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In 1969, Kirk Bauer lost his leg in a grenade explosion in Vietnam. In 2012, Travis Mills lost portions of four limbs from an improvised explosive device (IED) in Afghanistan. They join Kojo to talk about adaptive sports and the challenging path of recovery facing today’s wounded veterans.
- Travis Mills Staff Sergeant, U.S. Army; Co-founder, Travis Mills Project National Veterans Family Center
- Kirk Bauer Executive Director, Disabled Sports USA; Vietnam Veteran
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, this Veterans Day, a look at how we remember war and conflicts past. From Catch 22 to Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, we'll explore the evolution of American literature and war. But first, true stories of wounded warriors on the path to recovery.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWe're joined in studio by Army Staff Sergeant Travis Mills, a veteran of three tours in Afghanistan. Travis lost all four limbs in April of 2012 when an improvised explosive device detonated underneath him. Over the course of 19 months, he's learned how to use prosthetic legs and arms. He's helped found a special outdoor camp for wounded veterans and their families. And he's become a role model for others at Walter Reed National Medical Center. Travis Mills, welcome.
SGT. TRAVIS MILLSHey, thanks for having me. I do appreciate you guys having me on, and I'm excited to be here.
NNAMDIWe're excited to have you. We're also joined in studio by Kirk Bauer. Kirk's a Vietnam veteran and the Executive Director of Disable Sports USA. That's a nonprofit that provides adaptive sports opportunities to people with disabilities. Kirk, good to see you again.
MR. KIRK BAUERKojo, it's a pleasure. Always a pleasure to be on your show.
NNAMDIFirst off, this is Veterans Day, and I'd like to start off with a thank you. Thank you for everything you both have done and continue to do for our country, and to all veterans who continue to do the same.
NNAMDITravis, you walked into this studio, and you shook my hand. I gotta tell you, it's crazy to me that you're alive day, the day you survived after stepping on that IED, was just 19 months ago. Tell us about what happened on April 10, 2012.
MILLSWell, actually a pretty normal day. We were sitting in Afghanistan, getting ready to go on a patrol. We had intel there was IED in the city, so our first element split off to the city to go find it. And we went to go set up, but, turns out, the information was a little backwards, and I found the IED. And the city didn't have one. But, just, before, during the afternoon, a normal day. The mine sweeper went over it. The mine sweeper didn't pick it up, and then I was like the fourth or fifth guy in the file.
MILLSI set my bag down on the mound and kind of went boom. So, immediately hit the deck. I went down, swollen left eye. I looked over, my right eye was just not swollen shut, and my right arm and right leg disintegrated. Never found. For everybody listening, I'm, at the mid-bicep on my right arm. My right leg, I'm just above the knee. My left arm was still actually there. My hand was still there, but my wrist was blown out pretty good. And my left leg was hanging on by a few pieces of tissue and muscle.
MILLSBut, they had to cut that just below my kneecap. So, laying there, getting worked on, talking to my medic, calming him down, telling -- well, first, don't leave me alone, save my guys, because I knew other guys got hit with me. And I figured I was done, so might as well move on, but he told me, you know, with all due respect Sergeant Mills, shut up. Let me do my job. And my other guys yelled they were fine. They were going to make it, so they worked on me. I calmed the other medic down, kind of. He was flipping out.
MILLSAnd then we lowered the helicopter, you know, flew to the hospital, got to Kandahar which has 99 percent survival rate, if you get there alive, which is phenomenal in my case. And then, when I got in the hospital, they kept trying to touch me. I'd tell them, leave me alone. And they decided that I needed to so to sleep. They didn't know why I wasn't sleeping yet. So, they medicated me and put me out.
MILLSThen, April 12th, they cut my left arm off at the mid wrist, I guess, because they couldn't save it and the skin was dying. And it was better to lose it there than to have the, you know, just eat the flesh all the way up. And April 14th, wouldn't you know it, happy 25th birthday. I woke up in a hospital bed in Germany, for the first time. And my brother in law was there, who has been a, you know, good friend of mine for many years. It's actually how I met my wife. It was through him.
MILLSHe was medic on my first deployment. And he had to break the news that I had no arms and legs anymore. So, you know, what can you do? I said, Okay, I was embarrassed. I didn't talk to my wife or my kid, and I got to Walter Reed on April 17th, and then just kind of went about my day. And then I had...
