News: Why we serve: Spc. Terry Mills; US Army National Guard Medevac crew chief sheds retirement for deployment
KHOWST PROVINCE, Afghanistan – U.S. Army National Guard Spc. Terry Mills, focuses all his attention downward, his eyes locked so intently on a dangling hook 85 feet below, it’s almost as if he’s trying to move it toward the narrow ledge below through sheer willpower. His legs dangle from the open door of the UH-60A Medevac helicopter and his body leans forward to maneuver the cable by hand almost to the point it seems like he’ll lose his balance and fall out as the bird bucks back and forth, buffeted by heavy wind.
Mills doesn’t seem to notice as he radios small adjustments; slide left two feet, go forward one foot; to the pilots up front. All he cares about now is getting U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Patrick Rogers, his friend and crew mate, onto a two-foot-wide ledge overlooking a 50-foot dropoff to save a pair of stranded and wounded Soldiers in Khowst Province, Afghanistan.
It’s the fourth of July. While most of America is back home watching fireworks and eating hot dogs, Mills is attempting the most dangerous and difficult rescue anyone his unit has ever faced. The thing is, the 51-year-old Specialist is supposed to be retired.
Relaxing at home after a lifetime of emergency services work didn’t agree with Mills. In his 32-year career, he’d been an arson investigator, a building-code inspector, a criminal investigator for fire and building laws, a fire department captain, a fire department battalion chief, and a fire department chief in charge of more than 300 firefighters.
A life of public service, said Mills, was something he was called to at an early age. His father and grandfather were both firefighters as well as military veterans.
“Not everybody’s cut out to do rescues and lifesaving and fight fires, but it’s something I wanted to do,” said Mills, of Jackson, Miss. “It was a way for me to give back to the community; a way to help people out. I’ve always been a helping-type person. I may not know you, but I’ll give you the shirt off my back to make sure you’re alright, and that was my way of doing it- being a firefighter.”
The ground behind the helicopter suddenly explodes, sending thousands of brown dirt clods streaming into the air. The sky and trees beyond seem to wobble for a second as both the blast wave and concussive roar of a 30mm cannon fired from an AH-64 Apache Longbow somewhere overhead meet the Black Hawk all at once. Mills doesn’t even turn his head.
At that moment, with seven lives and the safety of a multi-million-dollar helicopter under enemy fire in his hands, Mills, who races dirt-track stock cars, builds hovercrafts, and dabbles in experimental helicopters, is right where he wants to be.
“The biggest thing, for me, is the adrenaline,” said Mills, whose unit, Valkyrie Medevac, supports the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade in Afghanistan. “I’m an adrenaline junky. I mean, look at what I do now- I’m a Medevac crew chief. What else could you say about that? It’s total adrenaline. Hours and hours of total boredom marked by moments of sheer terror.”
Mills originally joined the Army Feb. 28, 1978, during his junior year of high school in Gary, Ind. Following a deployment in the Korean war, Mills’ father had moved the family from Fort Meade, Md., to Gary to work in the steel mills owned by U.S. Steel. According to Mills, there wasn’t much else going on in Gary at the time. While most of the people he knew graduated high school and went to work for U.S. Steel, Mills wanted something more.
Mills served on active duty as an OH-58 Kiowa Warrior crew chief until 1985, first serving in Germany, then at Fort Campbell, Ky., helping to stand up a new aviation special operations unit, now know as the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. It was an exciting time, he said, as the unit pioneered all kinds of advances in Army aviation.
“It’s hard to find words to describe it,” said Mills. “Some of the things we did, nobody had done until that time. Nightvision goggles were not a thing to be flying with- they were for ground guys. We actually flew with goggles held to our helmets with surgical tubing. We put guys on pods on the sides of old OH-6 helicopters- that hadn’t been done. They’d always been inside the aircraft. Now they’re hanging on the side- looking like spiders in the sky. Some of the training missions were unbelievable, like learning to do pinnacle landings on the tops of buildings.”
Faced with an Army much different than it is today, however, Mills decided to get out.
“I wasn’t happy with it,” said Mills. “I wasn’t happy with the base realignment and closures, I wasn’t happy with the drawdown, and had issues with a marriage to boot- I loved what I did at the time, but I wasn’t happy with a lot of things going on in the Army.”
Mills had done a brief stint as a volunteer firefighter in 1978 while awaiting his time to leave basic training. During that time, he’d had a chance encounter that immediately drew him back to firefighting once he left the service.
