U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Travis Mills was supposed to have the day off on April 10, 2012, about six weeks into his third deployment in Afghanistan.
But late that afternoon, a civilian informant tipped them off about improvised explosive devices (IEDs) near Maiwand, a village roughly 40 miles west of Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second-largest city.
Mills set out with his team around 4:30 p.m. to sweep the area. If they located an IED, they’d mark it and have an Explosive Ordnance Disposal team come later to get rid of it.
Just 400 yards away, as a minesweeper on his team scanned the ground, Mills dropped his backpack on an IED, igniting an explosion that would rip off both of his legs above the knee, his right arm below the shoulder, and his left arm below the elbow.
Mills survived the blast, becoming one of five quadruple amputees from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. After undergoing emergency medical care halfway across the world, Mills was flown back to the United States to start the healing process at Walter Reed Military Medical Center.
“I was visited in the hospital by a lot of awesome people, but I happened to have Gary Sinise come in and meet me and say, ‘Hey, you know, I’m Gary Sinise.’ And I’m like, ‘No, I know exactly who you are, sir,’” Mills told Fox News Digital.
That meeting in 2012 with Gary Sinise – an actor best known for his portrayal in “Forrest Gump” of Lt. Dan, a soldier who loses both legs in Vietnam and initially resents Gump for saving him but later learns to live a full life with his injuries – sparked a decade long friendship and partnership.
“He’s an inspirational, wonderful guy,” Sinise told Fox News Digital. “I love him to pieces, and he’s done amazing things with his challenging situation. He’s just taken that and spun it on its head.”
This month, the Gary Sinise Foundation is donating $1.5 million to the Travis Mills Foundation, funds that will go toward bringing veterans and their families to a new health and wellness center recently opened by Mills in Rome, Maine.
The center caters to “recalibrated veterans,” a term coined by Mills to refer to former soldiers who are learning to live a full life despite their physical injuries.
Mills gives a lot of the credit to Sinise, who built him a smart home through his foundation’s RISE (Restoring Independence Supporting Empowerment) program in 2014.
“I just thought, the Gary Sinise foundation is building these amazing homes for these service members that deserve it and need it. It’s not just that they deserve it because they’re injured, but they actually need it to live independently,” Mills said.
“And I thought, I could do something and bring those service members back together, and show them to not live life on the sidelines and to be active in their society and active with their family.”
Mills first started the retreats at their Maine home in 2017 and will continue bringing dozens of wounded veterans and their families out to the new wellness center, where they can learn adaptive activities like kayaking, fishing, and archery.
“We try to give them not only the best week they’ve had all year at our facility, we also want them to take these skills home with them and continue on,” Mills said.
Mills is able to help these veterans learn to adapt with a team of physical therapists, but also through his own experience going from a college football player to a quadruple amputee.
“I went from that to having no arms, no legs and then having two children now that I can’t play catch in the backyard, can’t play soccer with, but I can go kayaking, I can go fishing, I can go snowboarding, believe it or not,” Mills said.
“Life is truly all about perspective. For me, I was fortunate to make it through my injuries… This is just me. It’s my new normal. And I realize the price I could have paid, and I think having perspective has gotten me where I am today, because some really great friends of mine didn’t make it home, didn’t make it home to their daughters, their sons, their spouses, and their loved ones.”
For Sinise, his dedication to service members goes back decades, initially supporting veterans groups in the Chicago area in the 1980s after the Vietnam War.
Depicting Lt. Dan in “Forrest Gump” magnified his relationship with service members in the 1990s, and the 9/11 attacks prompted him to form the “Lt. Dan Band” in 2003, which he toured military bases with worldwide as Americans were sent overseas.
“So many of the people like [Travis] that I’ve met, they’ve just motivated me to keep coming back and doing a little bit more,” Sinise said.
“I feel like I’m just a conduit for many, many grateful Americans out there who want to do something supportive for the men and women who serve our country.”