Retired staff sergeant who lost all four limbs in Afghanistan inspires graduates with a mix of humor and motivation

On a blustery Saturday in May, future Unity College graduates formed a line down the campus’s most pronounced hill that leads to Tozier Gymnasium, as they clung on tightly to their caps to prevent them from being blown downhill. Though the weather wasn’t exactly an ideal spring day, the spirits of students and families were high, and inside Tozier Gymnasium was a whirlwind of activity. Volunteers assisting guests in finding their seats, parents setting up cameras to get the perfect shot of their child walking across the stage, and members of the media eagerly anticipating the words of wisdom from honorary doctorate recipient retired SSG Travis Mills

As the bagpipes came within earshot of the gymnasium, the crowd hushed and Unity College’s May 2019 Commencement was officially underway. 

“As I look out here and see you guys and your accomplishments, you guys are winners,” said SSG Mills. “Today you are titans in the arena of college. You did it.” 

Retired SSG Mills has told his story all over the country, on shows like Ellen and Happening Now on Fox News, as well as in his bestselling memoir Tough As They Come. On his third tour of Afghanistan, just days before his 25th birthday, SSG Mills lost all four of his limbs after an IED explosion.

“For me, when I was injured in Afghanistan, I was laying on the ground — my arms and legs basically gone,” Mills told the crowd. “And I had a decision to make, either freak out or don’t. And when times were scary for me, I wanted to exude confidence.”

But exuding confidence is more easily said than done. As he was laying in the hospital, having lost his arms and legs and 140 pounds, questions swirled around in his head. Why did this happen to him? What does he have left to give the world? What would his next step even be? Every day he would close his eyes and pray, wish, and hope that everything would magically return to the way it used to be. Then it dawned on him.

“I’m never gonna change the fact that I was injured. I’ll never change the fact that I have no arms and legs. But I had 25 wonderful years, and one bad day at work up until that moment. Case of the Mondays, you know what I mean?”

After returning to the United States for an intense recovery process, which SSG Mills says is an ongoing process every single day, he founded the Travis Mills Foundation based in Rome, Maine to assist combat-injured veterans and their families. SSG Mills also worked closely with many victims of the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, helping to guide them following amputation, just as other amputees had done for him. 

Life is forever changing, SSG Mills told the Class of 2019, and despite whatever you may have planned, in all likelihood your circumstances will change and you’ll have to find a new direction. Change, it turns out, was a common thread throughout Unity College’s commencement ceremony, as Unity College President Dr. Melik Peter Khoury emphasized the Class of 2019’s ability to adapt in his address. 

“It is important to remember as you go out into the world, that the only thing that is constant is change,” Dr. Khoury told the graduates. “Darwin’s work is often summarized as such: It is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; nor the strongest; but the one that is best able to adjust, adapt, and change. You, graduates, have change in your DNA. You can adapt to whatever comes next in your lives, and I’m certain that you will, because we prepared you for just that.” 

Before the students received their diplomas onstage, SSG Mills, who brags to his friends that he’s now also Dr. Mills, gave the Class of 2019 his most valuable piece of advice: “You can’t control your situation, but you can always control your attitude.”