Tough as They Come is the story of an infantryman who would probably tell you he is a typical airborne infantryman. But, while he is in some ways, that’s not the whole and unvarnished truth. Before being wounded, Travis Mills was an excellent infantryman. After he was wounded, he became outstanding on a whole new level.
The title phrase, “as tough as they come,” crops up several times in the memoir. But while the overall theme of the memoir is positive, this is no standard-SEAL-book-contract braggadocio. Being as tough as they come, Travis learned, has its limitations:
Time passed and the intense pain remained. One night my dad was with me and I begged him to turn my leg around. “Dad! I know I don’t have a leg, but it’s backward. You’ve got to turn it around.” I cried out all that night, my dad told me later. I screamed. I shouted. I thrashed about in agony.
A doctor showed me a chart and said, “Travis, on a scale of one to ten, describe your level of pain.”
“Ten,” I said. They administered some sort of painkiller as part of a medicinal study on me. I don’t remember what it was. Again the doctors asked me to describe my pain.
“Ten,” I said. They tried a second study. Afterward, the same question.
“Ten,” I said. They tried a third study. I don’t know how long these studies took to implement. When this study was over, they asked the same question. “
Ten,” I said. I couldn’t stand the torment.
“I want to die,” I said again. I didn’t know who was listening. I didn’t care. It was the truth. I was as tough as they come, but I couldn’t take these phantom pains. It felt like I was being filleted alive. The skin was ripped off me. Spikes were driven through my heels. My toenails were yanked out. Gasoline was rubbed all over my skinless flesh. I was screaming again. Screaming. A match was tossed on the gasoline and my body exploded in fire, burning, burning, burning.
“There’s a relatively new and controversial experimental study,” a doctor’s voice said from above me. “It’s only ever used on extreme cases. Basically, we pump him full of Ketamine and put him into a coma. We leave him there for a while, then bring him back out. It’s like turning a computer off and then rebooting it again. The hope is that we can reset his pain tolerance. It’s not a guarantee. And there are risks.”
“What sort of risks?” came a voice off to one side. My eyes were closed. They were having a meeting about me, and I didn’t hear the answer just then. I’d heard that on the street, Ketamine is known as Special K or Cat Valium. It’s similar to PCP. I’d never tried either, but I’d heard that if you take enough Ketamine, it feels like you’re not in your body anymore. You have wild hallucinations. Sometimes people describe the feeling as “near death.” On the street, they call this being plunged into the “K-hole.”
Okay, then. If I had one chance in a hundred of feeling better again by going into a Ketamine coma, then that’s where I would go. I was awake enough at one point to agree to the procedure. I knew I might never wake up again. I knew it might fry my mind completely. I might become a basket case for the rest of my life. I didn’t care. Anything was better than this unbearable level of pain.1
While Mills is famous for his horrible wounds — he is one of five quadruple amputees to survive in American military history, all of them from Afghanistan and Iraq — and his robust recovery from them, the book is not simply a tale of gettin’ blow’d up (as the guys say) and the Stations of the Cross of recovery. It’s a tale of a full and ongoing life, beginning with a Michigan childhood and youth that flowered into manhood in the Army.
Travis was like a lot of young guys who followed the easy path from high school into college. He was an athletic guy but didn’t intend to express that in the Army. His dream had him playing big-college football, and maybe, possibly, pro ball. But the small town (Vassar, Michigan) football star didn’t catch the eye of college recruiters, and didn’t have the grades to get into a big state university and try to walk on. He was playing ball in the dead-end community college leagues, and taking classes that didn’t interest him very much.
The military did interest him. His family had a proud tradition of service, and he liked the idea of a challenge to mind and body, and a chance to be part of an even bigger team.
His new team was the 82nd Airborne Division; he made several deployments to Afghanistan and grew as a soldier and leader. He thrived in combat.
After a while the shooting died down, and we moved forward. Dangerous terrain lurked everywhere. Bullets could come from other compounds, from behind huts or foliage. A couple trucks whizzed by on a road in the distance. We could hear the Taliban on our Icom radio. They were planning movements and calling in reinforcements, more weapons and ammunition. Essentially, their plan seemed to be to shoot at us for a while, then pack up and move to a new location down the road where they’d shoot at us again, and so on and so on until we got back to our base. It didn’t take much brains to figure out that was a smart move for them. They were driving. We were walking. For us, our only plan was to keep moving, always on the lookout for our next point of cover and concealment. If you’re standing still, then you’re a sitting duck. You always want to keep moving, even under fire.
Sure enough, not long after that, we got into our second firefight of the day. Bullets whizzed in all around us and we fired back. We fought for a while, then the fighting eventually died down, and we moved on.2
That was the start of a series of at least seven firefights that day… and that wasn’t the only fighting day. It was just the one where the helicopter pick-up was botched and the unit had to shuffle back to the outpost, fighting all the way for ten kilometers. They called it the Ten-Click-TIC3.
But it wasn’t just fighting; leadership has other aspects, too, as Travis illustrated at the end of the Ten-Click-TIC:
We fought the whole way back to the strongpoint. It was a grueling day. But I’d made it a point on other missions to run ahead and sing to my guys the 82nd cadence when they returned into our gates. I was exhausted, but I wasn’t going to let them down, today of all days. I ran ahead, started singing, and high-fived them all in.4
Some of the most interesting and revelatory passages are not the combat ones, but the passages describing his family and its impact on his decision-making and family; and it’s also interesting to see the impact that he and his seriously-injured friends have had on other wounded, especially other amputees. (And the impact that a brief meeting with an earlier quad-amputee, Marine Todd Nicely, had on Travis).
A description of a trip to Boston after the Marathon bombing is instructive as well as entertaining. The administrators at the Boston hospital, full of Boston values, didn’t think wounded soldiers could possibly do anything but alarm and terrify these wounded civilians. (That will probably seem illogical to most readers. It did to Travis. But having lived among the Bostonians, most of them do not distinguish between terrorists, criminals and soldiers: Massachusetts schools teach that all are interchangeable users of violence. In their world, a wounded warrior is a wounded warmonger, and probably had it coming). In any event, Travis and a buddy knew that the best thing for a fresh amputee is seeing the example of a successful amputee, and they sneaked off from the higher ranks who were debating what was and wasn’t good for the injured, tapped into the nurse mafia to find them, and spent the day showing them what the potential of an amputee’s life is. (They also fielded a lot of practical, “How will I learn to do x with a prosthetic y ?” questions, as only someone who has done it can).
By the time the administrators had finally been persuaded to let the wounded warmongers circulate among their patients, it was too late; the deed was already done.
And that is why you should not bet against SSG (Retired) Mills. He’s an airborne infantryman, as stubborn as a mule, and yes, as tough as they come.
- Mills & Brotherton. Tough As They Come. pp. 198-199.
- Ibid., p. 162.
- TIC: military acronym for “Troops In Contact,” pronounced like the small bloodsucking arthropod, “tick”; Ibid., p. 163.
- Ibid., p. 163.
Mills, Travis & Brotherton, Marcus. Tough As They Come. The Crown Publishing Group. (Kindle Edition read & reviewed). Available from: http://www.amazon.com/Tough-They-Come-Travis-Mills-ebook/dp/B00TNDP1NG/ (the hardcover edition can also be found through that link).