FORT LEE, Va. (Oct. 29, 2009) – A former military policeman overcame unimaginable war injuries to continue working in the federal government.
Retired Capt. Alvin Shell Jr. shared his story at the National Disabilities Employment Awareness Month program Oct. 20.
The guest speakers included Fort Lee’s own Sherry Kidd, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, Combined Arms Support Command Family Readiness Support; and Kathie Smith, Kenner Army Health Clinic Pediatric Clinic. Shell, the keynote speaker served with the 16th Military Police Brigade (Airborne), and currently works for the Department of Homeland Security.
Shell enlisted after earning his undergraduate degree. After spending two years at his first unit in Germany, he submitted a package for Officer Candidate School. Upon completing OCS, he moved to Fort Bragg, N.C., where it was only a matter of time before he deployed.
“When I went to Iraq, I had a lot of fun,” Shell said. “I enjoyed the combat, I enjoyed the camaraderie. I enjoyed the mission I had.”
He spent about four months in Fallujah, and his company moved on to Camp Victory in Baghdad.
On the fateful night of Aug. 31, 2004, Shell wasn’t scheduled to go out on patrol. The duty officer for the night forgot she was scheduled and asked him to take her place. He agreed and went out with someone else’s platoon.
While sitting at a checkpoint watching a convoy roll through, a sergeant in Shell’s vehicle had the feeling the convoy would be hit.
“Sure enough, that convoy came through and an IED did go off,” Shell said. “It hit the wheel and while the wheel didn’t blow up, some of the shrapnel from the IED shredded the gas tank. Gasoline started to pour down the vehicle.”
Shell and his crew began the task of moving the hit vehicle out of the road. They moved the driver out of the truck and hooked up a winch from their vehicle to move the disabled vehicle and to allow the rest of the convoy to pass. As they were doing this, a rocket-propelled grenade came barreling over Shell’s shoulder.
“I still remember feeling the wind from the RPG,” Shell said. “As it hit the vehicle right in front of me, it ignited the entire road. Because the RPG was so close to me, it blew me off the road and I was out for a couple of seconds. When I came to and looked at the road, everyone was pretty much on fire.”
One of the Soldiers most engulfed in flames was the sergeant who rode in his vehicle and predicted the convoy attack.
“He was frantic and running all over the road, “ Shell said. “He said to me ‘LT, just shoot me’ because he was in so much pain from the fire. I told him ‘If I was going to shoot you, I would have shot you from the side of the road and not ran through the fire.’”
Shell remembers trying to kick dirt on him and rolled him on the ground to get the fire off, and once he was successful with extinguishing the fire from the sergeant, Shell turned around to engage the enemy, and ran into a huge wall of fire. He was quickly surrounded by a wall of fire.
“The only thing I could do was to cover my face and run through the wall of fire,” he said. “As I ran through the fire, I lit up like a Christmas tree. From rolling around on the ground with the sergeant and also running through the gasoline, my clothes were soaked.”
Shell attempted to roll around on the ground to remove the flames but was unsuccessful. He started searching the vehicles for fire extinguishers before remembering all the fire extinguishers were empty from an engagement a few nights earlier. Shell knew he was in bad trouble at his point. He started removing all of his clothes, and realized it wasn’t his clothes on fire; it was actually his body on fire.
He eventually jumped in a ditch and put out the flames. Shell suffered from third degree burns over 30 percent of his body and spent the next year and a half in rehabilitation and therapy.
Although he qualified for 100 percent disability from the Department of Veteran Affairs, Shell wanted to do more than just collect disability payments.
“With all those disabilities, trying to get a job was very difficult,” said Shell. “I applied for over 100 jobs, all over the East Coast. I got a lot of rejections.”
At the time, Shell said, there weren’t as many organizations to help wounded Soldiers as there are today. He eventually turned to Military OneSource, who took his resume and helped him translate his abilities to other federal organizations to help him receive a job offer. Military OneSource got him an interview with the Department of Homeland Security, and eventually a position as a physical security specialist. Through his determination, Shell has been able to work through the agency and become a federal officer, and yet he suffers from his injuries today.
“I live with pain every single day,” he said. “I guess it’s something we don’t have a cure for. Everywhere I’m burned on my right side has diminished soft tissue. When I run, it feels like you’re slamming your fists together.”
Shell encouraged other wounded warriors to use the Army services available to them, especially the Army Wounded Warrior Program. For more information about National Disability Employment Awareness Month, visit www.dol.gov/odep.