Tag Archives: 82nd Airborne Division

Soldier volunteers provide critical service at Natick

By MARTHA C. KOESTER
NCO Journal

They arrive every 90 days at the Natick Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Massachusetts, ready to perform an invaluable mission on behalf of their military brothers and sisters. If a Soldier wears it, eats it or sleeps under it, a human research volunteer has tested it for the Army warfighter.

HRVs arrive at Natick usually following advanced individual training and prior to their first permanent duty station. Many Soldiers often arrive unfamiliar with the small military research complex and installation.

A human research volunteer is the first line of research and the backbone for testing everything that is worn, carried or consumed by Soldiers, Natick says. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center / U.S. Army)
A human research volunteer is the first line of research and the backbone for testing everything that is worn, carried or consumed by Soldiers, Natick says. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center / U.S. Army)

“I had no clue about Natick,” said 1st Sgt. Miguel A. Martinez Jr., first sergeant of the Headquarters Research and Development Detachment at the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, who works with many of the HRVs. “Before I came here, I asked myself, ‘What am I getting myself into? I have no idea what this is.’ I have been here a year, and I love it. It’s great.”

Behind every HRV is a small force of noncommissioned officers who are charged with sustaining Natick’s mission of maximizing the warfighter’s survivability and combat effectiveness.

“We know what the equipment can be used for, instead of what it was designed to do,” Martinez said. “Soldiers walk in and say, ‘That’s awesome. I can do this, this and this.’ The scientists then say, ‘Wow. We never thought of it that way.”

It happens often: Soldiers repurpose a piece of military equipment in a way that scientists never thought possible. One example was the Army poncho, said Sarah Ross, human research volunteer test coordinator and a veteran NCO.

“Scientists had no idea that Soldiers were using it as a shelter or a cover,” Ross said. “Two years ago, [a review] was done in the Doriot Climatic Chambers because Soldiers were getting heat injuries from being underneath the poncho. They found Soldiers were using the poncho as a shelter, and the temperature underneath the ponchos was reaching 150 degrees. Soldiers thought they were in the shade, but in reality they were hurting themselves by doing it. Scientists and engineers didn’t create that item for them to use it in that regard, so they changed it. But they

Soldiers who volunteer to be human research volunteers at the Natick Soldier Systems Center at Natick, Massachusetts, provide an invaluable service and help further studies at the small military installation. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center / U.S. Army)
Soldiers who volunteer to be human research volunteers at the Natick Soldier Systems Center at Natick, Massachusetts, provide an invaluable service and help further studies at the small military installation. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center / U.S. Army)

wouldn’t have known that if they didn’t have a good relationship with Soldiers to be able to get that feedback.”

Martinez and Ross work together with HRVs to ensure that being a Soldier doesn’t come second at Natick, Ross said.

“Bottom line is we are all just making sure that we do the best we can for the Soldier,” she said.

A lot can happen in the 90 days that Soldiers serve as HRVs.

“It’s enough time where Soldiers who are not diligent in staying within qualification of their MOS, their job, that they can become complacent quite easily,” Ross said. “So that’s where HRDD comes in ─ to make sure that Soldiers keep that good order because that’s important.”

Soldiers who volunteer for studies at Natick may find themselves with such tasks as trying new uniforms or garments or enduring environmental conditions that Soldiers in the field commonly face.

“A Soldier can be here for 90 days and participate anywhere from doing one study to 10, 12 or 15,” Ross said. “I keep records, and I give them all a little memo of things they have done. I did one where a Soldier did 17. That’s the most I have seen a Soldier do in 90 days.”

As part of the team at the Doriot Climatic Chambers, Ross has seen a lot of HRVs come through Natick.

