82nd Combat Aviation Brigade
KHOWST PROVINCE, Afghanistan (8/20/12) - Spc. Terry Mills, a crew chief with Company F, 1st Battalion, 171st Aviation Regiment—made up of personnel from the Mississippi and Texas Army National Guard—focuses all his attention downward. His eyes are locked so intently on a hook dangling 85 feet below the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter he sits in, it’s almost as if he’s trying to move it toward the narrow ledge below using nothing but willpower. His legs dangle from the open door of the helicopter and his body leans forward as he maneuvers the cable by hand.
Mills doesn’t seem to notice the buffeting wind as he calls in small adjustments—slide left two feet, go forward one foot—to the pilots up front. All he cares about now is getting Army Staff Sgt. Patrick Rogers, his friend and crew mate, onto a two-foot-wide ledge overlooking a 50-foot drop off to save a pair of stranded and wounded Soldiers in Khowst Province, Afghanistan.
For Mills, who at 51 and already retired from a civilian career as a firefighter, it’s all part of the job.
Mills originally joined the Army in February1978 during his junior year of high school in Gary, Ind. While most of the people he knew graduated high school and went to work in the local steel mills, Mills said he wanted something more.
He served on active duty as an OH-58 Kiowa Warrior crew chief until 1985. After first serving in Germany he was then assigned to Fort Campbell, Ky., where he was part of a new special operations aviation unit, now known 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.
“Some of the things we did, nobody had done until that time,” said Mills. “Night vision 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.”
However, despite that excitement Mills decided to leave the Army. But that didn’t end his commitment to serving and he spent the following years as a firefighter, fire chief and arson investigator.
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 is cut out to do rescues and lifesaving and fight fires, but it’s something I wanted to do,” said Mills. “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.”
Mills worked as a firefighter in Indiana before moving south to Louisiana and the path that would eventually lead him back to serving in the military.
In 2006, as Hurricane Katrina raged across the Gulf states and flooded New Orleans, Mills’ wife of 15 years passed away from brain cancer.
“My late wife was a state bagpiper,” said Mills. “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.”
For Mills, his wife’s death also meant it was time to move on.
“There were a lot of things in Louisiana I was running away from,” he said. “A lot of memories.”
Mills found a new home, a new job, and a new life in Mississippi. He was hired on as the assistant fire chief of the Pearl River Fire Department and then later became chief. He retired from that department in 2008, where he met his current wife.
It was his wife, Carol, who encouraged him to re-join the military.
“I wanted something to do,” said Mills. “I’m not the one to sit on the front porch in a rocking chair with a glass of iced tea... 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.”
Not only did Mills enlist in the Mississippi Army Guard, his wife, a former-Marine, did as well. They were both 47 at the time.
“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 Mills. “There’s been a lot of comments about it, but most have been very positive. It makes me even prouder to have done this.”
As a crew chief in an air ambulance unit, Mills brings with him not only his previous military experience but also experience gained working as a firefighter for several decades.
“Our circumstances are unique,” he said. “All our crew chiefs get back there (in the aircraft) 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 to do the best we can to help them out.”
And Mills unit stays busy. Based out of Forward Operating Base Salerno, the small Medevac platoon ran more than 170 missions last month. But Mills takes it all in stride.
“A lot of people asked if I could get out of deploying,” he said. “I told them I wasn’t about to. This is what I trained for, this is my job. If I didn’t want to do it, I wouldn’t have joined.”
That doesn’t mean that Mills doesn’t get scared now and then.
“Do I get scared at times? 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,” he said.
Back in the helicopter as he reels in 85 feet of cable bearing a wounded infantry Soldier at the other end, if Mills is scared it doesn’t show. Even as the ground behind the helicopter suddenly explodes and Soldiers in an AH-64 Apache Longbow attack helicopter pound the area nearby with 30mm cannon fire, Mills doesn’t even turn his head.
At that moment, under enemy fire and with seven lives and a multi-million-dollar helicopter in his hands, Mills— the former firefighter who races dirt-track stock cars, builds hovercrafts, and dabbles in experimental helicopters—is right where he wants to be.
“I was trying to think three steps ahead,” said Mills afterward. “Trying to think of what I needed to do next, and still keeping in mind what I was doing at the time, making sure (the wounded Soldier) was going to stay safe, that he wasn’t going to get injured and I wasn’t going to run him into a wall.”
Mills gets lost in thought for a moment, recalling the mission. He’s silent for a moment or two and then he smiles beneath a bushy grey-and-red mustache and old-fashioned square-metal sunglasses. He leans back on the bench he’s sitting on.
“It was [freaking] awesome,” he said. Although they’re hidden behind dark lenses, it doesn’t take much imagination to see his eyes as big as saucers with excitement.