NNAMDIIn the 19 months since then, you found the IED, but you found the IED the hard way.
MILLSOh no, it was easy. Just set my bag down. I didn't even have to look for it.
NNAMDIAnd it was right there. Tell us about the 19 months since then.
MILLSWell, so, two and a half weeks into my recovery, I had such bad pain, they had to do a special treatment on me, which was a ketamine coma, where they did 600 milligrams an hour for five days. And ketamine is just a wild, wild drug. They woke me up, and seven days after I woke up, after my hallucinations were over, I met this guy, Todd Nicely. He's a Corporal in the Marine Corps., retired now. He's a second quadruple amputee, and he said, hey, it gets better. He told me all the stuff he was doing.
MILLSHe became your role model.
MILLSHe did. He did. And then, ever since he came in my room and told me it was gonna get better, I've just been working hard. Actually, I went to P.T. that day, and they told me I couldn't. And I said, I will low crawl out of this hospital room to the P.T. area if you do not let me -- which was kind of dumb. There was a wheelchair sitting right next to me.
NNAMDIWell, speaking of low crawling, take us back to the day itself when you said, I thought I was done.
MILLSWell, you know, both arms and legs, you know, severely damaged. Three of the four limbs gone.
NNAMDIAnd you were conscious at the time?
MILLSI was conscious the whole time. And just, you know, it came down to me or the guys that weren't, that didn't hit the bomb that weren't as badly injured. I wasn't trying to be selfish, you know, to leave my family behind, but at the same time, if my guys were hurt and they were gonna bleed out, but they could be saved and they weren't hurt as bad as me, you know, you gotta move on.
NNAMDIThere are only five people who survived this type of injury in Afghanistan and Iraq. So, you probably thought that you would not be one of those guys. But, as it turned out, you were.
MILLSI'm very fortunate to be here. I got to celebrate my daughter's first birthday party and everything. I just really, at the time, I didn't want my guys to suffer because my medics were fighting a losing battle, you know, to put it, I guess, the best way I can. So, not to be heroic or anything, just let me go and save my men, I told the medic. And they yelled back they were fine.
NNAMDIYou didn't do it to be heroic, but, as it turned out, it was, in fact, heroic. In case you'd like to join the conversation, give us a call at 800-433-8850. What does Veterans Day mean to you? Have you or family members served or rehabilitated from a severe injury. Give us a call. 800-433-8850, or send email to email@example.com. Kirk, Travis got injured in 2012. You were injured in 1969, what seems like eons ago.
NNAMDIAnd over the course of four decades, you've become an advocate for getting veterans and other people with disability outside and onto the ski slopes, or into the pool and playing sports. What can adaptive sports do for a wounded veteran?
BAUERWell, Kojo, I think that a lot of times when we're focusing on some of the challenges that the Afghan and Iraq Wars have produced. You know traumatic brain injury and post traumatic stress, we tend to focus solely on the challenges, and what we're here to do today is, at Disabled Sports USA and our Warfighter Sports Program is talk some good news about some of the strategies and programs that are being used to help the wounded warriors successfully transition back into life again.
BAUERTo get jobs, to go back and get their education, to raise families, and I can't think of a better example than Travis Mills. This guy has gone through hell, quite literally, whether he'll tell you that or not, and he's come out the other side. And he's not only, you know, snow boarding, and he's downhill biking, and he's playing rugby. But he's also being a mentor and a role model for others, and has even established a camp to help veterans and their families to get back involved through sports.
BAUERAnd that's what the sports does. It increases that self confidence. It increases the fitness. It gives, you know, somebody that's been severely injured a real goal to work toward while they're going through therapy. And we find that it's very, very effective as a tool to rehab these young men and women.
NNAMDIYou know, I think of Travis. I'm thinking challenges, you describe. Travis, I'm thinking fun. Travis is having more fun than I am? Travis, you were injured 19 months ago, but you helped start an outdoor camp for people with disabilities this year. You both, both you and Kirk seem to see something powerful in getting outdoors and getting active. What is it about that?
MILLSWell, I guess it's just -- how this happened, I'm gonna backtrack a little here. A simple conversation. After going to Colorado and snowboarding, finding a way for me to snowboard, it's kind of wild. And then mono skiing, as well, at the same time, due to the Warfighter Sports and Disabled Sports USA and everything that Kirk and his buddies have put together, you know, made it possible for me to feel independence, feel like there are things out there I can do with my family again. And get back out there. I might not be able to throw a softball. My right arm doesn't throw as good as it used to, but...
