by Dennis Dalman
Many veterans endure two kinds of wounds – visible ones and invisible ones – and Mike Mills of Freeport survived them both after a long, painful, anguished struggle.
Mills was the featured speaker at the Memorial Day ceremony May 29 in Sartell’s Veterans’ Park. As he spoke of his harrowing ordeals, a deep silence settled over his listeners, whose expressions reflected horror, along with awestruck admiration, for how the man standing before them had triumphed over such pain – physical, mental and emotional.
Mills served in the U.S. Army and Army National Guard for 21 years. While serving in Iraq, one day (June 14, 2005) he was riding with a convoy when all of a sudden an IED (improvised explosive device) exploded, severely injuring Mills in a split second of horror. It caused a shattered left hip, multiple broken bones and set Mills on fire, causing deep and vicious burns all along his left side, on 31 percent of his body. In the seconds following the explosion, Mills didn’t know the extent of his injuries, but he knew he was on fire. Fortunately, a driver behind Mills’ vehicle rushed for a cooler of melted ice and poured it on him, extinguishing the flames.
Mills didn’t remember anything until two months later, in mid-August, when he woke up in a hospital – Brooks Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.
What followed were years of physical pain: surgeries, the excruciating removal of dead skin, a series of skin grafts, reconstructions and therapy.
As if the physical pain wasn’t bad enough, Mills also had to cope with mental anguish, and he began to ask himself so many disturbing questions and assumptions:
“Was it my fault we were on that convoy when the device exploded? I want to be back there with the soldiers! How can I face my kids looking like this? They will be embarrassed to be seen with me. What if they won’t love me anymore? My wife is not going to want to be intimate with a freak. What if I can’t work? How will I support myself and my family?”
Mills and his wife, Suki, have two children.
During the first few years, he had awful nightmares; he couldn’t sleep; he ate very little to the point he had to be tube-fed at one point; he lost a lot of weight. He felt as if he were heading straight for an abyss.
It took a long time because post-traumatic stress disorder, is not something that can be wished away by those who suffer from it. They must work through it, with help from others – a slow and frustrating process with many setbacks along the way.
Suki was there for him through every step. She absolutely refused to let him slip into despair. After Mills recovered somewhat from his physical wounds, there were at least two times he just wanted to give up, to walk into the woods near the family cabin up north or to walk into the woods during a visit in California. He intended just to walk away into the deep woods and just die there. The stresses he’d endured had led him to the breaking point.
“Demons,” Mills told his listeners, “were biting me in the butt big-time.”
With some counseling, Mills began to realize it was not his fault the IED was roadside that day. Slowly but surely he came to understand emotionally he was not responsible for anything that happened that day – or since.
All the while, Suki, his children and others surrounded him with love and constant moral support – the best defense against his encroaching despair.
As Mills became better, he made a vow no other veteran should ever have to go through the kind of pain, physical and mental, he had struggled with for so long. He began to reach out to other veterans and their families, to government and to the public, one example being his talk at the Sartell ceremony. He became a director for the Warrior Program of a veterans-help organization called “Operation Never Forgotten.”
Pins and plates hold Mills’ left hip in place; he is missing parts of his hands; he has limited use of his left arm; his nose has been reconstructed. It was a very long, painful journey – one step at a time – to what he now calls his “new normal.”
Reaching out to others helped him, and that is why Mills keeps reaching out to others.
On his website, he states this:
“I found out the more I talked about what happened, the easier it was to deal with. People would stare – and still stare – when they see me, but I hold my head high because I am proud to be an American soldier. My kids are proud of me, and – most of all – my wife is proud of me. No matter what I saw, what I did or what happened to me, I am an American solider on a mission to protect the freedom of those who need it.”
Mills’ listeners at Sartell’s Veterans’ Park were clearly proud of him, too, as they rose to their feet to give him a standing ovation.
To find out more about Mills, his struggle and his triumph, visit operationneverforgotten.org.