Travis Mills was sitting on an airplane and his phone wouldn’t stop ringing.
The 31-year-old Army veteran was on his way back to Maine — the plane was taxiing — and even though his phone was turned off, the call kept coming through his smart watch. He hit ignore, sending a text to say he couldn’t talk, only to have another call come through from another staff member at the nonprofit he founded, the Travis Mills Foundation, which runs a retreat for wounded veterans and their families.
“I thought, ‘Oh man, what happened?’” Mills recalled.
What happened was that Lerynne West, an Iowa woman who won part of a $687.9 million Powerball jackpot, announced last Wednesday on the “Ellen” show that she would be donating $500,000 to his foundation.
“At first I was like, ‘No you’re kidding, that’s not true. Haha, good one,'” Mills recently told Boston.com. “But they were like, ‘No seriously. It’s live right now. People have been calling us.’”
As the reality of the donation has sunk in, Mills says he “couldn’t be more ecstatic” or happy, realizing how many families the foundation will be able to help as a result of the gift.
For the Michigan native, the Travis Mills Foundation is “all about giving back” after the help he and his family received when he was critically injured by an improvised explosive device during his third tour in Afghanistan in 2012.
“It’s humbling obviously,” Mills said. “It’s very rewarding the work that we do, and we’re thankful to do it. And I think that the reason people believe in our mission is, one, that I’m a quadruple amputee who has had my arms and legs taken from combat, but I’m still out there pushing forward and trying to make people’s lives better with my wife and my foundation.”
Secondly, Mills emphasized the importance of transparency with his organization. Neither he nor his board are paid for their work with the foundation, which was started in 2017.
“When I got the chance to call and talk to [West], she was just down to earth, like an everyday normal person,” Mills said. “And it was so refreshing to know that she’s seen our story, believed in our mission, and wanted to do something. We were on her list if she ever won the lottery as one of the nonprofits that she was going to give back to, so it was pretty awesome.”
Like with all those who donate to the foundation, Mills said he invited her to visit the retreat in Rome, Maine, to see her donation at work. He said the $500,000 — the largest one-time donation made to the nonprofit to date — will go toward extending the longevity of the foundation and helping build more programs to assist veterans injured in combat and their families.
Over the last two years, the Travis Mills Foundation has invited over 200 families to the retreat, and its founder said West’s donation will probably help fund about a year’s worth of programming.
The retreat can house eight families a week, and the hope is that in 2019 they will be able to host 24 weeks of programs. The goal of the foundation is to help veterans with physical injuries heal in the company of their family while participating together in activities ranging from swimming to horseback riding to pottery.
Mills wants the military families visiting the retreat in Maine to know that he and his staff at the foundation understand the struggles they may be facing and give them tools, lessons, or activities during the retreat that can be brought home when it’s over.
“My biggest push is to tell people that are in my situation to never live life on the sidelines, never watch your family participate in events without you,” he said. “It truly is important for me to push that message because when I was blown up, I had the same thing. A guy came in and told me, ‘Hey man, you’re going to be OK.’ And he was in the same situation as me. I’m the fourth of five surviving quadruple amputees that I know of, and the second one flew in from Missouri to say, ‘Hey, I walk, I drive, I feed myself, you’re going to be fine.’”
Mills said the reason why he recovered the way he has from his injuries is because his wife, Kelsey, and daughter, Chloe, were there by his side.
“I told them, ‘You should probably leave,’ but she said, ‘That’s not how this works,’” Mills said. “And then I went out and I learned how to do downhill motor biking and kayaking and canoeing and eventually snowboarding and mono-skiing and all these activities. And I thought, ‘How great is it that I can still do this independently with my family as an active member and not a bystander?’ So we wanted to start the foundation based off of the fact of [giving] independence. Show that this is barrier free and that we don’t just teach you that there is one thing you can do while you’re here, we teach you something that you can take home with you.”
Mills and his wife welcomed their second child, Dax, last year. He is named after the two medics, Daniel and Alexander, who helped save Mills’s life in 2012.
The father of two says that part of what he’s trying to do with his work as a motivational speaker and at the Travis Mills Foundation is change the narrative around injured veterans.
For instance, he doesn’t use the word “wounded” when referring to himself or any of the service members who end up at the Maine retreat. Instead, he calls himself “recalibrated” or a “recalibrated warrior.”
Really though, he just prefers “Travis.”
“I’m not a sob story, nor am I a pity story,” he said. “At the end of the day, there are two life lessons that I’ve learned that I’ve lived by since my injury. Number one is I don’t dwell on the past. I can’t change what happened yesterday and I can’t change what happened six years ago to me, so I might as well just reminisce the past and look to the future. I’ve had 25 great years with arms and legs, and I’ve had six pretty amazing years without them. I’ve had some rough spots, but we all do. And the next thing I tell people is I can’t always control my situation, but I can always control my attitude. Every day I’m going to wake up with no arms and no legs. But I can be upset about that, or I can be happy and just live my life to the fullest as is. And that’s what I do.”
If anybody were to take away anything from his story, Mills says those are two life lessons he lives by and tries to impart each day in his professional and personal life.
Because when it comes down to it, he said he remains “grateful and thankful to still be here.”
And it’s what drives him to continue to give back and help others.
“If people wonder how I can keep going, it’s pretty simple because my wife and my daughter and my son are here, I’m here, my friends didn’t make it back home,” Mills said. “They’ll never see their wife and their kids and things like that, and I think it would be a selfish slap in the face if I gave up on myself. So I owe it not just to myself and my family, but I owe it to them, as well as I owe it to the doctors and nurses and medical staff that kept me alive when they could have loosened one tourniquet and let me go for three minutes on April 10 [and] I would have died. So there’s a lot of things that I feel responsible to pay back — and not in bad way. Not obligated but more in a, ‘Hey, you’re still here, your friends aren’t and your doctors made sure you’re still around and your wife and your kids are here, so you might as well push forward.”