VASSAR, Mich. — Army Staff Sgt. Travis Mills had been a lot of places since losing his four limbs in Afghanistan. The one place he hadn't been was where people knew him best.
He finally returned to his Michigan hometown this week — six months after the explosion that cost him his arms and legs — to serve as grand marshal of his high school's homecoming parade.
"I didn't come to Vassar yet, because I wasn't ready for people to see me without my legs. ... Because in Vassar, everybody knows everybody," Mills said before the parade Thursday. "Great town, but I just wasn't comfortable with them seeing me in a wheelchair."
Mills is still undergoing rehabilitation at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington. But he's been able to get out and about. In the past few weeks, he took part in a 5K benefit walk in New York and celebrated his daughter's first birthday at Fort Bragg, N.C.
His hometown has pulled for him from afar. Hair salons, American Legion posts and many others hosted fundraisers this spring and summer as the small, tight-knit community rallied around him.
Hundreds of people waving American flags jammed into Vassar's downtown to catch a glimpse of Mills at the parade Thursday evening. Mills — with his wife, Kelsey, and their daughter, Chloe — stood tall in the back of a Jeep, smiling and waving his left prosthetic arm as people screamed his name.
Mills got barely a scratch during his first two tours of Afghanistan, but during his third, on April 10, he placed a bag of ammunition down on an improvised explosive device. The resulting blast tore through the athlete's muscular 6-foot-3 frame. Since then, he has undergone a grueling series of medical procedures and been pushed to the limits by medical professionals intent on seeing him pull through his injury.
A half a year later, it's difficult to find a tree, lamppost or telephone pole without a yellow or red, white and blue ribbon. A downtown bank displays an electronic sign that welcomes Mills as a "hometown hero," as do dozens of other businesses.
"It was a lot to take in," Mills, 25, said of all the signs he saw. "Now, I just have to make sure not to let everyone down."
Mills also plans to address the crowd before tonight's Vassar High football game.
He is one of only a few servicemen to lose all four limbs in combat during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and survive.
"This is my new normal," Mills said, "and it's all about how I adjust to it."