BELGRADE – With rolling thunder for fanfare, Staff Sgt. Travis Mills spoke rapidly and enthusiastically of a Maine camp where wounded veterans – including quadruple amputees like him – can go fishing, boating and tubing; drive golf carts; play golf; and have fun.
For this week, that was a reality at Camp Kennebec, where five of the cabins were refitted to be fully accessible, and widened gravel paths and wooden ramps made it easier to get into Salmon Lake and onto boats.
Mills, wounded April 10, 2012, in Afghanistan in an explosion that took parts of both legs and arms, was joined by his family and four other veterans also being treated at Walter Reed Medical Center and their families, as well as two Maine veterans, Brendan Higgins of Readfield and Jeremy Gilley of Palermo.
“From what I understand, they’re having a heck of a time,” Mills said. “I want to show them the beauty of Maine all year round.”
This is Founders Week at the camp, aka the National Veterans Family Center, which is part of the Travis Mills Project. It evolved from Mills sharing his idea for a recreation center for veterans and their familes with Dean Lachance, executive director of the Augusta-based Bread of Life Ministries.
That conversation occurred nine months ago.
Now Mills has bought property in Manchester and plans to move with his family to Maine, working full time on the project, which he hopes will become a year-round recreational refuge for veterans and their families.
Mills talked Wednesday about his walk into the water on his “short legs” without his prosthetic arms, his 1½-year-old daughter following right behind, then of tubing across the water.
He spoke, too, of waking up in a hospital, learning he had lost his limbs, meeting another quadruple amputee who helped him, and then deciding on his goal of helping other amputees.
Wednesday night was steak-and-lobster night at the camp, and Mills and the other veterans were joined by Gov. Paul LePage and first lady Ann LePage.
Ann LePage has signed on as a “first lady of Camp Kennebec,” and she engaged in an easy, teasing repartee with Mills as he prepared for an interview with a number of news people in a wooden building designated as the media center.
Governors from the home states of other veterans had sent state flags to the camp. “I’ll be honest,” Ann LePage said. “The flags are nice, but I want their money.”
She was referring to the fundraising campaign under way now.
The immediate goal is to raise $25,000 to finish funding the $95,000 cost of the remodeling done so far and the week’s camping and other activities.
Lachance has more long-range goals as well: raising $5 million in seed money to buy the camp itself and make it completely handicapped-accessible, as well as offering free camping for vets and their families for five or six years. Finally, the goal also is to raise $15 million in an endowment to keep it going.
For more information on the camp and its mission, visit www.veteransfamilycamp.com.
For Sgt. William Andrew “Drew” Mullee, from northeast Ohio, the camp was already a winner.
“Any time you’re out of Washington, D.C., you’re probably in a good place,” Mullee said. Then he talked about being able to be outdoors with his wife and 11-month-old son, Easton. “They’re loving it,” he said.
“Getting out of the hospital and driving a golf cart or an ATV, and you’re on a boat, you feel normal,” he said.
Betty Adams can be contacted at 621-5631 or at: