By Bill Petzold
VASSAR — The first time it had a chance, the Vassar community rolled out the red, white and blue carpet for hometown hero Army Sgt. Travis Mills.
Thousands of spectators lined the Homecoming parade route Thursday, four or five people deep in some places, waiting to get their first non-digital glimpse of the courageous young man they’ve followed online for the past six months.
For some it was a chance to see a teammate and classmate transformed into an icon of service and sacrifice who wore the same smirk as the boy they remember.
Mills, 25, was injured April 10 during his third tour of Afghanistan when he stepped on an IED. The blast resulted in him losing parts of all four limbs. Since then, people from the Thumb area and the entire country have watched with amazement as Mills, only one of four quadruple amputees to survive the injury, has thrown himself into his recovery with zest and enthusiasm.
Thanks to video posts uploaded by wife Kelsey Mills, Travis’ recovery has been documented for all to see from the day he was injured. Those who were amazed to see Mills learning to grip a fork with his new prosthetic left hand months ago were treated to the sight Thursday of Mills, riding atop a Jeep, reaching up to doff his cap to the crowd along Huron Avenue in downtown Vassar.
“He’s amazing and inspirational and a big old hero,” said Sarah McCrory, a Vassar native who lives in Caro. “I posted on (Facebook) ‘See you in a couple hours, buddy, you’re so inspirational!’ He is, he’s amazing.
“I met him in school and stuff but was never friends or anything with him. But I know that he’s a hero. My daughter loves him, she’s all about Travis Mills.”
Vassar resident Yvonne Szagesh had the opportunity to meet and speak with Mills this spring while accompanying her grandson Mason on a class trip to Washington D.C. The sixth grade class from Central Elementary paid a visit to Walter Reed Army Medical Center to show Mills what he means to the people of Vassar and were waiting for the day he would return.
“I just told him, ‘When you come back we’re going to have the biggest party and the biggest parade,’ and here we are,” Szagesh said. “I think he represents what Vassar really stands for. He’s a compassionate, loving, caring, hero-type guy, and I’m so glad he came from Vassar.”
Michelle “Mitzi” Hill watched the parade from her vantage point in front of the Vassar Post Office, renamed in honor of her son Corporal Christopher E. Esckelson. Esckelson was killed December 28, 2006 while serving with the United States Marines in Anbar Province, Iraq.
“I was very, very excited to see Travis, couldn’t wait to see him, but it’s hard to explain,” Hill said. “I would just cry … I’m so happy that (Travis is) OK, but it just brings back the memories of Christopher’s death. I think that was the hardest part for me, going through that again.”
Hill is a member of the Vassar Veterans Military Support Group, a non-profit that recognizes and preserves the legacy of local service men and women. She was pleased to see thousands of people turning out to honor an injured vet, but sad to remember the community support her family received after her son’s death.
“It’s just awesome, I think that’s what makes me so emotional is that everybody is here supporting him and it just makes me cry,” Hill said. “I just wish Christopher was here, and I just cry because I miss him. That’s what the tears are now. He’s gone and I accept that, and I know he’s not going to come back, but I miss him now.
“When that first happened to Travis, oh my gosh. And as a parent, I don’t know how Travis would have felt, but you lose all those limbs and (wonder) how are you going to live like that? … as a mom, it might be selfish, but I was thinking, ‘You do everything you can to save my son,’ because that’s how I would feel. But Travis has a family, and that’s a big thing for him to come back to and (make him) want to get back and to be here.
“When I read in the Pioneer Times that he was coming home, that was very emotional for me. I’ve just been crying a lot all week, but people have been very supportive of me, and they give me hugs. I’m really grateful that they do that, because they haven’t forgotten, and that’s great. But now it’s just so exciting to see Travis, I just couldn’t wait to see him. He’s still got that same smile.”
And Mills flashed that smile frequently when he addressed the crowd at Central at the parade’s conclusion. Travis, Kelsey and one-year-old daughter Chloe Mills perched on the edge of a parade float serving as a makeshift stage about 40 yards from a massive stack of pallets that would become Thursday’s bonfire.
“I want to thank everybody for coming out,” Mills said. “It was great to know that when I was laid up in the hospital that you guys did the ceremony and went ahead and hung up the yellow ribbons. Coming into town was amazing. … just to see all the signs and the flags and everything, it was great, so thank you.
“It really touched my family … my mom and dad and grandfather, all my family and friends here, that everybody came together and would do that and show their love and support. I’m the same person I was before, just a little bit shorter. I’m 3-foot-7 without my legs on, but it’s cool though because I can take my legs off and I won’t stub my toe and hurt myself.
“Hometown hero or American Hero … I do appreciate that, but everything I was going through, my beautiful wife stood by my side the whole time, so I want to thank her really quick. Thank you for opening your arms and hearts to her, I mean she is an outsider, but we’ll let it slide. And then there’s my daughter Chloe, who is going to grow up with me and think I’m normal and you guys are all weird.
“On a more serious note, thank you so much for everything you guys have done for my family and for myself. It means the world to me when I wake up in the hospital and I see all the articles written, knowing about everything that’s going on and it’s still continuing. … Thanks for what everybody’s doing.”
Mills took the time to shake hands and speak with many people as the bonfire raged across the driveway. To some it was like meeting a celebrity, to others it was a chance for deeply appreciative veterans and community members to say thanks. Sarah McCrory’s daughter and son were able to meet their hero Travis Mills in person and have their photos taken with him.
“It was emotional for me,” said Vassar resident Barb Bauer. “He just looks so happy and so content. I’m just touched by that. I’m so happy that so many people showed up that it would be meaningful to him that his whole town is supporting him.”
Vassar resident Brandon Frank said that while Mills certainly is a hero to the small town he came from, Vassar’s respect and admiration is shared by people all over the country.
“It’s just his attitude,” Frank said. “He’s been positive through the whole thing, smiles every time he’s on TV, he’s joking about it. … The soldiers, I would never discount anyone’s pain or mental anguish, but to see him, it’s just so different than anybody else. He’s a different breed.”
Bill Petzold is a staff writer for the Tuscola County Advertiser. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.