By Jennie Zeitler
It would be easy and understandable for Michael Mills of Freeport to be lost in despair and hopelessness. But Mills, who was injured in Iraq in 2005, has pushed through physical and emotional pain to find his purpose in helping others.
Mills is a native of Idaho, just one of the places he lived as an Army “brat” growing up. He joined the Idaho National Guard in 1988, a natural thing given the number of veterans in his family. Although his dad was a Vietnam vet, “he never talked about it.”
Mills’ three older brothers are on active duty in the Army, a younger brother is in the Guard and a younger sister was on active duty and is now in the Guard.
Mills moved from the Guard to active duty and was assigned to Alaska, where he met Melrose native Suhanna “Suki” Leach. They married and in 1995, returned to Minnesota with their children, Aaron, now 23, and Kenzie, 18. Mills joined the Guard.
On Sept. 11, 2001, he knew “we’d be going somewhere,” he said.
Mills left for Iraq in January 2005, where he hauled “just about every-
thing — vehicles, concrete, supplies.”
An improvised explosive device (IED) exploded near Mills’ vehicle on June 14, 2005. His was the fifth vehicle of 25 in the convoy.
He recalls seeing wires coming out of the ground. Mills sustained burns over 30 percent of his body. That IED contained white phosphorus, something that was unusual at the time, so Mills also had chemical burns.
“It all happened within a matter of minutes,” he said. “I tasted the gunpowder, tasted the dirt. I remember talking to the medic.”
Mills was then sedated and woke up three months later at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, when he was pulled off all medications. He was more afraid then of what he looked like than the pain.
All but one of the major bones in his left foot were broken. At one time, he had eight pins in the foot. He still has 13 screws and two plates in his left hip.
His left shoulder is fused after the shoulder blade and collar bone were broken. He lost his left pinkie and thumb, his left ear and his nose.
“I blame my poor eyesight on my injuries — not age,” he said, deadpan.
For the next nine months, Mills had two-hour rehab sessions starting five days a week, reduced to three days a week, two days and then one day a week. He had his first skin grafts while in Texas.
“I had pins in all my fingers at first (to keep the scars from constricting them),” he said. “I have to stretch my hands every day for the rest of my life.”
After returning to Minnesota, Mills was contacted by an old medical case manager who told him about Operation Mend, which offers reconstructive surgery at no cost to the recipient.
“In February 2009, my wife and I flew to California,” said Mills. “We met with the surgeon, who assured us again that it was all free.”
One of the surgeries created nostrils from Mills’ own skin. He has had four skin grafts to his lower left eyelid. The most recent surgery fine-tuned what had been done when his thumb and pinkie were removed.
He has had a total of 51 surgeries to date. “I’m very content with the way I look today,” he said.
But physical injuries turned out to be easier to work with even than the emotional pain that was left behind. Mills deals with the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) every day.
“I blamed myself for being injured,” he said. “I tell myself every day that it’s not my fault I was in Iraq, and it’s not my fault I was hit by an IED. There was a point where I gave up, but my wife brought me back.”
Mills believes that everything happens for a reason. “I didn’t die for a reason,” he said. “Most people who see an IED explode — that’s the last thing they see.”
“What gives me hope is veterans reaching out for help,” Mills said. “My passion in life is to get veterans the help they need and deserve.”
Mills has lost five military friends since 2006. “I got tired of losing friends to suicide. I didn’t want other family members and friends to go through that. My hope is to have no veteran commit suicide.”
Mills works with Independent Lifestyles, based in Sauk Rapids. He is a peer mentor, an independent living aide working individually with people all over Central Minnesota.
“I know what they’re going through,” he said. “Most combat vets won’t open up except to a combat vet.”
Mills also established a nonprofit “For the Veteran, By the Veteran.”
“As of May 2012, three people have been saved of suicide through the site, that I know of,” he said.
“All injured vets have our ‘reborn day’ — the beginning of a new life,” he said. “You get through it; you live your different life.”
For more information visit www.fortheveteran.com.