NNAMDIBelieve me, I threw an opening pitch at a Nationals baseball game, and you'd have done a much better job. I'm telling you.
MILLSI'm not saying yes. I'm not saying no. I just will leave it at that, I guess. But, really, once I went down the mountainside, I realized there's things I can still do with my family. There's things I can still get outdoors. I don't have to sit inside, or just, you know, go out to dinners and stuff. I can take my daughter, you know, she'll probably be a skier like her mom, but that's OK. I'll get past it, because I like to snowboard, but we can go do that stuff on the slopes. Mountain biking, I found a way to do that up in Crested Butte, Colorado this summer.
MILLSI found a way to go down hilling, which is a four wheel bike that I was duct taped to the handlebars. And we went flying down the side of a 9,000 foot elevation mountain down switchbacks and everything. And it was just wild. I had a full facemask helmet. But, just, it really does better confidence. And I simply said to my wife, wouldn't that be great if we could do that in Maine? And hopefully my veterans camp is gonna grow. It's for all veterans, not just wounded, but we can have reunions.
MILLSI'm trying to get the VFW and the American Legion onboard. And I've talked to the local areas, like the local ski resort. And they're all, really, 100 percent onboard. I actually have a pretty big meeting coming up at the end of the month to see how we can fund this full year round. Or nine months out of the year to bring veterans and their families up for reunions, and up, just to get outside, and do great things with adaptive sports and other stuff like that.
NNAMDIWhat it is about getting outside and doing great things that seems to help so much in the rehabilitation process, Kirk?
BAUERWell, I think that, you know, you gotta remember, these are type A personalities, and they sort of don't like limits. And so, just to breathe that fresh air, you know, after you've been in a hospital, and not to have, you know, four walls constraining you. That sense of freedom that sports gives you, whether you're going down a mountainside or riding on a bike, or going water skiing or scuba diving. And the other thing is that it really is a challenge. You know, these young men and women now can get out there and really develop the muscles that they have left.
BAUERThey can, you know, exert themselves to their max. And it gives them a sense of purpose. It gives them a sense of a goal to achieve that's very positive instead of sitting back and, you know, feeling sorry for themselves or overdosing on substance abuse and what have you. They get out and do something positive and have a goal to work toward. And this is all part of a positive rehabilitation.
NNAMDI800-433-8850's our number. We're talking with Kirk Bauer. He is the Executive Director of Disabled Sports USA. He's a Vietnam veteran. Travis Mills is a US Army Staff Sergeant. He's a veteran of three tours in Afghanistan and a quadruple amputee. He's the co-founder of the National Veterans Family Center. That's an accessible outdoor camp in Maine. And he's the subject of a documentary titled, "Travis: A Soldier's Story." That will be screening at AMC Tyson's Corner on November 14th.
NNAMDIYou can call us at 800-433-8850. Have you or a family member served or rehabilitated from a severe injury. There is a growing recognition about the mental health challenges facing veterans, especially post traumatic stress, but the brain is part of the human body. And we know that sports and athletic activity can release positive endorphins and help brighten peoples' outlook. How important has sports been in your recovery?
MILLSWell, they're really important. Before I actually joined the Army, I played football, baseball, basketball, power lifting, ran track. And I went to college to actually play football, and had the opportunity to play baseball, but decided the Army was calling my name. So, I went to the Army, but we still did a lot of competitive things in the Army and everything like that. So, for me, it's more the family aspect, more of what can I do? What Mr. Bauer does or, you know, Kirk, sorry, but what he does with his Warfighter Sports or he does with his adaptive sports that gets me back out there doing things with, you know, challenges for me, but also things I can do with my family.
MILLSAnd that's the biggest thing for me. I don't hate for my daughter -- who is two years old now -- to ever be like, I can't go because my dad can't do it. So when she has a dance at school, like Daddy/Daughter dance -- if they still have those -- I’m going to go dance. If they have us riding the bike and she's going to learn how to do it, I’m going to teach her.