Cognitive science research team members at the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center guide a human research volunteer through a virtual reality experiment in Natick, Massa chusetts. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center / U.S. Army)
Cognitive science research team members at the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center guide a human research volunteer through a virtual reality experiment in Natick, Massa chusetts. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center / U.S. Army)

“Our program is evolving because the Soldiers that we work for are evolving,” Ross said. “The Soldiers we are getting in this program are changing because the demographic of the Soldier is changing. We are seeing more females in these groups than I have ever seen. This upcoming group has 11 females. I have never had 11 females in a group of 30 before. That’s never happened in my eight years here.”

The installation often welcomes West Point cadets as well as squads from larger bases to help with testing.

“We have cadets from West Point who intern here,” Martinez said. “We also have a squad from the 82nd Airborne Division that helps as well. There are guys from Fort Stewart, Georgia, here, and we have HRVs as well. It’s a very busy installation for a small unit.”

HRVs have been prized for their feedback since 1954 at Natick labs, where they take part in studies for NSRDEC and the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine. Ross often hears back from some Soldiers who have volunteered at Natick.

“One of the best things to me is when I open up Facebook, and I get a message from [a former HRV],” she said. “They tell me, ‘Hey Sarah, I am an E4 now. My unit was chosen to use this new rucksack. I opened it up and realized that three years ago when I was at Natick as an HRV I helped with this research.’ I probably receive about 10 of those emails. That to me is so cool.”

This Month in NCO History: May 2, 1968 — A daring rescue that risked everything

Staff Sgt. Roy P. Benavidez had a feeble grip on consciousness when he was pulled out of a rescue helicopter May 2, 1968.

He had just been through a harrowing six-hour firefight, and the danger wasn’t over. Benavidez arrived at his forward operating base just west of Loc Ninh, Vietnam, and was placed on the ground amid other bodies that had been retrieved from a battle just miles beyond the Cambodian border. His eyes were caked in blood and tightly shut. He couldn’t speak as his jaw had been dislodged by the butt of a North Vietnamese rifle. The rigors of combat left him exhausted and motionless. A doctor pronounced him dead.

Benavidez felt a body bag envelop him. The zipper began its raspy trek up his legs. He couldn’t get the doctor’s attention. A fellow Soldier who recognized Benavidez interrupted the doctor, imploring him to check for a heartbeat. The doctor placed his hand on the wounded Soldier’s chest. The slight pressure gurgled forth a bit of fortitude from Benavidez’s waning strength, and he uncorked what he later called “the luckiest shot” he ever took. He spit in the doctor’s face.

Benavidez was rushed into surgery immediately, his ordeal concluded. It was one that involved so many feats of gallantry that nearly 13 years later, before awarding Benavidez — who retired as a master sergeant —the nation’s highest military honor, President Ronald Reagan told White House reporters, “you are going to hear something you would not believe if it were a script.”

Benavidez’s astonishing saga began during his second tour in Vietnam. He was part of Detachment B-56, 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne), 1st Special Forces, which began operations in the country in February 1965.

On that fateful March day, the 33-year-old Benavidez was in a church service when he heard frantic radio chatter from the front. When helicopters from the 240th Assault Helicopter Company returned to the FOB’s flight line, their pilots revealed the cause of the frenzied voices. A 12-man reconnaissance team of Green Berets were pinned down by up to 1,500 North Vietnamese infantry soldiers in dense jungle terrain. The enemy had successfully forced the helicopters to abandon an initial rescue effort.

Benavidez immediately acted. He grabbed as many medical supplies as he could and hopped on a helicopter to assist in another extraction attempt. The scene he surveyed from the air was grim — the entire team was wounded, most of them beyond the ability to fight. They were surrounded on all sides by enemy forces that occasionally shot at the chopper Benavidez was riding in. Benavidez directed the pilot to hover over a nearby clearing where he jumped 10 feet into a muggy thicket with the intention of recovering the men.

