When cosmetics mogul Elizabeth Arden purchased hundreds of acres in rural Maine for her summer estate-turned-spa she probably didn’t think it would become a haven for veterans with missing limbs, but that’s exactly what retired Army Staff Sergeant Travis Mills thought when he purchased the property in 2015.
Mills, who lost all four of his limbs as the result of an IED blast while on his third tour of Afghanistan in 2012, is one of only five surviving quadruple amputee combat veterans in the U.S. After an extensive rehabilitation journey at Walter Reed Hospital he and his wife Kelsey started the Travis Mills Foundation to help support returning veterans. What started with $5,000 to provide care packages has grown into an initiative which now encompasses a ‘zero-barrier’ retreat facility where each week eight families from around the country come for a full slate of recreational activities, all of which are accessible to people with missing limbs or other disabilities. All expenses, including travel costs, are covered by the Foundation to keep in line with the ‘zero barrier’ mission of the retreat center.
“We had a triple amputee who was blown up and burnt up pretty bad,” said Mills. “He said he couldn’t do archery. We said: we’ll figure it out.”
During the course of the veteran’s stay a local non-profit went through several iterations of designing a way for him to successfully hold a bow and arrow, then helped equip him with the same tools to keep practicing when he returned home.
“We went from him saying ‘no I can’t do that’ to now it is his favorite thing that he does in his backyard,” says Mills. “The beauty is it’s different things that we adapt, that you can use at home. If we ever figure something out that you know they can’t get at home, we find a way to get them what we showed them to take home.”
Mills avoids using the term ‘wounded’ when referring to himself or others who lived through similar experiences instead preferring the term ‘recalibrated’.
“I was wounded, but I’m not wounded anymore and I don’t like to think of myself that way,” he explains. “I just have scars. I want to change the mindset and narrative. Yes it was terrible. But the key word is was. Move forward. I’m fortunate to still be here. I’m lucky to be around.”
Since settling in Maine, Mills has founded a local restaurant and meeting center while also continuing to give speeches around the country about his experience. He coauthored a memoir about his injury and recovery, “Tough As They Come”, and uses his platform to raise money for the projects the Travis Mills Foundation delivers. This included turning a nearly 100-year old building into a modern, accessible resort lodge while still maintaining its historical integrity.
Mills had some prior knowledge of what the living quarters of the refurbished building would require after being one the recipients of the fully equipped smart homes the Gary Sinise Foundation donates to veterans, but translating that to a 1929 building took two years and an extra fundraising effort to address the challenges they encountered. Only part of the original building had a foundation, made of granite slab, and the insulation was nowhere up to the modern standards needed in such a northerly climate.
“They had to jack the whole building up 15 feet in the air and they couldn’t go from the floor joists because they were all rotted out,” said construction manager Craig Buck. “They put metal beams through the windows and lifted the building from the windows.”
“We had to gut the whole interior and then shim every stud to make it at least six inches thick to get the correct insulation in the wall,” he continues. “We had $1.6 million construction loan and because we wanted to make it a world class facility we went a million dollars over budget. We had to raise that million and then only had four years to pay off the 1.6 million.” Thanks to donations the Foundation was able to pay it off in two years.
The main lodge’s interiors now include areas with wide turning radiuses for wheelchairs, doorways with no thresholds, attached bathrooms that all have urinals (“since that’s easier for guys with only one arm like me,” says Mills) and central gathering places so families and their children can get to know each other.
“Before I know it, this family and this family are sitting together. These kids are sitting over here and then all the kids are all together. It becomes one tight knit community because the kids see other kids that are going through the same thing with their parents,” says Mills.
Once the residential building was refurbished, the Foundation began planning a Wellness Center with a full suite of facilities so they could offer retreats year-round, but they learned their lesson from the first experience and planned every detail down to the light fixtures before beginning the construction.
“We said we’ll never be in debt so we didn’t borrow money,” said Buck. “We didn’t break ground until we had the money in the bank. It was one hundred percent paid for the day we opened.” The Wellness Center opened in late 2022 and is now fully operational.
Upon arrival each family is assigned a golf cart so they can get around the property easily and take part in all the different options throughout the week.
An adaptive ropes course is part of the activities.
Another look at the ropes course.
Horseback riding is one of the activities for all guests, regardless of physical ability.
Kayaking and other water sports are available to all, but building the ramp to match the ten foot drop down to the water took some careful planning.
Wheelchair basketball is a popular choice.
Tubing is another option. Note the design of the water craft so someone with missing limbs (far left) can take part. In the background is the kayak launch where recalibrated participants can enter a kayak safely before rowing out into open water.
Adaptive video games were one of the activities the team discovered was important to bring to the menu of choices.
A close-up demonstrating the need for adaptive video game controllers.
Mills hopes to bring the concept to other parts of the U.S. but plans to keep the size of each weekly group to approximately the same number since he attributes part of his mental strength during his own recovery to the tight knit bonds he formed with the other small group of soldiers who recovered alongside him. Mills says he has seen the impact such bonds have on people who participate in the retreat, with several veterans confiding in him they had lost hope and were planning on taking their own life but changed their mind after befriending people who had lived through similar circumstances. He also recalls the positive changes families report, with one woman telling him, “this is the first time I’ve seen my husband act like the man I married. This is a guy that I recognize.”
“That’s how I measure success,” says Mills. “People acting like themselves again.”