Tough As They Come: Book review by Mike Kennedy

By the time of the IED incident in the spring of 2012, he had nearly six years of service under his belt, and had matured from raw recruit into an experienced and highly capable NCO.

Tough As They Come – By Travis Mills – Review by 12570 Mike Kennedy

For many soldiers heading into combat, their greatest fear is not that of being killed, but rather of being maimed. The prospect of being blinded, paralyzed, or somehow otherwise disabled is an ever-present risk, and one that can strike fear into the heart of even the otherwise most taciturn of warriors. Thankfully, it is something that relatively few will experience, but for those who do, it marks the beginning of a profoundly life-altering journey. This can be especially true in extreme cases, where the soldiers involved suffer multiple and lasting injuries.

Imagine for example what it would feel like to lose not just one limb, but all four. That’s the reality that Staff Sergeant Travis Mills woke up to on an April morning in 2012, just days before his 25th birthday. A paratrooper then serving in Afghanistan, one day while leading a mission Mills paused to set his rucksack down on the ground. Almost instantly an IED detonated, and a short while later Mills found himself on a medevac helicopter, barely conscious, and contemplating a future he probably could not have imagined just moments earlier.

Mills would become just one of five U.S. servicemen to survive injuries that would necessitate the amputation of both arms and both legs. In Tough As They Come, he recounts his journey from the serenity of small-town life in rural Michigan to the desolate plains of Afghanistan, and his life after that fateful day in the spring of 2012. The book is an inspiring story of hope and courage, and at the same time, a compelling testimonial to the determination and dedication to one’s comrades that have long been the hallmark of the American fighting man.

Born in 1987 in Saginaw, Mills grew up in the nearby town of Vassar, a close-knit community of a few thousand inhabitants. As a youth, he was a middling student but a superbly talented athlete who excelled at a variety of sports and stood out as a natural leader. When it became apparent that his childhood dream of playing professional football wasn’t going to happen, after a brief spell in community college, Mills looked to the military to provide the sense of action and camaraderie that he craved. Signing up with the U.S. Army in 2006, he initially hoped to train as an electrician, but after watching a video about paratroopers, Mills decided that the airborne was the place he wanted to be.

An imposing six feet, three inches tall, and weighing well over 200 pounds of solid muscle, Mills seemed like an ideal candidate for his chosen vocation. He thrived on the discipline and challenge of basic training, and immediately thereafter proceeded to jump school, where he received his “blood wings” in the summer of 2006. Earning a spot in the famed 82nd “All American “Airborne Division, his first months with the unit involved comparatively mundane duties on the personal security detail of a battalion commander. By January 2007, Mills found himself on his first deployment in Afghanistan, where he served as a gunner on a Humvee. Apart from one memorable incident involving a suicide bomber, his tour was for the most part relatively benign, so much so that he never once fired his weapon for the fifteen months he served in-country.

Mills would ultimately go on to do two more deployments in Afghanistan. Along the way, he attained the rank of Staff Sergeant, and with it leadership responsibility for two weapons teams, and met and married the sister of one of his early platoon-mates.  By the time of the IED incident in the spring of 2012, he had nearly six years of service under his belt, and had matured from raw recruit into an experienced and highly capable NCO. The explosion on that April morning left him grievously injured and clinging perilously to life, but as subsequent events would demonstrate, the widespread damage to his body could do nothing to break Mills’ indomitable spirit.

Reading this book, a couple of important larger themes emerge. One is the critical role of small unit leadership, especially when it comes to conducting combat operations. As a Staff Sergeant in his early 20’s, Mills had responsibility for the lives of eight other men directly under his command. Determined to do his utmost to lead by example and take proper care of them, Mills succeeded because he knew his soldiers, understood their individual strengths and weaknesses, and adjusted his leadership style accordingly. Similarly, he was also able to work with the newly-minted and inexperienced Lieutenant to whom he reported, and help him rapidly develop into a competent and well-respected platoon leader.

The other important message that resonates throughout this book relates to the value of support provided by family, comrades, and community in helping wounded soldiers to successfully navigate the long and invariably arduous road to recovery. For example, once they dealt with the initial shock of hearing the news of his injuries, the members of Mills’ immediate family rallied heroically behind him, and proved to be his most unrelenting source of strength and encouragement. Similarly, Mills has high praise for the staff at the Army’s Walter Reed Hospital, especially for the members of the team who fitted him with prosthetics that allowed him to begin a return to everyday life. Former military colleagues will also unfailingly generous with their support, and when Mills returned to his hometown of Vassar to attend a football game, thousands of local residents showed up to welcome him home.

As a serving paratrooper, Travis Mills took pride in helping to keep his fellow Americans safe by being one of the “rough men standing ready to visit violence on those who would do us harm.” A random incident on an April morning in Afghanistan in 2012 ended his fighting career in a flash, but now nearly six years later, Mills continues to serve his country, giving motivational speeches about his experiences, raising money to help other wounded veterans, and living by his lifelong mantra “Never give up. Never quit.”

After having survived the unimaginable, Travis Mills is indeed clearly “Tough As They Come”, and a shining example of an American soldier and patriot who will no doubt serve as a tremendous inspiration to his comrades and countrymen for many more years to come.  His story is one that should be required reading for every cadet at the College, and every serving officer in the Canadian Forces.