Alvin E. Shell Jr.
U.S. Army / Bronze Star with Valor
Badly burned after rescuing his sergeant, his long recovery typifies perseverance, courage
First he felt the heat from the rocket-propelled grenade as it flew over his shoulder. Then the force of the RPG blew him off the road and into a ditch, knocking him out for about 30 seconds. As 1st Lt. Alvin Shell staggered out of the ditch, the pitch-black night was now illuminated by an inferno.
The grenade’s sparks had ignited the diesel fuel spilling from an 18-wheeler that had been hit by a roadside bomb and was clogging traffic on the busy supply route outside Baghdad.
“I could see people running around on fire, screaming,” Shell recalled. “The fire was racing down the road, chasing the gasoline.”
Shell and his platoon from the 21st Military Police/Airborne had come to the aid of a disabled American convoy.
And now they were the ones who needed help.
Platoon Sgt. Wesley Spaid was engulfed in flames and screaming for help.
“I ran up the road as the fire was coming toward me,” Shell remembered. “I ran through it and got to him. I tried to pat him out. I threw dirt on him. I hugged him. I rolled on him — anything to get the fire out. But he was covered in gasoline.”
Shell didn’t give up, finally extinguishing the fire and directing his sergeant out of the flames. But as he turned to look for others to help, the wall of fire grew around him. There was no way out.
Soaked in gasoline himself, Shell grabbed his rifle with one hand, covered his face with the other, and ran into the flames.
“I lit up like a Christmas tree,” Shell said.
He ran frantically from truck to truck looking for a fire extinguisher but then remembered that they had been used during a recent engagement. He pulled off his armored vest and shirt and saw that his skin was on fire.
Desperate, Shell jumped into the same ditch he had emerged from only minutes earlier. He frantically rolled around, covering himself with parasite-infested dirt and water. Finally, the flames were out.
Shell began to look for his rifle. Still in charge, he asked for a count of all weapons and soldiers and was assured that everyone had made it. The platoon decided to drive back to Camp Victory rather than wait for helicopters to ferry the injured. For two more miles, Shell remained the officer in charge.
Arriving at Camp Victory, he got out of his vehicle but collapsed as he tried to stand up, his soldiers catching him before he hit the ground. He remembers getting morphine for the pain and being loaded onto the helicopter.
His captain saw him off and said he was a hero.
In response, Shell joked: “I’m not a hero. A hero is a sandwich. I’m a paratrooper.”
He doesn’t remember much about the next few days, not the medevac helicopter ride or the transport to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, where he was stabilized.
Since he had been placed in a life-saving, medically induced coma, Shell also doesn’t remember the Army surgical team that flew from Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio to escort him back to its burn unit.
When he opened his eyes four days later, he clearly remembers seeing his wife at his bedside and his father standing behind her.
“I was infuriated,” he said. “I couldn’t believe the Army had flown my wife and dad to Iraq. What were they thinking?”
Shell thought just a few hours had passed since the attack. He didn’t know he was in Texas. He was in and out of consciousness and has only the few memories.
He does remember his wife Danielle pulling her surgical mask down and leaning over him. He remembers the kiss. He also remembers indescribable pain.
“I kept asking my dad where my weapon was,” he said. “That was my major concern for a few days. My dad was a sport. He kept telling me, ‘We’ll find it.’ It really took a few days to realize the extent of my injuries and how my life had changed.”
Shell had been deployed for 10 months in Iraq. He wasn’t supposed to be on patrol the night of Aug. 31, 2004, when his world erupted in flames. But he had volunteered to cover for another lieutenant who had made a scheduling error and went out that night in charge of her platoon.
Shell liked patrol. His brigade was stationed at Camp Victory, in the area surrounding the Baghdad International Airport, after coming off a four-month assignment in Fallujah, site of some of the war’s fiercest battles.
The mission at Camp Victory was to run patrols in and around Baghdad. Often that included providing convoy escorts.
The soldiers enjoyed interacting with the Iraqi public. They believed they were winning hearts and minds with soccer balls, crayons, pencils, candy and T-shirts. Shell “adopted” a family who lived on a trash dump, bringing them food, school supplies and care packages his family sent from the United States.
Danielle was living at Ft. Bragg, N.C., with the family’s three children. The horrible news came while the baby, Jachin, was napping and her two older boys, Sean and Trey, were at school. The phone rang, and when she heard the voice of her husband’s captain, she knew immediately that the news was bad.
Since she didn’t know if she would be flown to Germany or wait until Alvin arrived stateside, she began mobilizing her family so she could leave on a moment’s notice. Her dad would come to North Carolina to stay with the older boys, while her mom would take the baby. Shell’s parents were preparing to leave with Danielle.
The rush of activity in the Shell home has been played out in countless military homes during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. As of mid-October, 4,302 service members have been wounded in action in Afghanistan, 31,529 in Iraq.
Brooke Army Medical Center has received many of the most seriously injured, with 4,326 soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen checking in for recovery and rehabilitation as of August 2009. Besides Shell, the Institutes of Surgical Research Burn Center at Brooke has treated 786 other service members with combat burns.
When Danielle first arrived at the medical center, she remembers feeling relief. “He’s here, he’s in one piece,” she said. “Everything else we can handle.”
She didn’t know that the road ahead would include 18 months at the hospital, 30 surgeries, including painful skin grafts, and countless hours of physical therapy.
When Shell woke up at Brooke, he could move only his left arm.
“I went from being a paratrooper going 100 miles an hour to not being able to feed myself,” he said. “My face and body had swollen up. I couldn’t even move my head.”
