11 August 2012

Why We Serve: U.S. Army Spc. Terry Mills

KHOWST PROVINCE, Afghanistan - U.S. Army Spc. Terry Mills, of Brandon, Miss., pulls U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Stumpff, Fort Bragg, N.C., into a Black Hawk medevac helicopter July 4 in Khowst province, Afghanistan. The Valkyrie medevac crew was practicing hoist extraction techniques on Forward Operating Base Salerno. Their training was called in to action later that day during an urgent medevac call which required a total of five hoists in tree-and-boulder littered terrain, making the operation both difficult and dangerous. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Eric Pahon)

Remember this story about a daring, mountainside rescue made on July 4 of two Soldiers stranded on a cliff while taking cover from enemy fire?

Now, here's a great followup story about one of the MEDEVAC crew members, Spc. Terry Mills.

KHOWST PROVINCE, Afghanistan (July 31, 2012) – 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 to the pilots up front: slide left two feet, go forward one foot. 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 30 mm 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.”

If Terry is scared as he reels in 85 feet of cable bearing an Infantry Soldier who had narrowly escaped death that July 4, 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.

Much more about Spc. Mills, his wife (a former Marine), and the July 4 mission at the link.

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