Twelve pages in, the reader of “Tough as They Come” is witness to debilitating violence. This comes after a few paragraphs about Skype calls, gym workouts, “Glee” and food. There’s a lot of conversation about food.

This seems to be a theme of war – the mundane is punctuated by intense moments of stress, performance and suffering.

Staff Sgt. Travis Mills is in Afghanistan with the 82nd Airborne Division of the U.S. Army. It’s April 2012, and he is leading a small team to investigate a tip that there are improvised explosive devices nearby. Mills leads his men to the area, they use a minesweeper to check for the bombs, and with all clear, he sets his backpack on the ground. In that moment, Mills sets off an IED and his body is blown apart. This isn’t a spoiler.809358_863248-Cover-Image-FINAL

The cover of Mills’ book shows him standing with his prosthetic legs and one prosthetic arm visible. The shirt sleeve on his right side hangs empty. It has been less than four years since Mills was critically injured during his deployment. In that time, he has been the subject of a movie, released this book, spoken to many audiences about his experience, and founded a nonprofit organization to benefit other wounded veterans and their families.

Obviously, Mills’ story hooks and inspires people. But in “Tough as They Come,” it’s the smaller stories within Mills’ experience that are the most moving.

The details Mills chooses to describe his deployments give readers a picture of everyday life.

The reality of living in military gear, in a desert, is made very clear. He recounts the 12 Meals Ready to Eat options (chicken with noodles, veggie omelet, beef stew, etc.) and their accompanying desserts (M&Ms, Skittles, etc.). During Mills’ second deployment, which lasted a year, he took a total of four showers.

“Tough as They Come” tells a love story as well, a narrative that’s almost as unbelievable as Mills’ injuries and recovery. The backdrop of a romance cultivated over Skype, a very brief courting and a nascent marriage woven across deployments adds a very real, very unsettling element to this soldier’s story. The reader tries to imagine both perspectives, Mills’ and that of the family members he has left behind.

One of the most emotional sections of the book explores the reactions of family, friends and other soldiers as they struggle to understand what happens to Mills. Zac Lewis, Mills’ lieutenant during his final deployment, sent out a letter to his family and friends. He wrote, “Everyone is asking how I’m doing. Yes, I am hurting, but you know I am going to be OK. More importantly, Travis is going to be OK. The truth is, I’ve seen things here so terrible that I’ll never be able to put them into words, Travis’s injury being at the top of the list.”809358_863248-TRAVIS-MILLS-credit-

Incredibly, Mills is OK. His recovery process is just as harrowing as his deployments. Throughout each section of the story, readers see the character traits that allow Mills to continue. “I just wanted to tell a great story that could appeal to anyone,” he said in a phone interview from his home in Manchester, Maine.

Mills’ personality and voice shine through in moments of humor and vulnerability. His story offers us an exploration of what we can endure and, perhaps most challenging, why we endure.

Heidi Sistare is a writer and social worker who lives in Portland. She attended the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies and has had work published in The Rumpus, Slice Magazine and other publications. Contact her at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @heidisistare