ESSEX — An Essex native has become a leader and a beacon of hope for disabled veterans throughout the country, thanks to his tremendous willpower and his loyal furry companion.
Mark Mills has a long military career dating back to the early 1980s. Mills said his father, who was a police officer for the Sparrows Point Police Department, groomed him to be ready for the military.
Joining the military was also a better option than college for Mills.
“I wanted to go to college but there was no money available,” Mills said.
“I saw the Army as a way I could volunteer and get money for college.”
Mills never ended up going to college. Instead, he served the country in a variety of different armed forces for 32 years.
As a member of the U.S. Army, Mills served during the Cold War and took part in Operation Southern Watch, Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom; was a manager for the Maryland Military Department and was a Maryland National Guard Honor Guard.
During his deployment serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Southern Watch and Operation Enduring Freedom, Mills came under fire from enemy snipers.
“I was part of the expeditionary force, we were the ones that go in first to establish the area,” he said.
“It was only a one mile perimeter and snipers were shooting at us while we were out there.”
Mills also sustained a traumatic brain injury from a Hellfire missile in Afghanistan in 2003. The trauma from those attacks caused Mills to develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain damage, forcing him to medically retire.
“Recovery took about eight years from the traumatic brain injury and I have full medical retirement from the V.A. and they are taking care of me now,” he said.
“When I retired I was like, ‘What am I going to do now?’ I can’t just sit at home and watch TV, because with the PTSD it’s not good for your mind or body to just sit and do nothing.”
Mills, not wanting to be idle, found Disabled American Veterans. The organization helped him get his claims filed so he could receive the financial and medical assistance he earned. He said he liked what DAV was doing and decided to get more involved.
“I started out just going to the meetings, and then I started to help out with fundraisers,” he said. “Now, I’m first Junior Vice Commander and I am responsible for putting together a benefits and information seminar this year on April 18 at the Essex Elk Lodge.”
In addition to his work at the DAV, Mills is the DAV Commander of Chapter 18 in Towson, a chairman for the Veterans Administration Volunteer Services, chairman of the Veterans Benefits and Information Seminar, a delegate on the Joint Veterans Committee of Maryland, a Wounded Warrior Project Alumni, is a member of the American Legion and is on the Veterans Engagement Board.
Despite being busy with his volunteer work with these organizations, Mills was still experiencing debilitating side effects from his brain injuries and PTSD. He developed short term memory loss, migraines, tremors, balance issues, anxiety and hyper-vigilance.
“I can be doing something and if it doesn’t take a lot of attention I’ll forget what I’m doing. I’ll walk in a room and wonder what I am doing here,” he said.
“I also have a hard time balancing, and one time I fell forward and hit my head on a brick wall and ruptured two discs in my skull. It took about a year to recover from that injury.”
Mills, with the encouragement from his family, doctors and therapists, decided to get a service dog to help him cope with his psychological and physical complications.
“I was hesitant to get a service dog because I thought people would look at me and wonder what was wrong with me, and I didn’t want to lose my sense of independence,” Mills said.
“After I got Georgie, I found out that’s not the case.”
Georgie is Mills’ service dog, who has helped him for two years by calming him down when he is experiencing high levels of anxiety and harsh migraines, and grounding him when he needs stability while walking.
Mills was paired with Georgie through American Humane’s Pups4Patriots program. Mills said when he met Georgie in North Carolina at the training center, they hit it off right away.
“I got to meet her and give her a big hug,” he said smiling, with his dog at his feet.
“It was just so exciting. She was so receptive to me and we bonded real fast. I let her sleep up on my bed with me that night. I got over my fear that people would think of me with her, and she has helped me so much with so many things. She keeps me grounded.”
Since Mills teamed up with Georgie, he has experienced less falls, has fewer migraines and feels more calm around other people.
“Before her I didn’t want to go out much because I didn’t want to be around crowds of people,” he said.
“But she provided blocking skills when I’m out in public and will actually get between me or behind me if she feels that I’m getting crowded in.”
Mills can continue his leadership role at the DAV and continue to provide the services his fellow veterans need, thanks to Georgie.
People can meet Mills and Georgie at the DAV’s Info and Benefits Seminar on April 18, 2020 from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. at the Essex Elks Lodge.
Mills said guest speakers from the community and the state of Maryland will be present to speak about services for veterans and that breakfast and lunch will be provided.
This seminar is just one of many events Mills is heading up next year and he encourages all veterans to attend.
“It’s beneficial for veterans and for me because veterans are a special group of people who understand where I come from and what I went through,” he said. “It’s just really self healing.”