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,
2012 in Khowst province, Afghanistan. Stumpff, was stranded on a narrow cliff while escaping an enemy ambush
and sustaining a superficial wound, requiring Valkyrie medevac, a dual-state National Guard unit to perform a dangerous hoist extraction under enemy fire while navigating dangerous terrain.
Photo by Army Sgt. 1st Class Eric Pahon
U.S. Army National Guard Spc. Terry Mills, 51, is a Medevac crew
chief serving with a joint Mississippi-Texas national guard unit,
Valkyrie Medevac, on Forward Operating Base Salerno, Afghanistan.
Mills joined the National Guard after retiring from fire fighting.
Performing rescues in eastern Afghan under fire, however, is
different from anything he faced in his 32 years of fire service.
Photo by Army Sgt. 1st Class Eric Pahon, July 4, 2012
KHOWST PROVINCE, Afghanistan (8/18/2012) – 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;
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
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
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.”
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.”
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
“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
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
“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
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.”
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
Terry is responsible for not only
the aircraft and its crew, but helping medics when they
“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.”
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
“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?”
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
“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
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.
[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.
By Army Sgt. 1st Class Eric Pahon
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