The Travis Mills Foundation’s retreat in Rome opened its doors in June, giving U.S. military veterans who have lost limbs in battle a relaxing place to stay, free of charge, in the company of other veterans going through similar recoveries.

The retreat was the brainchild and work of Travis Mills, an Army staff sergeant who lost all four of his limbs after surviving an explosion in Afghanistan. Mills, a 30-year-old Michigan native, started a foundation to raise money for wounded veterans and moved to the Augusta area, where his wife, Kelsey, is from.

Last summer, wounded veterans and their families stayed at the retreat’s handicapped-accessible lodge with lake access, making use of kayaks, bicycles, paddleboards, a movie theater, a children’s play space and other amenities designed with amputees in mind, such as specially built showers and elevators.

The foundation raised $2.5 million – both cash and in-kind gifts – between 2015 and 2016 to renovate the property, which previously belonged to the late cosmetics maven Elizabeth Arden.

The veterans who have been guests all served in the Iraq or Afghanistan wars. The idea for the foundation came to Mills following his own injuries in 2012, when he discovered the restorative power of activities like mountain biking.

The Travis Mills Foundation will continue to raise funds to pay back its $1.1 million mortgage, fund the retreat, expand its offerings and build an endowment. The group hopes to eventually create a similar program for Vietnam-era veterans, who have been among the warmest supporters of veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.


About 3.6 percent of soldiers required amputations after their injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to a 2011 analysis by the Congressional Budget Office – a rate that’s slightly higher than the estimated 2.6 percent who required amputations in Vietnam.

Below, slightly edited, are the stories of some of the veterans who spent time at the retreat in its inaugural summer:

John Hayes, 35, from St. Augustine, Florida

Hayes has 14 years of active service in the U.S. Marine Corps, serving three years as an aviation ordnanceman and 11 years as an explosive ordnance disposal technician. He deployed to Afghanistan and was injured on Dec. 28, 2010, in Operation Enduring Freedom. He previously was deployed twice to Iraq in 2004 and 2007 in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Q: What were you hoping to get out of the Mills retreat experience, and what did you get out of it?

A: After attending other veteran retreats and knowing how new the (Travis Mills Foundation) was, I had no other expectations than to enjoy Maine for a week with my family. Once we arrived, we were amazed!


Every effort was made to make sure our entire family was thought of and we all had the best week possible, from having days filled with fully accessible activities for my entire family, to giving my wife and I an enjoyable night with other adults while the children were busy with incredible baby sitters.

The food was amazing and seemed to never end, and the staff seemed as if they had found their dream job and loved watching us have fun and relax.

Q: What kind of challenges do you encounter as a recalibrated veteran?

A: With losing my left leg completely and having my right amputated so high above the knee, even the act of sitting is incredibly painful. We have four children who appreciate and respect my injury, but they still need and want me to be Dad and do Dad things. That week, I was able to kayak with them and I hadn’t done that since the days before my final deployment. That memory is priceless and I could have gone home after that.

Always being in a wheelchair means I am unable to go certain places. The foundation made sure the entire campus was outfitted properly and safe. That meant my family could enjoy their week, rather than having to worry about me. As a family of six, we go on vacations every few months, it seems, but none have compared to the week we spent at TMF. Even months later we are still bringing up the time we had. I am forever grateful that TMF allowed us to attend.

Kevin Jaye, 30, from Hagerstown, Maryland


Jaye joined the military in October 2010 and was sent to Fort Benning, Georgia, for infantry training. He was then sent to Fort Stewart, where he was assigned to Bravo Company 2-7 Infantry. In February 2012, the squad he was in was transferred to 1-64 AR 2nd Brigade for deployment.

He was injured on June 24, 2012, during a foot patrol in Afghanistan in the Panjwai district. He stepped on an improvised explosive device, or IED, and lost his right leg below the knee. His left leg was salvaged with an ankle fusion, but he also lost his right pinkie finger and suffered a perforated eardrum. His left wrist was also fused. He spent 21/2 years at Walter Reed Medical Center recovering from his injuries, and was medically retired in January 2015.

Q: What were you hoping to get out of the Mills retreat experience, and what did you get out of it?

A: We were hoping to have a nice, relaxing vacation of sorts for my family. We have a 1-year-old and it was our first-ever family trip. It was amazing! Being able to see my daughter have so much fun and take in everything that we did at the retreat was worth everything. It was also amazing for my wife and I. Not only did we get to watch our daughter grow, but there were also services there that would watch our daughter while my wife and I participated in the events going on.

Q: What kind of challenges do you encounter as a recalibrated veteran?