When he landed on the ground, according to his Medal of Honor citation, Benavidez sprinted 75 meters toward his fellow Soldiers’ position as small arms fire pierced the foliage around him. By the time he reached them, Benavidez was wounded in the leg, face and head. Despite his injuries, he took charge, repositioning the Soldiers and directing their fire to facilitate the landing of a rescue helicopter. Benavidez drew the helicopter in with smoke canisters. When it arrived, he carried and dragged half of the wounded team members to the aircraft. He then provided protective fire by running alongside the helicopter as it moved to pick up the remaining team members. With the enemy’s fire intensifying, he hurried to recover classified documents on the dead team leader.

When he reached the leader’s body, the citation states, Benavidez was severely wounded by enemy fire in the abdomen and grenade fragments in his back. At the same time, the helicopter pilot was mortally wounded, and his aircraft crashed. Although in critical condition because of his multiple wounds, Benavidez secured the classified documents and made his way back to the wreckage, where he pulled his fellow wounded Soldiers out of the overturned aircraft. He positioned the stunned survivors into a defensive perimeter. Under increasing enemy automatic weapons and grenade fire, he moved around the perimeter distributing water and ammunition to the weary men. With the beleaguered group facing a buildup of enemy opposition, Benavidez began calling in tactical air strikes and directed the fire from supporting gunships to suppress the enemy and allow another extraction attempt.

By the time another helicopter was able to land, Benavidez had been directing the fight non-stop for nearly six hours. But the battle still wasn’t finished. In fact, it moved closer. After ferrying one group of wounded Soldiers to the helicopter, Benavidez was returning for the others when he was clubbed from behind by an enemy soldier. In the ensuing hand-to-hand combat, Benavidez sustained bayonet wounds to his head and arms before killing his adversary. Enemy fire intensified as he continued carrying the wounded to safety. He killed two enemy soldiers who rushed the craft before returning a third time to the perimeter of the fallen helicopter to secure classified material and bring in the last of the wounded.

Benavidez mustered the last of his strength to board the helicopter, the last man to leave the battlefield. The aircraft was riddled with bullet holes, covered in blood and without any functioning instruments, but the pilot somehow lifted off. Benavidez lost consciousness as soon as it cleared the jungle canopy.

He was awarded the Medal of Honor on Feb. 24, 1981. According to his citation, his efforts “saved the lives of eight men. His fearless personal leadership, tenacious devotion to duty, and extremely valorous actions in the face of overwhelming odds were in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service, and reflect the utmost credit on him and the United States Army.”

Benavidez was born in Lindenau near Cuero, Texas. He was orphaned at age 7 after his parents died from tuberculosis. Benavidez and his younger brother, Roger, were raised by a grandfather, uncle and aunt in El Campo, Texas.

He attended school sporadically before dropping out at age 15 to work full time to help support the family. Benavidez enlisted in the Texas Army National Guard in 1952 during the Korean War. In June 1955, he switched to active duty. He completed airborne training and was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where he eventually became a member of the 5th Special Forces Group. He was sent to Vietnam in 1965 as an advisor. During a patrol, he stepped on a land mine. Doctors told Benavidez he would never walk again. After a year in the hospital — and following an unsanctioned rehabilitation regimen — Benavidez walked out of the facility determined to return to Vietnam to help his fellow Soldiers.

Little did he know he would enter the annals of U.S. Army history.

In 1976, Benavidez retired with the rank of master sergeant. He returned to El Campo with his wife and their three children. He devoted his remaining years to the youth of America, speaking to them about the importance of getting an education. His message was simple: “An education is the key to success. Bad habits and bad company will ruin you.”

Benavidez died Nov. 29, 1998, at age 63. He was buried with full honors at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery.

— Compiled with Pablo Villa

Former NCO burned in IED blast wants to open restaurant, empower veterans

By PABLO VILLA
NCO Journal

Former Staff Sgt. Bobby Henline has spent nearly nine years trying to empower wounded warriors such as himself. Now he wants to help employ them.

