By Alex Leveille and Tyler Langley
Vassar High School seniors
(Editor's note: Nothing short of incredible describes the story of U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Travis Mills. He is continuing a successful recovery from losing all four limbs after stepping on an improvised explosive device while on patrol in April during his third tour of duty in Afghanistan. His story turned a national spotlight on Vassar, a town of 2,700 people located in Michigan's thumb. Mills was an athletic standout for the Vulcans before graduating in 2005, and returned for Homecoming earlier this month. Vassar seniors Alex Leveille and Tyler Langley give us the story and explain its impact from a student point of view.)
Homecoming is about many things to high school students. But this year it got a whole lot bigger when word got out that Travis Mills, paratrooper of the 82nd Airborne, was coming home.
When the students at Vassar learned that Travis was coming back for Homecoming, everyone was excited to see him. A couple of students said they were really happy they would finally be able to meet the hero they heard all about.
“Seeing and meeting Travis was a really neat experience for me personally, so I can only imagine the effect he had on the community," said Vassar football player Brik Rupprecht, one of the team captains this fall. "When Travis showed up, you could really feel the positive energy coming from the crowd, supporting him, and the positive attitude Travis brought with him. When it came to the game, we just gave it our best for him. He told us he wanted to see a win, and that’s what we gave him. (Vassar defeated Unionville-Sebewaing that night 22-16.)”
Many things were changed to accommodate Travis’s homecoming. The Homecoming parade, of which Travis was the grand marshal, was moved to Thursday, Oct. 4 instead of Friday before the game. It was followed by a bonfire at which Travis spoke to a crowd of more than 3,000 people, thanking them for everything they have done for him and his family.
On that Friday, the day’s events included a block party sponsored by many local businesses plus Pepsi and Frito-Lay. This was a chance for the community to come together to celebrate Vassar’s Homecoming, as well as welcome Travis home. The pregame festivities included a ceremony to thank all of the area’s veterans, including Travis.
Travis then took center stage before the game to again express his sincere thanks for the community’s love and support throughout his recovery. The community continued that support with various gifts to Travis and his family to further show their love for them.
He then led a special coin toss during which both Vassar and Unionville-Sebewaing players lined up intermixed on both 45 yard-lines to show their united support for Travis. He also spoke to the Vassar team before the game, encouraging them to "play every down like it’s your last, because you never know when it’s going to be your last.”
With Travis coming back to Vassar, our town was put in the spotlight of national news, which was something new to almost all of the students in Vassar. They all had different opinions about it too. Some didn’t like the thought of being in the eye of the country, but others did. Draven Muller, a sophomore and junior varsity football player, said it was a cool thought to be recognized nationally as a town and to be associated with a hero like Travis.
Jim Baker, a former paratrooper himself and teacher at Vassar High School, said, “Travis Mills is a true representative of what a paratrooper is all about. He makes me proud that I was a member of the 82nd Airborne Division.”
Vassar Chief of Police Ben Guile said he remembers Travis when he was in high school. “Only a person like Travis would have been able to survive something like this, and be as positive as he is," Guile said. "He is very charismatic, and him coming back home to thank the community is one of the best things he could have done. This town loves him, and I never have felt any more positive energy at a parade than the one that Travis led.”
Travis came back the following Friday, Oct. 12, to speak to the students at Vassar High School. Travis, being the upbeat guy he is, kept the crowd awake and laughing the entire assembly, cracking jokes and telling the crowd about his experiences in the Afghanistan war.
He also offered advice on high school and college experiences and talked about his plans after getting out of Walter Reed Medical Center, where he's undergoing occupational therapy.
As he put it, “Hopefully the Army will want me back after I’m done at Walter Reed. I might not be able to do all of the physical stuff anymore, but I still have everything they taught me in my head.”
He also plans to go back to college and get a degree in teaching, and hopefully become a teacher and a football coach some day.
Having Travis home was great for the community and the area. He is an all-around great guy and can uplift anyone’s spirits.
Click on links below for Mills' web site and some of the national coverage of his recovery and return home.
TravisMills.org - Fox News - USA Today - Detroit News - Saginaw News
PHOTOS: (Top) Travis Mills served as the grand marshal of Vassar's Homecoming parade Oct. 5. (Middle) Mills returned to his former high school Friday to tell students about his experiences in Afghanistan. (Top photo by Vassar High senior Sarah McKenney; middle photo by English and journalism teacher Jamie Strauss.)