“The first real accident I worked was a decapitation on US-30 in Indiana,” recalled Mills. “An elderly couple ran into the back of a semi trailer. I got on the scene, and I had just turned 18, and it was a real eye-opener. I just stood there and really didn’t know what to do. I listened to the more experienced guys instructing me to do different things, and thought ‘I need to learn this job- this is going to be awesome.’”
Mills worked in South Haven, Ind., for a few years, eventually making his way to Louisiana. He served as both a firefighter with Central Fire Department and an investigator with the Louisiana State Fire Marshall’s office. In 2006, as Katrina raged across the gulf states, flooding New Orleans, tragedy struck the young fire fighter. His wife of 15 years died of brain cancer. It was time to move on.
“There were a lot of things in Louisiana I was running away from; a lot of memories,” said Mills. “My late wife was a state bagpiper. Her funeral was one of the largest firefighter funerals they’d had in a long time. We had over 40 trucks and 600 firefighters attend her funeral from all over the state, plus Texas and Mississippi. She was quite well-known, and it was time for me to move on. Too many things were there.”
Mills found a new home, a new job, and a new life in Miss. He was hired on in Pearl River, first as an assistant fire chief, then the chief of the department. He retired from that department in 2008, after meeting the love of his life, and the woman that eventually brought Mills back to the military.
Terry Mills married his wife, Carol, Feb. 26, 2011, in Picayune, Miss. A former Marine, Carol had spent 13 years in the military, but got out to raise her children. Many years later, Mills brought up the idea of re-joining the service.
“I asked her, ‘Baby, why are you wasting all that time? Why don’t you go back in?,” said Terry. Like most things in their marriage, re-joining the Army became a team effort.
The pint-sized 4-foot, 11-inch, blonde-haired, blue-eyed former Marine put a challenge to her husband. She agreed to join as long as he did. Born for a life of excitement, it didn’t require much convincing.
“I wanted something to do,” said Terry. I’m not the one to sit on the front porch in a rocking chair with a glass of iced tea or my favorite adult beverage. I like to do things. I’ve raced stock cars, I’ve got a hovercraft I’ve finished, I’m going to build an experimental helicopter when I get back ... I don’t like sitting around.”
That was four years ago.
“He talked me into going back in to the service,” said Carol Mills, 51, of Brandon, Miss. “He actually got in a month before me. I love the military and I love Terry. He’s the first person that’s ever backed me in anything I wanted to do. If I want to go to school, Terry will be right there encouraging me. If I want to stay home, he supports that, too. He’s just an incredible person.”
They were both 47, although Carol reminds anyone who thinks Terry is the older and wiser of the pair that she’s actually one month his senior.
“There’s a lot of people that have said things about us coming back, that we’re crazy, that we’ve lost our minds, we must really be bored,” said Terry. “There’s been a lot of comments about it, but most have been very positive- it makes me even prouder to have done this.”
Carol stands chest-high to most other Soldiers, but joined the Army National Guard as a heavy equipment operator. Like Terry, she’s also a specialist.
“It is a challenge, because pretty much everybody above you is younger than you,” said Carol. “I do what I have to do, though, and I’ve learned most professional Soldiers there’s some experience and knowledge brought with my age, and they listen to it. Terry brings that experience, too, and I think people respect him for it.”
That experience is actually one of the things that keeps Terry so calm under fire. In 32 years of fire service, Terry said, he’s seen hundreds of major incidents. He’s tried to forget a lot of them, instead remembering the lessons they’ve taught him. It’s a skill that’s come in handy, when almost every day Terry flies, he sees someone on the worst day of his or her life.
“You learn to compartmentalize,” said Terry. “You can’t let stuff come flooding back when you’re in the middle of something major.”
Terry is responsible for not only the aircraft and its crew, but helping medics when they become overwhelmed.
“Our circumstances are unique,” he said. “All our crew chiefs get back there and help the medics. I spent about eight years as a paramedic while on the fire department. It’s been 10 years since I held that certification, but now that I’m with Medevac, that training comes back. We’ve got some awesome medics, but they’re just like anyone else; sometimes they get overloaded, and we try do to the best we can to help them out.”
Overloaded, however, is just how Medevac operates in one of the most violent and active areas of Afghanistan. Forward Operating Base Salerno, where Terry is stationed, sits very near to the Pakistan border in Regional Command East. The small Medevac platoon ran more than 170 missions last month.