Because Shell had shielded his face as he raced through the flames, his injuries are not always apparent at first glance. He had third-degree burns over 33 percent of his body. Major muscle groups on his right side actually burned off. He lost parts of his hamstring, his quadriceps, his calf and his biceps. He was burned to the bone on several parts of his arm, leg and hand.
Such significant burns mean that a patient can’t control his body temperature or loss of fluids from the body, which can lead to infection. Vital organs and the nervous system also can be affected, doctors say.
While Shell was in critical condition, Danielle and her father-in-law moved to San Antonio, arriving at the Burn Unit ICU every morning at 6 to feed Shell breakfast and staying until after dinner. As he stabilized, Danielle returned to North Carolina to see her older boys, bring Jachin back with her and enroll him in daycare at Fort Sam Houston.
The family also issued a challenge to Shell: He had to walk again before Jachin took his first steps.
“It was really difficult to stand up,” Shell said. “My body was shrinking up from atrophy, and I didn’t have many muscles left on my right side. It was training the muscle that was left to work again. I was literally putting my arms around physical therapists and learning to stand up and take one step at a time. It was a slow progression.”
Grafted skin must be stressed for hours a day if is to become pliable and functional.
“You constantly have to move the skin at all of your joints or it will harden and lock you up,” Shell said. “Sometimes in physical therapy, as I would straighten my arm, the skin would actually rip open and I would need another graft. It wasn’t pretty.”
Lt. Col. Evan Renz, the surgeon in charge of the burn unit, said that when the full thickness of skin is destroyed in third-degree burns, all of the nerves that live in the skin are destroyed. When new skin is grafted, a whole new neural network must re-grow, and this can cause “horrendous pain.”
“We all remember Capt. Shell,” Renz said. “His positive outlook was remarkable. He was focused forward. Through all of that pain, I can’t recall him ever complaining.”
Shell credits the medical staff: “The doctors, the nurses, the physical therapists, all the specialists — they pieced me back together. And it took a long time.”
The older boys moved to Texas a few months later, and the family moved into a unit at Fisher House, which provides housing to families of the seriously injured. Eventually, Shell joined his family at its temporary quarters and continued his rehabilitation as an outpatient.
And he won the family’s challenge to walk before Jachin.
Shell said he came back through his family: “All the scars you see on the outside don’t come close to the scars I have on the inside. … The healing process was the will to keep going. To go through 15 surgeries, knowing you have 15 more – that will came from my family. There is no way I could have kept going without them.”
He also was inspired by other wounded warriors he met at Brooke and by one young soldier in particular.
“I was in excruciating pain,” Shell explained. “The pain in my leg was unbearable. I felt like I couldn’t do it any more. I was done. I wasn’t doing any more physical therapy. I was complaining, and this kid, maybe 19 years old, told me he wished he had a leg. And I look over, and he didn’t have a leg. And I felt so terrible. He told me, ‘For the time you can’t run, don’t worry about it. But for the times that you can run, run. For the times you can walk, walk straight. Give it 100 percent.’ And that’s what I do.”
Shell was awarded a Purple Heart and the Bronze Star with Valor for his heroism in saving Sgt. Spaid. The biggest honor, however, came when the presentation was delayed until his brigade came home, allowing him to receive the awards alongside the soldiers who had fought with him.
“Awards are given,” he said. “Respect is earned.”
Danielle doesn’t like that her husband downplays the award for heroism: “The reality is that not everyone would have done what Alvin did. And if he hadn’t, Sgt. Spaid’s children might not have their dad.”
Today, Shell and his family live in Virginia. He is medically retired from the Army as a captain and works for the Department of Homeland Security. And he recently graduated from the FBI National Academy.
He is active with the Army’s Wounded Warrior Program, which provides assistance and advocacy for wounded soldiers and their families from the time they are injured throughout their lives. The program has helped Shell navigate the maze of medical and disability benefits and find his way as a medically retired soldier. He serves as a spokesman when asked. It isn’t always easy to relive the events of that night, but he does it out of duty.
Shell said he is mentally stronger than before he was injured: “Sometimes you have to experience the bad to appreciate all the good in your life.”
Still, he lives in chronic pain. He can’t grip a football or basketball because he has limited range of motion in his right hand. That’s something he wishes he could do with his boys.
For the most part, however, he lives without regret.
“There are still nights my wife holds me a little tighter than others,” Shell said. “To be honest, I don’t want the dreams to go away. It would be an injustice to those who were involved, those who didn’t make it. It’s who I am. I don’t want to get over it.”
Ellen N. Woods, a former staff editor at Military Officer magazine, is a freelance writer living in Alexandria, Va.
Alvin E. Shell Jr.
U.S. Army / Bronze Star with Valor
Born Dec. 17, 1976, in Virginia Beach, Va.
Wife Danielle; sons Sean, Trey and Jachin.
Joined Army in September 2000 and deployed to Iraq in January 2004 with the 21st Military Police Company (Airborne) of the 16th Military Police Brigade (Airborne). Medically retired with the rank of captain.
WHAT HE DID
Ran through fire, saving a sergeant from being consumed by flames. Suffered third-degree burns over a third of his body and underwent 30 surgeries over 18 months.
WHERE HE IS NOW
Lives in Fredericksburg, Va., and works for the Department of Homeland Security. Recently graduated from the FBI National Academy and is active with the Army’s Wounded Warrior Project.
WHY HE JOINED THE ARMY
"I had student loans, and the Army had a good program for student loan repayment. My wife was an Army brat – both of her parents were active duty. And my dad had served in the Army during the Vietnam era. My wife really thought I would do well in the Army. She was right. It was a good fit."
Iraq / Baghdad