INTERVIEWERI'll put on my running legs and I'll run next to the bike holding it and take the training wheels off and we'll get wild. But really, what Kirk is doing is he's really helping me get back to things I can do with my wife and my child so that we can go on and move forward with our lives, rather than have me sit by the wayside and watch everything. I'm a participant. I'm not a spectator.
NNAMDIKirk, how important has sports been in your recovery?
BAUERWell, Kojo, I want to talk more about what Travis is talking about right now, if I can.
BAUERYou know, we knew that this had a positive effect, sports does. And so we commissioned Harris Interactive to do an actual survey on this. And what we found was really dramatic. Sports, as part of rehabilitation, can produce a whole range of positive results. It leads to higher employment. It leads to better socialization. It leads to a better sense of well being. It leads to higher fitness levels. It leads to somebody having a better sense of hope for the future, as I call it, looking forward to the future.
BAUERThese were all parameters that we tested in the survey and found in some cases double of what it was for the normal disabled population of working age. And these veterans are coming back and reporting that themselves in the survey. So all of these things have a positive effect, sports has a positive effect on helping people to get back into life, as I call said before. And have a better attitude about themselves and their families and life. And it does keep the family together. When you can ski with someone, you can play golf, you can go waterskiing, go hiking with your family it helps to keep that family unit together, which has been literally shattered by these injuries.
NNAMDIHere is Todd, in Potomac, Md. Todd, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TODDHi, I'm listening to your show here. Travis, I'm very impressed by your cant and such. I happen to be by trade an occupational therapist. And I happen to work with children and have summers off essentially and just wanted to know if there's an opportunity to volunteer my time and services to you guys during your camp to see if you need any help. I've worked with people with adaptive sports needs in the past and would just like some contact information.
NNAMDITodd, you can find a link at our website, kojoshow.org, but here now is Travis.
MILLSTodd, nice to have you on. I appreciate your phone call. And yeah there are ways to volunteer and to help benefit. If you actually -- travismills.org will have all my information to email me to the info@travismills. It goes right to, well my website manager, but it goes right to me. And really we'd love to have you. Occupational therapy has really been very crucial -- don't tell my occupational therapist this because me and him like to butt heads. (laugh) But it's been the most crucial thing, being able to dress myself, feed myself and go on with my life. With everything that I've had to do has really resulted from the O.T. and P.T. that I've received at Walter Reed. So I'd love to have you up there by all means.
NNAMDITodd, what we're going to do is put you on hold and get your information and make sure that Travis has it when he leaves the building so we can hold you to that promise, Todd. Thank you very much for calling.
TODDThank you. Have a great day.
NNAMDIAnd thank you for making that promise. Here is Alex, in Laurel, Md. Alex, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ALEXYeah, hi, guys. The questioner before me kind of asked my question about how a citizen can help you guys. I come from a family of World War II and Vietnam veterans. I've never served myself, but certainly would like to offer any kind of assistance -- besides money because I don't have a lot -- and near Bethesda. I was also trying to find out -- I've got a wonderful dog that I think would make a great service dog and not sure how I could offer that, to have him come in and lick your faces and welcome you home.
NNAMDIAlex, here's Kirk Bauer.
BAUERYes, Alex. Thank you very much. A couple of questions that you brought up and we'd like to address. First of all, the Warfighters Sports Program, that's part of Disabled Sports USA, we're doing over 30 sports involving chapters all around the country that are part of Disabled Sports USA. So yes, we have five chapters in Maryland and a couple in Virginia that could use the volunteer help to help put on the Warfighters Sports Program, whether it's waterskiing or scuba diving, kayaking through Team River Runner, all these different things. So check our website, disabledsportsusa.org, and send us an email and we'll put you in touch with the right people.
BAUERThe other question had to do with a dog. They actually have a formal program at Walter Reed that's very structured on training dogs to be companion dogs, as well as guide dogs if you're blind, and service dogs. There's three different categories. So that would have to be done through a very formal process. They don't just hook warriors up with the dogs. They have to be trained in advance. And, again, that can be done through a formal process with Walter Reed.
NNAMDIAlex, thank you very much for your call. Travis, you have been at Walter Reed for a year and a half, but you're leaving later this month. What were your goals when you first began this recovery process? And I guess, more importantly, what comes next?
