ARLINGTON, VIRGINIA -- When your life changes on a dime -- as it often can -- you tend to remember details. Army wife, best friend and now warrior caregiver Linda Mills relives "that" day every day in vivid color.
"June 7, 2012. It was a summer day in Fayetteville, North Carolina. I can remember the exact outfit I had on at work that day: Black slacks, comfortable black high heels, and a mauve colored top. I remember feeling good that day. It was a Thursday -- almost the weekend -- and although I hadn't heard from Drew (who was deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan), I wasn't as worried as I normally was.
'It was a rough deployment, with a lot of people getting hurt, and although my friends and I could usually predict, sense, and fret over when there was a communication blackout (meaning someone got hurt or killed,) I never had my sixth sense that day. Ironic. I even remember snapping a picture of myself from my desk at work and emailing it to Drew -- smiling and writing that I loved him. You know... the usual stuff you do when you've got a loved one deployed. Little did I know that Drew wouldn't be checking his email that day," Linda recalled.
The love of her life Staff Sgt. Andrew Mills, a fifth generation military service member and Calvary reconnaissance, surveillance, and target acquisition scout was on his third deployment. They had been married two years and were planning a life of kids, faith and happiness together. "Drew" had a plan.
"My plan was to definitely do more than 20 years. I joined December 28, 2004 because I wanted to serve my country and was also looking for something else to do with my life because I was tired of sitting in a classroom i.e. college," said Drew.
Not an untypical answer for joining the Army. The outcome of Drew's plan is also not typical. June 7, 2012 is a day he knew could come, all in service to his country.
"My radiotelephone operator stepped on a pressure plate improvised explosive device. The explosion killed a buddy we were carrying off the battlefield. Myself and my RTO received numerous injuries to include loss of limbs," Drew said.
"I lost consciousness, regained it and tried to administer self-aid but could not and crawled over to a buddy and asked him to do it for me. I then took off my armor and organized my sensitive items; left them on the ground for someone to collect and maintain accountability because I knew I was going getting on that bird (Medical Evacuation Helicopter) myself. Afterwards, I just laid there trying to keep my eyes open because I honestly did not know that if I closed them that I would wake back up", said Drew as he described the explosion and its aftermath.
As Linda reflects today on her journey with Drew through 30 plus surgeries, a growing family with three children and the beginning of new chapters in their lives, she is reminded of the sacrifices. "It is overwhelming receiving news that your loved one was wounded in combat, and once you arrive at Walter Reed to be at their bedside, it is a complete whirlwind. You're surrounded by medical personnel, volunteers, army staff, friends and family who want to visit," Linda added.
"What I wish I would have done differently, throughout this whole process, even six years later, is more self-care. As a caregiver, you give your body, mind, and soul to the healing of your loved one, and you often lose yourself and experience "caregiver burnout, Linda said.
"I would have rested more, taken more walks, read more, decompressed more, and lastly allowed others to help which is my top advice. I participated in a Caregiver Support Group at Fort Belvoir, and our motto was to "put the oxygen mask on yourself first," said Linda.
Over the last six years her "honorary" career skills (as she calls them) acquired include nurse, physical and occupational therapist, counselor, professional note taker, chauffeur, scheduler, proud cheerleader, coach and advocate. Not the life she signed up for. Her husband also found new meaning through recovery knowing his career path and life plan took a hard left turn. As a caregiver subject matter expert Linda tries not to plan too much in advance because life does change on a dime.
"I still try to take it slowly and one day at a time. I'm currently enjoying being at home with Drew, the three kids, and we're finally settled in our new home in Orange Beach, Alabama. I'd like to go back to work in the traditional sense eventually, either in healthcare, education, or with the military. But right now, being a caregiver and a mom is the most important, most trying, and most fulfilling job I've ever had," she added.