier-free experience where recalibrated families from nearly all 50 states participate in a variety of activities such as kayaking or hiking, bond with other veteran families and strengthen family bonds with some much-needed rest and relaxation in Maine’s great outdoors. I love sharing this part of Maine with so many others to help them on their recovery journeys. I feel what we do is so unique and what also makes us stand out.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I am grateful for Actor Gary Sinise, who you might know as Lt. Dan Taylor from the Academy Award-winning film Forrest Gump, but to me he is simply my friend. He is so much more than just a Hollywood movie star. He is a deeply committed supporter of recalibrated veterans who channeled his own family experiences and his acting career into a Foundation to help others. I first met Gary a few months after my injury when I was recovering at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. He wanted to come and meet me when he heard about my injury, and we’ve been friends ever since. Gary is one of the many inspirations for everything I do to support our Nation’s heroes. Gary recently made a donation of $1.5 million to support our programs, including at our new Health and Wellness Center. Through the Gary Sinise Foundation, he also helped build a smart home for my family and I that is completely accessible with the latest in smart technology. He also came to visit us in Maine to spend a weekend with my family. Of course, I am forever grateful to my family for standing by my side and for always supporting me no matter what, but Gary is truly a special individual who played an instrumental part not just in my recovery but also in my drive to help others.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
I would define resilience as having the ability to understand that you can bounce back from anything no matter what adversity you face. Resiliency for me in a nutshell is: sometimes bad things happen, but you have to push through. It’s all about having a strong mindset. When I was lying in my hospital bed thinking about the quality of life I might have with no arms, no legs and a family I would be totally dependent on, that was the easiest mindset to adopt at the time. But then a light switched on, and I just tried to see the glass as half full, not half empty. When doctors told me to only walk a lap around the hospital with my new prosthetics, I walked three laps. When doctors told me I would be in the hospital for a few years, I was out of the hospital in 19 months. It should’ve been closer to 12 months, but you know… paperwork.
Courage is often likened to resilience. In your opinion how is courage both similar and different from resilience?
Courage is different from resilience because courage is a willingness to get things done no matter what the outcome might be. You have to be strong. Resilience, to me, is something that comes with challenges that are thrown your way. I’ve had to learn to be resilient, especially after my injury, and push through. But being resilient is also a sign of courage.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
I think of my mom because she didn’t have the best upbringing or childhood. My mom came from a large family, and she never once whined, never cried and never complained. She got a job at just 13-years-old to help pay for braces on her teeth. When I was growing up, she gave us the best childhood a kid could ask for. She didn’t let her upbringing impact ours or in other words, she did not let her past define her future. That, to me, speaks resilience.
Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?
When I told my doctors, family and friends that I was going to get out of the hospital in a year, they thought I was crazy and told me it would be at least three years. I was out of the hospital after 19 months. Now, people can’t understand how I lead my Foundation, run five businesses, raise two kids and travel the country 40 weeks out of the year. I never let the fear of the unknown dictate what decisions I make in life.
Did you have a time in your life when you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?
My injury of course was one of the greatest setbacks, but I think personally it was the moment I realized that I wouldn’t be able to hold my daughter in my arms shortly after waking up in the hospital. In fact, I still have the photograph from the last time I held her right before my injury. Because I could no longer hold her, I thought to myself that I could no longer do anything and that I would be dependent on others for the rest of my life. Think about it, I would be dependent on my daughter. It should be the other way around. Luckily, I have an amazing family who wouldn’t give up on me and who encouraged me to remember my lifelong mantra of, “Never give up. Never quit,” words I still live by today. I now have two beautiful children and an incredible support system that allows me to maintain my independence.
How have you cultivated resilience throughout your life? Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?
I really began to cultivate resilience playing high school football. I was on the team that just got crushed every season. Teams purposely scheduled their homecoming games against us, because they knew they would crush us. It was demoralizing. I finally got to play varsity football my junior year, and we were dedicated to just turning the team around. My junior year, we became the first team in high school history to make the state playoffs with an 8–1 record. My senior year, we were only 6–3 but we still made the playoffs. The comradery on the football field, combined with the relationships with our coaches, showed that anything is possible, even after years of losing records. It also paved the way for the very reason I joined the Army — — the comradery I would experience both on the football field and the battlefield.
Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Have the right mindset — A positive and can-do attitude is a must. See the jar half full, not half empty. That’s how I have lived my life these last ten years since my injury.
- Visualizing everything before you do it — Like learning to walk again and make each step better.
- Surround yourself with a strong support system — My daughter Chloe, who was just a baby at the time of my injury, was one of the driving forces to get better. Those snuggle sessions in the hospital and my family by my side made such a difference. It was my motivation.
- Learning to laugh it off — A good sense of humor goes a long way. I always say that I had one bad day at work, and 25 good years of arms and legs. I don’t let my injury define who I am. I’ve got at least another 60 or 70 amazing years left to use my experiences to help others, whether it’s through the Travis Mills Foundation or through one of the hundreds of speeches I deliver each year.
- Focus on what is within your control and what you can do — Set reasonable goals for yourself and don’t let what’s not in your control impact your energy. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I think people need to realize that we agree on so much more than we disagree on. Two simple examples: everyone loves their grandma; we all cheer on our kids at their sporting events. That’s the driving force behind my new Rebel For Good clothing line that we just launched, which provides a significant give back to not just the Travis Mills Foundation, but other like-minded non-profits around the country. I’d like to think that we can all be a rebel for good, no matter the noise around us. Most, if not all of us, want to help others and that I know we agree on.
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂
I’d love to have lunch with Will Ferrell. He seems like a really fun guy to hang out with, and he is always bringing positivity and laughter to every situation. And he’s also a champion as a part-owner of the 2022 MLS Cup Champions Los Angeles FC. I’d love to tap into his recipe for success, which includes laughter and hey — — it’s one of the steps to becoming more resilient, learning to laugh it off. I feel like we would just instantly click.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
They can visit my Foundation website at www.travismillsfoundation.org, follow me on social media on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ssgtravismills/ or Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/ssgtravismills/?hl=en and also my new clothing line at www.rebelforgood.com.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!