A: Honestly, I don’t really have many challenges anymore. I’m a single below-knee amputee with a limb salvage on the left leg. I mean, trying to keep up with my daughter is exhausting, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I had a great physical therapist that gave me all the tools I needed to have very few challenges in life, and all of that has worked.


Marc A. Owens, 50, from Leland, North Carolina

Owens served in the U.S. Army for 25 years, retiring as a sergeant first class.

Army Sgt. First Class Marc Owens visited the Travis Mills retreat with his wife, Jenny Owens.

Q: What were you hoping to get out of the Mills retreat experience, and what did you get out of it?

A: What I got from the retreat was a sense of relaxation, camaraderie, serenity and a loving, caring environment. There was never worrying about how to navigate the grounds and the activities were very well-thought-out to eliminate the stress.

Q: What kind of challenges do you encounter as a recalibrated veteran?

A: I think the most challenging thing I encounter as a veteran is mobility. This world is not set up for veterans and others with missing limbs, such as vacation spots where you are not the subject of stares. I believe we just want a sense of normalcy.


Adam Keys, 33, from Annapolis, Maryland

Keys was a combat engineer, Airborne, in the Army.

Q: What were you hoping to get out of the Mills retreat experience, and what did you get out of it?

A: I was hoping to reconnect with friends and meet more people and try new things, as always. I got all of that. It was great to experience new things and see how I can manage to do it. Travis and his team have created a great thing up there in Maine and I look forward to coming back.

Adam Keys, a combat engineers, Airborne, in the Army, visited the Travis Mills retreat.

Q: What kind of challenges do you encounter as a recalibrated veteran?

A: I love the words “recalibrated veteran” and I may use that in the future!


I face many perceived challenges everyday, and even when people watch me do almost everything, they either want to watch, help or look away. All of that I understand, but usually I just get it done myself one way or another. If anyone is still watching, they will say things like “That’s impressive” or “You’re a beast.” Those are the positive comments. I try and block out or forget the negative comments that happen from time to time.

I or other recalibrated veterans sometimes have to do things a different way, but we still find a way, which may be a perceived “challenge” but I welcome it. Hopefully it helps or inspires someone else to keep moving forward.

Josh Wetzel, 31, from Auburn, Alabama

Wetzel’s background includes four years of military service in the 1-23 Infantry Battalion. He was injured May 31, 2012, in Mushan, Afghanistan.

Q: What were you hoping to get out of the Mills retreat experience, and what did you get out of it?

Josh Wetzel, left, with Travis Mills. Wetzel was injured in Afghanistan during his military service.

A: We were hoping to reconnect with all of our friends from Walter Reed and see how everyone’s families have grown. We felt like we got to catch up with everyone while also learning about the newest and latest things that are helping amputees. It was cool to see how everyone was able to do the activities, as well as seeing what everyone was using in their daily lives to make life more adaptable.


Q: What kind of challenges do you encounter as a recalibrated veteran?

A: Getting exercise! It’s almost pointless to join a gym because there is hardly anything I can do with legs off. Plus, I would have to bring my wheelchair if I wanted to swim or shower at the gym.

Name: Jarrid Collins, 41, from Fayetteville, North Carolina

Collins is an active-duty Green Beret, with 21 years of service. His wife, Layla, retired with 20 years of military service, and both have had multiple deployments.

Q: What were you hoping to get out of the Mills retreat experience, and what did you get out of it?

A: Primarily, I expected to reunite with old friends, meet new ones, and share experiences to improve in my day-to-day life. Secondarily, I thought this would be an opportunity to experience new potential hobbies, teach my children to live in harmony with all types of people, and see a beautiful part of our nation.


Green Beret Jarrid Collins right, visited the Travis Mills retreat with his wife and fellow military veteran Layla Collins.

Q: What kind of challenges do you encounter as a recalibrated veteran?

A: As a recalibrated active-duty Green Beret, I’ve encountered many unique situations, from the physical aspect of “lashing my prosthetic on” for military free fall (skydiving) operations or carrying a bag of SLRP (small leg repair parts) everywhere I go, to unexpected social situations where children grab my leg or leaders tell me to retire because I’ve given enough.

I believe that the most important thing I’ve learned, though, is that we have a unique platform (from which) to speak for not only wounded warriors, but the military population at large. I believe it is imperative that we, as a group, dissuade the popular narrative of broken vets and show that we have overcome a lot, dug in, rebuilt and continue to thrive.

By sharing this message, we can shed the negativity popularized in media and honestly help those in our community that need help, while crossing the military-civilian chasm that we currently have.

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