Metro

At Maine retreat, disabled veterans find sense of belonging

Rome, ME--6/26/2018-- Brandon Long, a Marine who lost both of his legs while serving in Afghanistan looks back at his daughter, Claire, 7, right before she pushes him into Long Pond as the two play by the waterfront at the Travis Mills Retreat. (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff) Topic: 01maine Reporter: Brian MacQuarrie
Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff
Brandon Long, a Marine who lost both of his legs while serving in Afghanistan, looked back at his daughter, Claire, 7, right before she pushed him into Long Pond as the two play by the waterfront at the Travis Mills Retreat.

ROME, Maine — Kenny Lukes is a farmboy born and bred, but the Army veteran seemed wary as he lifted his right arm to gently brush the dark coat of a retired jumping horse.

In 2004, a rocket-propelled grenade ripped through his Humvee in Afghanistan, tearing away his left arm. Years later, the 43-year-old from the heart of Iowa is still seeking a comfort zone, both around horses, it seems, and in a world that can feel distant.

But during a weeklong retreat for disabled veterans here, that sense of separation — of being “different” — began to melt away as Lukes, accompanied by his wife and two children, bonded with other post-9/11 combat veterans and their families.

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The getaway, held on 20 bucolic acres in central Maine, is the brainchild of Travis Mills, a former Army staff sergeant who is one of only five living veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who have had all four limbs amputated.

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The foundation he created in 2013, the year after being injured during his third tour in Afghanistan, brings together veterans — many of whom have lost limbs — in the spirit of camaraderie and shared experience.

“They have the same story,” said Mills, 31, who served with the 82nd Airborne Division. “We give these families a chance to do things they ordinarily wouldn’t do in front of other people.”

Rome, ME--6/26/2018-- Travis Mills (C) shares lunch with wounded veterans and their families at the Travis Mills Retreat. (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff) Topic: 01maine Reporter: Brian MacQuarrie
Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff
Travis Mills, center, shares lunch with wounded veterans and their families at the Travis Mills Retreat.

Like skittering around a pine-fringed lake in a tube tied to a powerboat. Or practicing archery, making pottery, playing disc golf, and navigating a ropes course.

There’s fly-fishing during the day, bonfires at night, and a library, theater, and massage room among the amenities for eight families housed in individual suites attached to the main lodge.

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“I thought, ‘Why not go ahead and do my best to give to all these families,’ ” Mills said. “To be able to watch a dad go out there with his kids and be able to kayak for the first time is just amazing.”

This summer marks the second year that the Travis Mills Foundation has invited veterans, free of charge, to the banks of Long Pond, about 20 miles northwest of Augusta. In its inaugural season, 84 veterans and their families were invited, and this year 128 families are scheduled for weeklong stays from June to October. Eventually, the foundation hopes to host as many as 2,000 veterans and family members each year.

Individual and corporate donations help pay the bills, and neither Mills nor his board of directors takes a penny from the operation, he said. More than 400 volunteers keep the place humming.

Local farmers bring vegetables, and landscapers have given free sod for the lawns. Boats were donated. The driveway asphalt came from a paving company, and a striping company painted the lines in the parking lot.

“I never, ever imagined this would turn into what it is,” said Mills, a Michigan native who now lives in Maine and runs a marina.

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Mills spoke near the kitchen of an estate originally built in 1929 by the cosmetics mogul Elizabeth Arden, who named the place the Maine Chance Lodge and hosted celebrities such as Judy Garland and Ava Gardner.

Now, after nearly $3 million in renovations since 2015, the once-decaying property has new purpose.

Navy veteran Doug Hill’s three children — ages 6, 4, and 1 — had never been on a boat before the retreat, he said. Neither had they ridden a horse, which they tried at Pure Country Stables in neighboring Mount Vernon, where owner Janet McIver welcomed the veterans to her barn.

Hill, who lost both legs in a motor-vehicle accident while on active duty, sat in a wheelchair as his children used washable paint to decorate a patient pony named Root Beer with circles, stars, and wavy lines.

Eventually, the soft-spoken 26-year-old from Kentucky picked up a brush, wheeled himself close, and carefully drew a blue star on Root Beer’s side. When he was done, Hill pushed back a foot or two, brush in hand, and studied his artwork in silence.

Near him, three other veterans and their families also made horses their personal canvases. The painting was fun and different, but sharing the experience brought deeper rewards, they said.

“These are the only other people in the world who understand what you go through,” Hill said.

Mt. Vernon, ME--6/26/2018-- Marine Chad Brampton, of Star, Idaho who was wounded in Iraq, (R) paints a horse with his son, Lukas, 8, at Pure Country Stables. (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff) Topic: 01maine Reporter: Brian MacQuarrie
Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff
Marine Chad Brampton, of Star, Idaho, who was wounded in Iraq, paints a horse with his son, Lukas, 8, at Pure Country Stables.

Veterans helping veterans is a concept that extends beyond the guests. Many of the staff also have military backgrounds, either through service or marriage.

Brandy Cain, the foundation’s executive director, is married to a veteran of the 82nd Airborne who became disabled after a jumping accident when his parachute did not open properly. Chris Roseberry, whose spouse is the program director, was an Army first sergeant who lost a leg and now manages the camp’s facilities and grounds.

“Everybody looks the same here. We never want the families to feel they’re on display,” Mills said. “It’s just knowing that people aren’t always comfortable in their own skin.”

Mills was injured six years ago when he laid his pack on a hidden bomb in Afghanistan. He did not wake until four days later, on his 25th birthday, and for six months would not look at himself in the mirror.

“Why did this happen to me?” he recalled asking himself. “Why is this better than dying?”

He also remembers telling his wife, Kelsey, that he would understand if she reconsidered their future.

“This isn’t the life you chose. You should take what you need and go,” Mills told her.

“No, this isn’t how this works,” she replied.

Gradually, Mills adjusted to life as a quadruple amputee, and he learned to walk again on prosthetic legs alongside his toddler daughter, Chloe.

Today, Mills, who also has a 10-month-old son, seems to be a man content.

“I had 25 great years and am lucky and fortunate that I lived through this,” Mills said as he used a prosthetic left arm and hand to scoop up a lunch of tacos.

“I had so many friends who died and didn’t make it home,” he added. “I can’t control my situation, but I can always control my attitude.”

For Lukes, the experience has been so positive that he has agreed to be an ambassador for the foundation, reaching out to other veterans and representing the organization in the community.

It’s a big step forward for Lukes, but so is stepping onto a speeding boat that leaves a splashing trail of figure-eights in the middle of a Maine pond.

“If you don’t feel relaxed here, I don’t know what you do for relaxation,” Lukes said, smiling broadly as he steadied himself during a wide turn.

It’s also a chance to share ways to cope with life-altering injuries.

“Everybody here is family,” Lukes said, gazing across the dark blue water. “You talk about hard times. We’ve all been there.”

For this week, at least, hard times are somewhere else.

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com.