Henline is working to open a restaurant dedicated to hiring veterans in San Antonio, Texas. The location is not far from the medical facilities he frequents at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, where he has received treatment since 2007 for burns that cover nearly 40 percent of his body. Henline was burned in a roadside bomb blast in 2007 in Iraq that killed the four Soldiers he was riding with. Since then, he has undergone 46 surgeries and six months of rehabilitation. His likeness is permanently altered.

On his arduous road to recovery, Henline found comfort and strength in humor. He has enjoyed a newfound career as a stand-up comedian, telling his story on stage as a coping mechanism. Henline found that taking others along on his journey has helped other injured — and sometimes disfigured — Soldiers face their lives with the same exuberance. He hopes his new venture takes that notion a step forward.

“I’m trying to give back,” Henline told People Magazine earlier this month. “This is a great way to do it, through empowerment and food.”

Henline is partnering with Richard Brown, a Marine and Korean War veteran, who owns a hamburger restaurant in San Clemente, California. The restaurant is one of Henline’s favorite stops, not only because of the savory hamburgers but also because the two men share an interest in helping their fellow veterans.

Brown will teach Henline all he needs to know to run his own business. Henline will solely hire veterans to work at the restaurant.

“It’s not just me getting a restaurant,” Henline said. “It’s me learning to fish, it’s me teaching other veterans how to fish and to continue on to help the stability of other veterans not just myself.”

‘That’s all I remember that day’

Henline has only a couple vivid memories of the day his life changed.

It was April 7, 2007, and Henline was part of a convoy that was making stops at various forward operating bases, or FOBs, delivering supplies and transporting Soldiers north of Baghdad, Iraq. He was a part of the 82nd Airborne Division and was weeks into his fourth deployment.

“We were doing the typical, ‘Get the convoy ready,’ that morning,” Henline told The NCO Journal in 2014. “There are two things I remember. One was that there were two Soldiers in the vehicle who normally didn’t ride with me. I also remember getting a second cup of coffee. The S-4 captain, who was sitting behind me, he wasn’t there yet. So we were sitting around waiting, and I ran and grabbed another cup of coffee while we were waiting on him.

“That’s all I remember that day.”

Henline’s vehicle was at the front of the convoy traveling near the Diyala province village of Zaganiyah when an improvised explosive device detonated underneath it. The blast hurled the humvee nearly 50 feet down the road. Four Soldiers — Capt. Jonathan Grassbaugh, Spc. Ebe Emolo, Spc. Levi Hoover and Pfc. Rodney McCandless — were killed instantly. When fellow Soldiers reached the vehicle, they found he was severely injured, but alive.

Two weeks later, Henline emerged from a medically induced coma at Brooke Army Medical Center at San Antonio, thus beginning a medical odyssey filled with painful moments, both physical and emotional.

But one thing came easy to him — humor.

Henline says laughter helped keep spirits high for him and the medical personnel working with him. It also helped his wife, Connie, and the rest of his family cope with their loved one’s ordeal and changed appearance.

“Joking around at the hospital, that was my way of using my sense of humor to let my family know I was OK, to let staff know I was OK,” he said. “It was how [I chose] to deal with the pain during physical therapy, laughing about it, joking with the other patients. I could see my family worrying. My mom couldn’t even get me a drink. She was shaking just trying to put the straw to my mouth, real scared. So it was kind of like, ‘Don’t worry, I’m still here. Even if today I’m kind of groggy.’ I’d still make a little joke to let them know, ‘It’s OK. I’m inside here. I just can’t move right now.’

“I think when I was talking a lot better and able to sit up and stuff, that’s when they were finally like, ‘OK, he’s still in there. He’s back. He’s still being that goofball.’”

From surgery to the stage

Henline spent almost the next two years working to regain a sense of normalcy.

His face was scarred by the burns he suffered and puffed by various skin-graft surgeries. His left ear was gone; his right was reduced to a rough-hewn stub. His smashed left hand eventually became too painful to bear, and he asked doctors to amputate it. After removing the protective goggles he was forced to wear for a year, it took time to get accustomed to the stares.