“Yeah, in fact, I just came off a two-week maintenance turn where I didn’t fly,” said Terry. “It was a welcome relief to hear ‘Medevac! Medevac! Medevac!,’ and I didn’t have to go running for the helicopter, but now that I’m back on, I’m ready to go again. Give me another two months, and I’ll be saying ‘oh darn, I need a break. We’re in the big fighting season, and it’s going to get hot and heavy.”
Terry starts smiling when he talks about getting a call. He’s getting a trial-by-fire in what he signed up with the Army to do, and he loves it.
“Your heart jumps up in your throat, the adrenaline takes over, and you start hauling ass to the helicopter, going ‘what have we got?’” he said. “All I know is there’s a Soldier out there that needs us, and we’ve got to get there as quick as we can. Our average response-to-takeoff time is under five minutes. It’s fast.”
“He just loves to serve,” said Carol. “When he told me he wanted to go to Jackson [Miss.] to be an aviator, his eyes got huge. It was the same when he got a fire. He wouldn’t have to take the call, but I’d see his eyes get really big, and I’d tell him to just go.”
While a lot of spouses would argue against their husbands or wives voluntarily leaping into danger at every turn, Carol encourages Terry’s superhero lifestyle.
“That was the first thing I knew about him, said Carol. “It was the same right after Katrina when he had a chance to go help out. He’s got my full backing no matter what he does. That’s who he is. Who am I to hold him back from himself?”
Used to being a team and sharing experiences with Terry, even to the point of joining the fire department as a volunteer while Terry was chief, Carol found herself once again sending her husband into danger earlier this year when Terry deployed with Company F., 1-171, a composite Texas / Mississippi National Guard Medevac unit. Carol swapped the role of soldier for the role as the wife of a deployed soldier.
“It’s a completely different world,” said Carol. “I think it’s harder sometimes than being a soldier. Even though you’re not being shot at here in the States, the emotions and things are really different. I try really hard not to show my absolute feelings to Terry. He needs more support than that.”
For Terry, emotions run high in a different way. Medevac has a unique mission- roaring into battle unarmed to save the wounded- both ally and enemy. As scary as that can be, this is the emergency services Olympics for someone like Terry.
“A lot of people asked if I could get out of deploying, and I told them I wasn’t about to,” said Terry. “This is what I trained for- this is my job. If I didn’t want to do it, I wouldn’t have joined. Do I get scared at times? Oh hell yeah, I do. I get scared out of my mind. My training just kicks in a little better. If you don’t get scared, there’s something wrong with you.”
If Terry is scared as he reels in 85 feet of cable bearing an Infantry soldier who had narrowly escaped death that July 4th, no-one can tell. While the world explodes around him and great gusts of wind threaten to slam the Medevac helicopter into the trees and cliff face just 10 feet away from the rotor blades, Terry goes about his business like it’s a normal day at the office.
“I was trying to think three steps ahead,” said Terry. “Trying to think of what I needed to do next, and still keeping in mind what I was doing at the time, making sure he was going to stay safe, that he wasn’t going to get injured and I wasn’t going to run him into a wall. It was all about the steps I had to go through to get him in safely, and my instructions to the pilots- making sure I had all the right maneuvers going on.”
Terry gets lost in thought for a moment, recalling the mission. He’s silent for one, two, three seconds, then he smiles beneath a bushy grey-and-red mustache and old-fashioned square-metal sunglasses and leans back on the bench he’s sitting on. He spreads his arms wide across the back, and his smile sprouts in to a grin only rivalled by children on Christmas morning.
“It was [freaking] awesome,” he says. Although they’re hidden behind dark lenses, it doesn’t take much imagination to see his eyes as big as saucers.
This work, Why we serve: Spc. Terry Mills; US Army National Guard Medevac crew chief sheds retirement for deployment, by SFC Eric Pahon, identified by DVIDS, is free of known copyright restrictions under U.S. copyright law.
Date Posted:08.18.2012 11:19
Location:FORWARD OPERATING BASE SALERNO, AF
Hometown:FORWARD OPERATING BASE SALERNO, AF
Hometown:BRANDON, MS, US
Hometown:FAYETTEVILLE, NC, US
Hometown:FORT BRAGG, NC, US
Hometown:GARY, IN, US
Hometown:JACKSON, MS, US
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