U.S. Army veteran Aaron Cornelius, a Florida resident, attended the Travis Mills Foundation Veterans Retreat for the first time last month, where he had the opportunity to go on a dog sled ride, have a snowball fight with volunteers and much more.
The caveat? He couldn’t see any of it.
Aaron lost his sight in 2008 when he was injured in an IED explosion while serving in Iraq.
“The explosion removed the top left part of my skull. I also lost an eye and had punctured arteries to my neck,” he said, adding that after spending three days at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, he returned to the U.S. only to suffer an aneurism.
Aaron joined the military in 1990 at the age of 20 as an infantryman. He proudly served our country for 18 years until his injury retired him from the military.
“I had my first child at a young age,” he said. “I was working two jobs and I thought I could do better for my family by joining the Army.”
Additionally, both of his grandfathers served in the Army in World War II.
While Aaron served three tours in Iraq, he also served in various roles in Panama, the L.A. Riots of 1992 and the 1994 Northridge, California Earthquake that killed 58 people and injured more than 9,000, in addition to destroying more than 82,000 buildings in the state.
A Life-Changing Injury
Aaron was rendered completely blind immediately after the IED explosion in 2008. He sometimes experiences fleeting moments of sight that last anywhere from 3 to 40 seconds, but they’re unpredictable.
He has also experienced the invisible wounds of war and was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“When you’re blind, the loneliness is 10-fold,” Aaron said.
Only four years after Aaron’s life-changing injury, his wife of many years passed away, leaving Aaron and their youngest daughter alone to take care of one another.
“She helped me cook and I taught her how to write checks in order to pay the bills,” he added.
All of Aaron’s children are now grown and he has seven grandchildren.
The Travis Mills Foundation
Aaron heard about the Travis Mills Foundation (TMF) through word of mouth, which is common.
“My experience has been amazing,” said Aaron, sitting in the living room of the main Retreat building. “Everything about this week has been beautiful.”
Aaron traveled to the Retreat with friend and neighbor, JD, also an Army veteran. JD’s role during the trip – besides friend – was to help Aaron participate in activities and to enjoy the property.
“My mom was a teacher for the visually impaired,” JD said. “I’ve been around visually impaired students all my life.”
“We’ve both been in the military and stuff,” Aaron added. “We’re buddies – we’re brothers.”
They were both excited to learn that a recalibrated veteran’s experience at TMF is not a once-in-a-lifetime thing – veterans and families are often welcomed back to experience the Retreat in a different season, or invited to take part in offsite programming, such as the Georgia Aquarium Gentle Giants program, where TMF participants swim with whale sharks and go cage diving with sharks.
Life Off The Sidelines
When U.S. Army SSG (Ret.) Travis Mills established the Retreat, it was his vision that recalibrated veterans like himself, and their families, would experience life off the sidelines while at the Travis Mills Foundation Veterans Retreat.
While Aaron was at the Retreat, he especially loved dog sledding with Ultimate Dog Sled Experience out of Oxford, Maine.
“I saw it once,” he said. “To be part of it, doing it – it was exhilarating.”
At first, Aaron thought there could be up to 12 dogs pulling him and JD, but the driver pointed out that there were only six pulling the sled.
“With a lady pup leading the pack,” Aaron added.
“He would tell me about the trees – the pines and the firs,” he said. “He’d point out when another dog sledding team was about to pass us.”
Once on the 45-minute ride, Aaron said he became incredibly relaxed.
“I was so comfortable and it was so peaceful, I could have fallen asleep,” he said.
The veterans Retreat was Aaron’s first trip to Maine as he has spent most of his life in the warmer climates of California and Florida.
“I compare it to cold weather training in Alaska for the military,” he said, laughing.
Health & Wellness Center
The latest edition to the Travis Mills Foundation Veterans Retreat is a 9,800 square-foot Health & Wellness Center with large and small fitness rooms, massage room and indoor pool.
After our nation’s recalibrated veterans were injured, they rehabbed on ultramodern fitness equipment that they would never see again once their hospital recovery was over. While it was vital for their recovery at the time, their experiences don’t help them now when they go to their local fitness center, pool or home gym.
Our Center includes state-of-the-art, but mainstream fitness equipment that veterans who visit the Retreat will be able to learn how to use. They can then take these skills home with them to maintain healthy lifestyles beyond their visits to the Retreat.
It’s also possible that one of our participants will find success with a particular piece of fitness equipment while at the Retreat; through our Recalibrate Program, they can then apply for TMF to purchase this piece of equipment for them.
“It builds on the success they find here at the Retreat,” said Kelly Roseberry, Vice President of Programming.
Aaron said that after his injury and the passing of his wife, he went “down hill,” physically.
“A gym can be a scary place for me – I could easily hurt myself,” he added.
“Besides that, I’m weary of people taking advantage of me. With the loneliness and the anxiety that comes with leaving where you’re comfortable – the house becomes your safe zone,” he said.
Aaron experienced anxiety as he prepared for his trip to the Retreat.
“Once I got here, I felt like a normal person,” he said. “I intermingled just fine with everyone and enjoyed life while I was here.”
Aaron also loved how massage therapy was incorporated into programs; Aaron had a career as a massage therapist after he lost his sight.
“Major kudos to your massage therapist – she’s passionate about what she does, she’s caring and she’s really into taking care of you,” he said.
Both Aaron and JD said they’d like to come back to the Retreat to volunteer.
“I had such a wonderful experience,” Aaron said. “I’d love to give back.”
About the Travis Mills Foundation
The Travis Mills Foundation is a nonprofit organization that supports post-911 veterans who experienced life changing injuries while in service to our country. The Travis Mills Foundation Veterans Retreat offers our nation’s recalibrated veterans and their families a week-long, barrier free, all-expenses-paid experience at its world-class retreat in the Belgrade Lakes Region of Maine. It offers various programs that help these brave men and women overcome physical and emotional obstacles, strengthen their families, and provide well-deserved rest and relaxation. The Foundation also offers the Warrior PATHH Program (Progressive & Alternative Training for Helping Heroes) for combat veterans and first responders, the nation’s first of its kind program designed to cultivate and facilitate post-traumatic growth. Learn more >>> www.travismillsofundation.org.