While jokes helped, Henline couldn’t shake the notion that he needed to heed a call. He just didn’t know what it was. Then his occupational therapist made a “stupid” suggestion.

“One day she told me, ‘You should try stand-up comedy!’” Henline said. “She has this really high-pitched voice, one of those happy people all the time. ‘You’ve got to try stand-up comedy. You’ve got to try it!’ I’m like ‘That’s stupid. It’s not going to work. This, here at the hospital, is funny. We could joke about it here.’ I wasn’t gonna go up on stage and people are gonna go, ‘Oh, you got blown up in Iraq? That’s funny.’”

Henline said he grew up admiring comedians such as George Carlin and Robin Williams. But he never considered actually taking a stage. However, after a steady stream of good-natured pestering from his therapist, he obliged, sealing the deal with a pinkie swear.

“My occupational therapist’s sister lives in L.A., and she’s in a band,” Henline said. “So one day, I’m going out there for a consultation to see a doctor. She tells me, ‘My sister’s in entertainment. She might know a place you could try it while you’re out there.’ Sure enough, her sister calls me and says, ‘Hey. Comedy Store. Go sign up at 5 o’clock.’”

Henline’s very first set took place August 2009 at the famed Los Angeles club on the same stage graced by some of comedy’s biggest names. He returned to San Antonio and began performing open-mic sets three nights a week. A year-and-a-half later, he was in Los Angeles when a chance meeting with a talent agent landed him an appearance in the Showtime documentary “Comedy Warriors: Healing Through Humor.” The film, released in April 2013, follows Henline and four other veterans wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan as they work with comedy A-listers to explore their experiences through the healing power of humor.

Three years later, Henline is still healing. He wants to continue to help others do the same. He says one of the biggest driving forces behind him is the memory of his fellow Soldiers who didn’t come home with him that fateful day.

“It’s that same old thing, you’ve got to drive on,” Henline said. “Survivor’s guilt was really bad for me in the beginning. But you’ve got to live on for those who don’t live anymore, the guys who sacrificed it all. There were four other guys in that humvee who didn’t make it. I sat on the couch, and I felt sorry for myself. I gave up. But what’s that doing for them? I’ve got to live on for them. Any of them would trade places with me. They’d rather be in pain and look funny and be here. Their families would rather have them back. That’s a big push for me that helps drive me on.”

Operation Toy Drop continued in NCO’s honor after his death

By STAFF SGT. SHARILYN WELLS
and STAFF SGT. FELIX R. FIMBRES
U.S. Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command

The first Operation Toy Drop, organized in 1998 by Sgt. 1st Class Randy Oler, collected 550 toys for local children in need. This year, more than 4,300 paratroopers participated and donated more than 6,000 toys. The operation, run by the U.S. Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command (Airborne,) has become the largest joint airborne operation in the Army.

U.S. Army paratroopers descend on Sicily Drop Zone from a C-130 aircraft during an airborne operation for the 18th Annual Randy Oler Memorial Operation Toy Drop, hosted by U.S. Army Civil Affairs & Psychological Operations Command (Airborne), at Fort Bragg, N.C., Dec. 4, 2015. Operation Toy Drop is the world’s largest combined airborne operation and collective training with seven partner-nation paratroopers participating and allows Soldiers the opportunity to help children in need receive toys for the holidays. (U.S. Army Photo by Spc. Lisa Velazco/Released)
U.S. Army paratroopers descend on Sicily Drop Zone from a C-130 aircraft during an airborne operation for the 18th Annual Randy Oler Memorial Operation Toy Drop, hosted by U.S. Army Civil Affairs & Psychological Operations Command (Airborne), at Fort Bragg, N.C., Dec. 4, 2015. Operation Toy Drop is the world’s largest combined airborne operation and collective training with seven partner-nation paratroopers participating and allows Soldiers the opportunity to help children in need receive toys for the holidays. (U.S. Army Photo by Spc. Lisa Velazco/Released)

Contrary to what the name implies, paratroopers do not actually jump with the toys. Soldiers donate new, unwrapped toys for children in need, then are entered into a lottery. Those chosen are awarded the opportunity to earn foreign jump wings from allied jump masters who have traveled to Fort Bragg from around the world.

Operation Toy Drop combines the efforts of Army, Air Force and civilian service organizations in a truly unique event. Since its first year, the operation has expanded to include aircraft support from Pope Air Force Base’s 43rd Airlift Wing and welcomed the participation of Soldiers from Fort Bragg’s XVIII Airborne Corps, 82nd Airborne Division and Special Operations Command.

“It’s a win-win situation,” said Harris Luther, Prime Knight manager for Pope Field at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.  “You got the Army guys who don’t get to get foreign jump wings very often, jump with foreign jumpmasters and oh, by the way, help kids by donating a toy. Then the aircrews, when they come in, get (the opportunity) to land in the dirt and fly certain routes, all the while getting guys out the door — which is all training. There’s no losing process here at all, none.”

Sgt. 1st Class Randy Oler is the founder Operation Toy Drop, an event in which paratroopers donate a toy to help children around the Fort Bragg community. (U.S. Army illustration by Sgt. Felix Fimbres)
Sgt. 1st Class Randy Oler is the founder Operation Toy Drop, an event in which paratroopers donate a toy to help children around the Fort Bragg community. (U.S. Army illustration by Sgt. Felix Fimbres)

Who was Sgt. 1st Class Randy Oler?

Oler, a Tennessee native, joined the Army in 1979 as an infantryman. He spent time in Ranger and Special Forces battalions throughout his career, and deployed in support of operations Desert Storm, Provide Comfort and Joint Endeavor. In 1995, he joined U.S. Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command (Airborne) to become a civil affairs specialist.

“He loved to drink his Mountain Dew and had to have his cigarette with it. You had to get to know him, and when you got to know him — once you learned to know him — you loved him,” said Luther, who met Oler while coaching youth sports.  “(He was) just a true American and a very caring person. He truly cared about people. You just can’t say enough good things about him.”

Oler’s close friends describe him as a man’s man, a true American; a gentle giant who loved kids.  When he approached four of his close friends with a crazy idea that involved an airborne operation, foreign jumpmasters, toys, children, and lots of fun, they all jumped on board.

The first toy drop in 1998 was small – only a few hundred jumpers exited the aircraft and a matching amount of toys were collected.  But Oler had planted the seed, and over the years, his operation grew.

“I thought that the idea, the concept that he (Oler) came up with, was an awesome idea,” said Willie Wellbrook, loadmaster and retired Air Force master sergeant. “Not only for the fact that the jumpers get something out of it but also the big thing was the kids – it’s all about the kids. And I was more than happy to jump on that bandwagon.”

By April of 2004, Oler had been promoted to Sgt. 1st Class and was finishing up an assignment at the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School.  With relocation orders in hand, Oler warned his friends that he might not be there to fulfill his duties for the operation, but he would do as much as he could.

U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Abraham Rodriguez, assigned to the 407th Brigade Support Battalion, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, retrieves his parachute during an airborne operation for the 18th Annual Randy Oler Memorial Operation Toy Drop at Sicily Drop Zone, Ft. Bragg, N.C., Dec. 4, 2015. Hosted by U.S. Army Civil Affairs & Psychological Operations Command (Airborne), Operation Toy Drop is the world’s largest combined airborne operation with seven partner-nation paratroopers participating and allows Soldiers the opportunity to help children in need everywhere receive toys for the holidays. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Alex Manne/Released)
U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Abraham Rodriguez, assigned to the 407th Brigade Support Battalion, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, retrieves his parachute during an airborne operation for the 18th Annual Randy Oler Memorial Operation Toy Drop at Sicily Drop Zone, Ft. Bragg, N.C., Dec. 4, 2015. Hosted by U.S. Army Civil Affairs & Psychological Operations Command (Airborne), Operation Toy Drop is the world’s largest combined airborne operation with seven partner-nation paratroopers participating and allows Soldiers the opportunity to help children in need everywhere receive toys for the holidays. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Alex Manne/Released)

That same month, he suffered a heart attack while performing jumpmaster duties aboard a C-130 aircraft.  At 43 years old, Oler was pronounced dead at Womack Army Medical Center at Fort Bragg. After Oler’s death, the operation was dedicated to him in his memory.

“Losing Randy was real hard, because I was here the night Randy passed away on the aircraft,” explained Wellbrook. “I got the call that we had an in-flight emergency. I just didn’t realize at the time who it was – until the next day. Losing Randy was tough, because Randy was the heart and soul of this operation.”

Close friends couldn’t see continuing Operation Toy Drop without Oler; that year’s event was in jeopardy. Oler had been able to do all the coordinating in his head and didn’t write anything down. But by August, Oler’s friends decided he would have wanted them to continue to help children around the community.

“The next couple of years were pretty rough,” said Scott Murray, Oler’s friend and a former Soldier in the XVIII Airborne Corps. “We just didn’t have the heart.”

Wellbrook agreed.

“I don’t think you’ll ever meet another person like Randy,” Wellbrook said. “Randy left a legacy. … It’s blown into a huge operation, and I think Toy Drop will be here as long as kids are in need.”

Members of the U.S. Army Parachute Team, the Black Knights, the U.S. Army Special Operations Command Parachute Team, The Black Daggers and Dutch Jumpmasters conduct a military free fall airborne operation from a C-27 during Operation Toy Drop at Camp Mackall, N.C., Dec. 10, 2015. Hosted by U.S. Army Civil Affairs & Psychological Operations Command (Airborne), Operation Toy Drop is the world’s largest combined airborne operation with seven partner-nation paratroopers participating and allows Soldiers the opportunity to help children in need everywhere receive toys for the holidays.  (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Alex Manne/Released)
Members of the U.S. Army Parachute Team, the Black Knights, the U.S. Army Special Operations Command Parachute Team, The Black Daggers and Dutch Jumpmasters conduct a military free fall airborne operation from a C-27 during Operation Toy Drop at Camp Mackall, N.C., Dec. 10, 2015. Hosted by U.S. Army Civil Affairs & Psychological Operations Command (Airborne), Operation Toy Drop is the world’s largest combined airborne operation with seven partner-nation paratroopers participating and allows Soldiers the opportunity to help children in need everywhere receive toys for the holidays. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Alex Manne/Released)

 

Former NCO, quadruple amputee inspires others to ‘Never give up. Never quit.’

NCO Journal staff report

Staff Sgt. Travis Mills didn’t enjoy the pomp that most individuals revel in during the lead-up to their 25th birthday. Mills was weeks into his third deployment to Afghanistan as part of the 82nd Airborne Division of Fort Bragg, North Carolina, as his milestone date neared.

On April 10, 2012 — four days before turning 25 — Mills was on a routine patrol in Afghanistan’s Ghanzi province when he stopped to set his backpack down. The bag detonated an improvised explosive device and changed Mills’ life forever.

“I woke up for the first time on my 25th birthday to find out that I had no arms and legs anymore,” Mills said last month in a video interview for NowThis News.

Mills bookMills is one of five surviving quadruple amputees from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. His story is told in the new book, Tough As They Come, released by Convergent Books on Oct. 27. Mills co-authored the book, available in hardcover, on Kindle and Audible, with Marcus Brotherton. It chronicles Mills’ journey from being a high-school star athlete to suddenly being forced to reconcile with the fact that he no longer had arms or legs. Mills is also the subject of a documentary, “Travis: A Soldier’s Story,” released by Fotolanthropy in 2013.

A medic reached Mills moments after the blast and affixed tourniquets to his 6-foot-3 frame to keep him from bleeding out. Even under extreme duress, Mills could only think of others.

“I was yelling at him to get away from me,” Mills told the Associated Press. “I told him to leave me alone and go help my guys.

“And he told me: ‘With all due respect, Sgt. Mills, shut up. Let me do my job.’”

The medic saved Mills’ life. His limbs, however, were lost. Mills knew at that moment he faced a drastically different future. He would never again be able to lead his squad, hug his wife or pick up his infant daughter.

“I guess the last thing I said was, ‘My baby girl, am I ever going to see her again,’” Mills said in the documentary. “I was really worried about what life was going to be like afterward, you know, like with all this.”

Mills struggled during the painful and anxious early days of rehabilitation. He could do nothing for himself. He questioned his self-worth. He implored his wife to leave him so that she wouldn’t be burdened by his condition. His demeanor changed when his six-month-old daughter would crawl on his chest at the hospital.

“(She) didn’t realize anything was different about me,” Mills said. “So, at that moment I realized I had to make sure that I pushed forward and took care of my family like I was supposed to do. … So, I just decided to take physical therapy and occupational therapy as a real job.”

The road was long and arduous — doctors at Walter Reed Army Medical Center told Mills his rehabilitation and transition to prosthetics would take three years. Through tremendous willpower Mills completed his rehab in 13 months. He said paperwork added four months to that period.

Today, Mills has focused on being a living embodiment of his personal motto, “Never give up. Never quit.” Referring to himself as a “recalibrated Soldier” rather than a wounded warrior, he can not only walk on prosthetic legs, he can run, drive, snowboard and ride downhill on a mountain bike. In 2014, he took part in a jump with the U.S. Army Golden Knights parachute team.

In tandem with the book he recently completed, Mills has also been building the Travis Mills Foundation, which he founded in September 2013. The nonprofit supports combat-wounded veterans and their families by developing and maintaining long-term programs that help wounded Soldiers overcome physical obstacles, strengthen their families and provide adaptive recreation.

“We try to bring in people that have been wounded overseas that are now recalibrated warriors,” Mills told NowThis. “They’re no longer wounded. But they might need help learning how to kayak, canoe, boat, swim, fish. Get, you know, their confidence back where they can go back out in public and do whatever they need to do. I want people in my situation to know that it’s OK the way you look, it’s OK to struggle. You’re going to fall down. Don’t be embarrassed about it. Just get out there and keep going at it.”

Mills currently lives in Manchester, Maine, with his wife, Kelsey, and daughter, Chloe, in a 4,000-square-foot house laden with technological amenities designed to help Mills with day-to-day activities. The home was a gift from a foundation established by actor Gary Sinise and the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation, a nonprofit named for a firefighter killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It is a comfortable setting for Mills to continue his work to help himself and others.

“I put personal friends in body bags. They’re not here. I am,” Mills told CNN last year. “How selfish would it be if I gave up?”

Gen. David M. Rodriguez, left, and his wife, Ginny, second from right, met with Staff Sgt. Travis Mills, foreground, and his wife, Kelsey, right, during the 2012 Association of the United States Army annual meeting and exposition. Mills was a member of the 82nd Airborne Division recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center from life-threatening injuries sustained during his third deployment to Afghanistan. Mills, a quadruple amputee, and his wife were honored guests at the AUSA Eisenhower Luncheon. (Photo courtesy of Army News Service)
Gen. David M. Rodriguez, left, and his wife, Ginny, second from right, met with Staff Sgt. Travis Mills, foreground, and his wife, Kelsey, right, during the 2012 Association of the United States Army annual meeting and exposition. Also pictured is Mills’ brother-in-law, Staff Sgt. Josh Buck. Mills was a member of the 82nd Airborne Division recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center from life-threatening injuries sustained during his third deployment to Afghanistan. Mills, a quadruple amputee, and his wife were honored guests at the AUSA Eisenhower Luncheon. (Photo courtesy of Army News Service)