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A LITTLE MORE than a decade ago, as a U. S. Army soldier in his mid-20s, Mills stood six feet, three inches tall and weighed 250 pounds. His biceps, he says, taped 23 inches. To realize such a physique, Mills embodied a definition of strength many young athletes would recognize. “Everything was all about how much can I lift, and how big can I get my muscles, and how strong can I be with respect to picking things up and putting them down,” he says. As an infantryman, Mills had also undergone training that forced him to develop into an endurance performer, someone who could run five miles to a timer and carry weapons, ammunition, and heavy kit for days over uneven terrain.

Much about these demands was physical. But Army training fostered mental toughness too. Mills would more fully understand the inner aspects of strength under battlefield stress. On his second combat deployment, an exhausting gunfight was followed by a difficult journey back to base, during which “everything that could go wrong did go wrong,” he says, including a truck breaking down at night. Mills summoned the resolve to see himself and his fellow soldiers through. At 21 years old, he experienced an epiphany in the night: “No matter what, time is going to keep going on, so roll with the punches and keep pushing forward.”

mens health october november 2023 cover travis mills

Mills with his wife and child.

Tony Luong

On April 10, 2012, Mills was patrolling in southern Afghanistan as a squad leader in the 82nd Airborne Division when a blast shattered or tore away much of both arms and legs. He woke days later in a hospital in Germany. He was a quadruple amputee. “I went from 250 pounds to 140,” he says “I lost 110 pounds in those seven days.”

Mills was cocooned in profound confusion. In the flash of the blast and the haze of a medically-induced coma, he had gone from being a staff sergeant with physical presence and a deep reservoir of competence and skill to a patient who needed to be fed, washed and moved around by others. He had lost more than his limbs and his job. His identity and purpose were gone, too. “I didn’t know who I was,” he says. Unable to envision a future in which he was not a burden to those he loved, Mills told his wife, Kelsey, that she should leave him. She remained. Her loyalty steeled him. He told himself that if his wife had chosen him, that she and their infant daughter, Chloe, were reasons to resist bitterness and reclaim his life.

What followed was a remarkable climb back. At first Mills could not sit up. But after intensive rounds of physical therapy at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and month after month treating his recovery as a full-time job, Mills was fitted with prosthetics and learned to walk, drive, and feed himself. He regained a sense of purpose. His recovery came from both within and without, requiring the help of countless caregivers, loved ones, and friends.

no matter what time is going to keep going on so roll with the punches and keep pushing forward

Ever more aware of all he could do, Mills became the founder of a non-profit that assists wounded veterans and people struggling with disabilities, as well as a public speaker, the owner of businesses, and a new father as well. His son Dax was born in 2017. His name is a portmanteau of the first names—Daniel and Alexander —of the two medics who saved his life.

That name itself was a marker of Mills’ evolved understanding of strength. Still on a journey, the thirty-six-year-old possessed a definition that encompasses the many and varied aspects of recovery, and the people who help shape it. To him, strength became communal—the sum of the love and generosity and efforts he and his community poured into realizing, through a horror beyond the experience of almost anyone alive, the commitment to living a full life after a wartime odyssey like no other.

mens health october november 2023 cover travis mills

Tony Luong

This story originally appears in the October/November 2023 issue of Men’s Health.

Lettermark

CJ Chivers is a Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter for _The New York Times Magazine and the author of The Fighters and The Gun.