(VASSAR, Mich.) — Two rival teams will face off Friday night at a Michigan homecoming football game, but this year fans from both sides will be sporting the same T-shirts with the motto, “Two Teams, One Hero.”
The “hero” to whom they refer is Army Staff Sgt. Travis Mills, who’s returning to his hometown for the first time since an IED explosion caused him to lose both his arms and legs. Mills, 25, is one of five surviving quadruple amputee servicemen from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
He has been at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., for the past six months and was waiting until he was ready to visit his small hometown of Vassar, Mich. Everyone had known him in the town as a popular football, basketball and baseball player.
“I decided that I would wait until I was ready to walk and show people the progress I’m making, not that they would ever doubt me or make fun of me,” Mills told ABC News. “It was a personal thing.”
He has been stunned by his welcome home. Mills and wife Kelsey Mills, 23, and their 1-year-old daughter, Chloe, were grand marshals Thursday night at a homecoming parade. He will address the crowds Friday night at Vassar High School, his alma mater, before the homecoming game.
Mills said his community has welcomed him, “Just arms wide open, big hugs, everybody’s cheering, thanking me for my service. It’s just wonderful.”
Mills’ life changed in April while he was serving his third tour in Afghanistan. He went out on foot patrol at around 4:30 p.m. A mine-sweeper surveyed the area, but did not pick up on an IED made of plastic and copper wire that was in the exact spot where Mills set down an ammunition bag.
“As soon as I set it down, five or six seconds later, I woke up on the ground and I looked at my hand and said, ‘This isn’t good,'” he recalls.
A medic rushed over to him and Mills told him, “Get away from me, doc. You go save my men. Let me go. Save my men.”
Mills laughingly recalled the medic saying, “With all due respect, shut up.”
The next few weeks were fuzzily spent being transferred from hospital to hospital and town to town under a medically induced coma.
When Mills woke up, he was with his brother-in-law, a fellow soldier who had stayed with him. Mills’ first question was about his soldiers and whether they were OK. They were. His next question was whether he was paralyzed. He was not, his brother-in-law said.
Mills told his brother-in-law that he couldn’t feel his fingers and toes and not to lie to him.
“Travis, you don’t have them anymore but you’re alive,” Mills recalls his saying. “I said OK.”
His limbs could not be saved and Mills lost most of both arms and both legs.
“You have a lot of emotions. At first you’re upset. Why did it happen? What did I do wrong? Am I a bad person?” he said. “Then you realize it just happened because it happens. There’s no reason to dwell on the past or live in the past. I have a beautiful wife and a beautiful, young 1-year-old daughter and I’m never going to give up on them or my family or the people who support me.”
At Walter Reed, Mills’ doctor told him that he would probably spend two years recovering in the hospital. Mills told him he could do it in a year.
For the past six months, he has spent every day doing occupational therapy and physical therapy. He works on his therapies from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. every day. He has received support from his medical team, family friends and the few other surviving quadruple amputees. And he has already begun to pay that support forward.
“He has got such an unbelievable attitude,” Mills’ father-in-law, Craig Buck, said. “He takes time out of his week each week to go up to the fourth floor of Walter Reed. That’s where the most critically wounded guys that are coming back home are, and he’ll put on all of his prosthetics and go visit them to encourage them.”
Buck, 49, has spent the past six weeks at Walter Reed with Mills and his family and has been amazed by his resilience.
“Just his spirit, he lifts everyone up around him even though he’s had such devastating injuries,” Buck said. “Of course there’s down times, which is to be expected, where he’s not feeling so chipper, but 90 percent of the time he’s positive, motivated and just works so hard at getting better.”
Mills has prosthetics for both legs and both arms. He uses a wheelchair sometimes, but is already walking on his prosthetics. He hopes to be completely out of the wheelchair by November, using it only occasionally.
Mills calls his wife “a real hero” for helping him and staying by his side. He says his wedding band is his most prized possession. His brother-in-law pulled it off of his mangled finger after the explosion and Mills marvels that it does not even have a scratch on it. He wears it around his neck.
He is confident that his military career is far from over. His goal of being in the military for 20 years is unchanged after his accident. He hopes to be an instructor.
“I still have plans to stay in the military, if they’ll have me,” he said. “If I can give anything to the war effort, to the soldiers, to the guys that are signing up, I’m definitely willing to do it and I would love to.”
He’ll get a chance to address his thousands of supporters and thank them Friday night for their support. His only concern is he hopes he’ll be able to get to everyone.
“I’ve never stopped wanting to help and I’ll never stop training, teaching and pushing guys through what they need to push through,” he said. “I’ll give inspiration and motivation to anyone because that’s my purpose. I don’t take life for granted and I’m thankful I get to see my kid grow up and teach her to ride a bike.”
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio