When Travis Mills stepped on a landmine while on active duty in Afghanistan, losing his arms and legs, all he could think about was whether he would ever see his wife and 7-month-old daughter again.
Today, nearly two years later, his family is by his side as the now retired U.S. Army Staff Sergeant of the 82nd Airborne shares his story of courage and unimaginable physical and emotional challenges through a new documentary film: Travis: A Soldier’s Story. The movie will be shown for the first time in South Florida in a special screening Monday at the Bill Cosford Cinema at the University of Miami.
Leading up to the screening, the 26-year-old Mills and his family participated in a number of community events to shine a light on his inspirational story and the plight of wounded warriors. He was honored at a Miami Heat game Thursday night.
Mills attended a reception Friday night with Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado. Over the weekend, he was planning to sail with Shake-A-Leg Miami. And, on Monday, he was scheduled to be honored by more government leaders.
But perhaps closest to his heart was the the opportunity to tandem jump with the U.S. Army’s Golden Knights Parachute Team at Homestead Air Reserve Base Friday morning. While Mother Nature cleared the skies for the flight, Mills interacted with members of the military and media and joked about his “movie star” status before turning serious, reflecting on that life-changing day — April 10, 2012 — during his third tour of duty and what came after.
“It was a normal day of duty, then I stepped on one of those buried presents... Reed hooked me up and made me better and here I am jumping with the Golden Knights,” said Mills, whose daughter’s name, Chloe Lynn, is tatooed on his upper arm. “I am not a sob story... It’s going to get better — that’s my motto.”
Mills, who spent about a year and a half at Walter Reed Army Medical Hospital, is just one of five quadruple-amputees from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to survive such extensive injuries. Nearly 52,000 service men and women have been wounded in operations in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001, according to the Congressional Research Service released this month.
In addition to the physical wounds, there were 153,000 new cases of post-traumatic stress disorder in the same time period, and another 288,000 experienced a traumatic brain injury while on deployment, according to the Congressional report.
On Friday, Mills removed his “Iron man” legs and arm before making the jump with Army Sergeant First Class Noah Watts, assistant tandem team leader with the Golden Knights. They jumped 14,500 feet at a speed of 140 mph, the first minute in freefall before the parachute unfolded. “Awesome,” Mills beamed after landing. “I hope I didn’t show any fear.”
Tandem-jumping right after Mills was another wounded warrior, Jason Recio of South Florida. Recio was left 100 percent disabled from injuries he received in Iraq in 2003 when his vehicle was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade and he was shot twice. The Army Specialist spent three years in recovery at Walter Reed.
Recio is now a police officer with the Coral Gables police department’s K9 unit. He joined the force in 2008 after a rather long job search.
On Friday, his first-ever jump was a “thrilling” experience, said Recio, who wears leg braces. “You don’t say no to the Golden Knights.”
Katie Norris, producer of Mills’ documentary movie for her Dallas nonprofit Fotolanthropy, said she reached out to Mills after coming across a Facebook picture of him.
“I had never seen anyone with such a smile, and he underwent so many injuries.”
After meeting him and his family, she knew she wanted to make a full-length documentary. She worked on the film with her husband Reece.
“It is incredibly inspiring getting to work with people who break barriers and show such strength,” she said. “We wanted to tell this story and honor the families of our veterans.”
The 60-minute documentary includes a reenactment of April 10 with some of the actual soldiers who were there with him — including the two Mills said saved his life.
“It showed a lot of courage to go back to that moment — it was the first time they were all together again,” said Norris. “But we wanted to include the reenactment because we wanted to show how low Travis was.”
The film includes his wife Kelsey’s first interview about the ordeal and “she shares her heart,” said Norris.
Interspersed in the film is video footage from Kelsey documenting Mills’ first steps, the first time he used his arms, and interactions with Chloe, who is now 2 1/2.
“It’s a story of resiliency,” said Mills. “You saw my daughter running around here. You can’t be down when you have a little girl like that.”