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Burned officer is living example of courage
By CATHY DYSON
When President Obama talked to troops last year about the selfless service of military members, he held up Spotsylvania County resident Alvin Shell as an example.
The commander-in-chief briefly described an awful incident from 2004, when Shell and his team were on patrol in Baghdad. An explosive device hit a convoy of trucks, and the Army lieutenant got covered in diesel fuel as he tried to move a disabled tanker so the other vehicles could keep moving.
When another explosion hit—and Shell’s buddy caught on fire—Shell ran through the flames to save him. The fuel that drenched his clothes ignited, and Shell “lit up like a Christmas tree.” Heat burned through his body armor and uniform, into his skin and nerves.
Still, he got the sergeant to safety and resumed firing against the enemy—until his weapon fell from his hand because his skin had melted.
Shell led his team two miles back to camp before he collapsed.
“We could do well to learn from Alvin,” Obama said to troops at Fort Bragg, where Shell used to be stationed.
The harrowing tale of Alvin Eugene Shell Jr.’s bravery in the heat of battle is only half the story.
What’s even more amazing is that the 36-year-old strives to have a normal life despite disabilities that worsen as he ages.
Because the fire smoldered for so long, he suffered irreparable damage to his joints and nerves. And burns, while they aren’t obvious to someone who might see him in a shirt and tie at work, ravaged more than a third of his body.
Shell covered his face with his left hand—and held on to his rifle with his right—as he dived into the blaze.
Areas the flames missed were mined for skin graphs. Shell suffered 30 painful operations in which layers of flesh were peeled from his good side—the left—and stapled onto his right.
His skin was like a steak that was charred on the surface, but bloody underneath.
“I hope you’re not squeamish,” he warned as he showed photos.
They showed an arm and leg that were red, meaty and totally devoid of skin. They looked more like an animal carcass.
Shell still has double vision and memory loss from traumatic brain injury, which he suffered when a rocket caused the second blast right over his shoulder. There’s a constant ringing in his ears that torments him, and he’s in pain if he sits or stands too long or is stuck in traffic.
Painkillers make him woozy and don’t dull the aches, so he doesn’t take them often.
The military labeled Shell as 100 percent medically disabled, but Shell, who retired as a captain, jokes he’s got enough injuries to qualify three times over.
Then, he gets serious and says he keeps going because he wants to set the same example for his family that his parents set for him.
“I don’t have the excuse to stop,” Shell said. “I got three excellent kids who keep me motivated and a wife who’s always supported me. I can’t tell them, ‘Daddy’s tired, I’m gonna kick my feet up and not go in to work today.’ Life doesn’t work that way.”
‘I’M A PARATROOPER’
Shell is a division chief at the Department of Homeland Security. He started in security in 2006, after he was medically discharged from the Army after six years of service.
He eventually went through the FBI National Academy to get a law-enforcement position with the department.
Even with his disabilities, he completed the famed and grueling “Yellow Brick Road,” a 6-mile obstacle course that’s part of the Quantico academy.
Shell said he finished “top gun” and was the best shooter in his class, even though he’s partially blind in his right eye and has limited movements in his right hand.
He runs up to six miles each morning when he’s training for triathlons—he completed his first three months ago, with six other disabled veterans—and he lifts weights and wants to take judo classes.
He’s talked regularly about his experience in Iraq. And each newspaper or website account of Shell’s actions with the 21st Military Police Company, Airborne Division, includes his now-famous quote.
Even President Obama mentioned it.
When word about Shell’s actions spread through camp, his captain called him a hero.
“I’m not a hero, a hero is a sandwich,” Shell said. “I’m a paratrooper.”
The real heroes, Shell said, are the people who suffered more than he did. He said his injuries pale in comparison.
“There are some people who don’t put their pants on first when they get up in the morning,” he said. “They put their legs on first.”
‘YOU’LL GET IT ALL BACK’
Shell never considered athletes or actors his heroes. He looked up to his parents, Alvin Sr. and Mabel Shell. He’s since added his wife, Danielle, to the list after she took care of him and the rest of the family when he couldn’t.
The Shells’ youngest son, Jachin, was 10 months old when his father came home from war. Danielle dealt with a baby in diapers and a husband who couldn’t walk, talk or feed himself. She also had to care for the couple’s older sons, Sean and Alvin III, who were in elementary school at the time.
The couple’s determination got them through, Danielle Shell said.
“It doesn’t hurt that both of us are pretty stubborn,” she said.
Their parents came to the rescue. Her father, William Miller, moved from New York to North Carolina to stay with the older boys. Her mother, the late Paula Dickerson, helped her navigate the complicated system of military medical care.
Danielle kept the baby with her in Texas, where her husband was treated, and his parents moved there to help.
His father was the first to tell Shell, “You’ll get it all back, you’ll be great,” and Shell believed him—because he always had.
The senior Shell worked much of his career as a sheriff’s deputy, and Shell doesn’t remember him ever missing a day’s work “or quitting at anything.”
His mother taught Head Start classes. When budget cuts threatened to close the program, she got a commercial driver’s license and drove the bus herself.
Shell laughs at the memory of how embarrassed he was to have “the short bus” parked in his driveway.
Once again, he got serious as he talked about the values they instilled by example.
“I never knew any differently,” he said. “I knew I was not supposed to quit, that I had to get up and go to work every day.”
‘SO, WHY NOT?’
There’s no doubt in Danielle Shell’s mind that her husband is a hero, “no matter how he hates to hear it,” she said. She’s not surprised that he downplays his actions, for which he was awarded the Bronze Star with Valor, an award for heroism.
“But not everyone would have done what Alvin did,” she said.
Nor would everyone keep going as he has, but that’s always been his personality, his wife said.
“He impresses me every day,” she said, “but don’t tell him I said that.”
Shell knows his injuries will catch up with him. He guesses the trauma aged his body—and memory—by at least 20 years.
He hopes he can stay active until he gets all three sons through college. He and his wife are thrilled that Sean recently was accepted to Cornell University in New York.
“I know the time will come when I can’t work,” he said, “but for right now, I can.
“So, why not?”
Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425