MILLSWell, first of all, it was really to get out of the hospital. I did that in five weeks. To walk as quick as I could and I had to push my therapist because she was making sure she was cautious. She didn't want me to have a big let down, made sure I was strong enough. And the biggest goal really was to meet my guys when they flew back to Green Ramp on my tall legs and be able to salute them. Yes, with my hook on my right arm, but to be able to sit there outside the ramp of the plane when they landed and give them all a hug. And I did get to meet that goal. I was pretty excited.
MILLSMy, you know, guys got off the plane. They saw the General, the Sergeant Major and then they saw me. And some guys didn't know who I was because it was all different units. So the other guys gave me a big hug and this guy looked at me funny and I said, you don't know me, man. Just welcome home. (laughter) You know, because he didn't want to hug me, he didn't know me. I guess my next goal, after I started walking, was to run, to learn how to snowboard and do things.
MILLSReally the sports plays into this in every aspect because, I mean, if it's not competitive, it's just getting out there and doing stuff for sports, it was really to make sure my daughter and I could do things together still as a father/daughter and have my wife there, too, things you thought were taken away from you. So I guess I wanted to snowboard. I wanted to learn everything I could about things and activities I could do with my daughter and then just be there for my family. Now I'm moving out to -- I’m getting a house built in Maine with Tunnels to Towers Organization and with Gary Sinise.
MILLSAnd I'm really excited to get on with that and then I’m going to be a counselor at the camp. And hopefully I'll do a peer mentoring job, not just at Walter Reed, but travel between Balboa and San Antonio at BAMC, and the other hospitals around and try to help people out in my situation that are newer to it.
NNAMDIKirk, next month you're bringing together hundreds of athletes with disabilities to Colorado for something you're calling the 2013 Ski Spectacular. Tell us about that.
NNAMDIWhat kind of sports will you be playing? (laugh)
BAUERWell, this is our biggest event of the year. It's called the Hartford Ski Spectacular. And it's everything to do with winter sports. It's Nordic, snowboarding, alpine, and we'll have about 800 people there from all over the country, but included that will be about 130 of the wounded warriors and their families from all over the country, learning how to ski, snowboard and Nordic. And it's just a great opportunity for them to get out of the hospital and to realize what they're capable of doing. And Travis is going to be there, not only improving his sport, but also mentoring.
BAUERAnd I think what's really great is, you know, Travis is a living example of what we want to see toward the end of the road. He's getting out of the hospital and now he's going to be giving back. He's going to be on a speaking tour. He's going to be helping to establish his camp. And at the Hartford Ski Spectacular he is going to be meeting with and working with and motivating some of the survivors from the Boston Marathon bombing. And so, you know, he's helping civilians as well military.
NNAMDIYeah, Wounded Warriors have been very active on that front.
BAUERThey have been and they will continue to be at the Ski Spectacular. So we're going to see some positive results there because they will be the role models that the bombing victims will be looking to, to learn how to get back into life again.
MILLSAnd on that, I'm actually real excited because I went to Boston two weeks after the explosion and hung out for a week with them, as well as the New England Patriots first home game, we did a thing with Operation Warrior Wishes where they flew us in, we walked next to one of the bombing victims from Boston. So this will be my third time talking with them and hanging out and hoping to just help them get back out there because within two weeks of them being in the bombing, I was actually up to Boston with the hospital.
MILLSIt wasn't very public. We didn't make it a big thing for everybody to know. And I got to walk into their rooms and tell them, hey, it's going to be okay, like, it gets better. Same thing Todd did for me, I got to do for them, as well as other people at Walter Reed.
NNAMDIThat would be Todd Nicely. Travis Mills is a U.S. Army staff sergeant. He's a veteran of three tours in Afghanistan and a quadruple amputee, co-founder of the National Veterans Family Center and Accessible Outdoor Camp in Maine. And you can see him in the documentary titled, "Travis: A Soldier's Story," screening at AMC Tyson's Corner on November 14th. Travis, thank you so much for joining us.
MILLSOh, thanks for having us. I do appreciate it and I'm real excited for this Ski Spectacular and the Warfighter Sports and everything we have in store the rest of (unintelligible)
NNAMDIOrganized by Kirk Bauer, executive director of Disabled Sports USA. He's a Vietnam veteran. Kirk, always a pleasure.
BAUERKojo, thank you very much, again.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, a look at how we remember war and conflicts past, from "Catch-22," to "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk." We're exploring the evolution of American literature and war. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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