WASHINGTON, July 1, 2009 - A retired Army captain who survived third-degree burns over 30 percent of his body while stationed in Iraq believes that through family, faith and a lot of hard work, anything can be overcome.
Capt. Alvin Eugene Shell Jr., who served with the 16th Military Police Brigade, credits his wife, Danielle, his three sons, his mother and father, and his wife's parents for helping him recover. They are his heroes.
"You can't define a hero by one act," Shell said. "A hero is a person that laces up his shoelaces every single day and doesn't ask to be recognized, doesn't ask for the accolades, or the rewards, or anything. They do it because of who they are."
Shell originally served as an enlisted soldier and later received his commission through Officer Candidate School. When he arrived in Iraq, he endured some of the toughest battles of the war, including the battle of Fallujah, before being injured.
"When we went to Fallujah, we all did a fair share of fighting," Shell recalled. "Fallujah was the toughest time. And if Fallujah didn't get me, nothing would get me." Or so he thought.
After making it through the battle of Fallujah, Shell's company was sent on a well-earned reprieve to Camp Victory in Baghdad.
"The entire company and platoon made it through pretty well; we didn't have any casualties, and we did an awesome job," he said. "After those four months in Fallujah, they actually sent us in Camp Victory. And to us, it was like a vacation, [yet] that was actually where I happened to get hurt out on a patrol."
Shell recalled that he wasn't supposed to be on patrol the evening he was injured. After agreeing to take his counterpart's patrol, he assumed the duties of the watch officer.
During the patrol, Shell's battle buddy, Staff Sgt. Wesley Spaid, told him he had a sense that something bad would occur. As soon as he said it, a semi truck in the convoy ran over an improvised explosive device, spilling diesel fuel on the road, Shell recalled.
"The shrapnel actually ripped through the gas tank, and it spilled the gasoline all the way down the [military supply route]," he said. "The truck was immobilized. The convoy still had to keep going, and if you know anything about being hit, you ride until the wheels fall off."
Shell and his crew quickly removed the driver from the burning truck and tried to hook a winch from their vehicle to remove the truck from the road to allow the convoy to pass through.
"You have to also imagine that the gas was still running out of this truck as we are pulling it off, and right when they got the winch hooked up, a [rocket propelled grenade] came over my left shoulder," he said. "I could feel the heat from it, and it hit a Humvee, and just a spark from the RPG ignited the road. The entire road caught on fire."
The kick from the RPG propelled him out of the fire a few yards away. After regaining consciousness, Shell recalled, he looked to the road and saw a few people running around, on fire.
"I remember the gas still pouring down, and I remember the fire almost chasing the gasoline down the MSR," he said. "I remember looking through the fire and remember seeing Sergeant Spaid on fire. ... As I saw the gas coming my way, I jumped back on the MSR, and ran through the gas and the fire."
Shell said he went to rescue his sergeant, who was confused and believed he had little hope, and asked Shell to shoot him.
"I yelled at him and said if I would have shot you, I would have done it over there [out of the fire]," he said.
Shell tried everything to extinguish the fire on Spaid, rolling him on the ground and covering him with dirt until the sergeant was able to retreat from the fire. Meanwhile, Shell realized that he, too, was on fire after becoming soaked with diesel fuel.
"I had to make a choice," he said. "I ... put my left hand on my face and my right hand on my rifle, and when I ran through, I lit up like a Christmas tree because I was pretty much soaked in the diesel fuel from my boots to my pants. And when I ran through the other side of the fire, I lit up. And I just remember being on fire, and I rolled and couldn't get the fire out. I remember running to the vehicle to get the fire extinguisher."
While looking for a fire extinguisher, Shell saw members of his company returning incoming fire. Approaching the lead vehicle, and with precious seconds ticking away as he searched for something to put out the flames, he realized the extinguishers had been used on a mission at least a week prior. As he tore the burning clothing off his body, he knew he had to put the flames out. He saw a ditch, jumped in, and extinguished the flames.
Climbing out of the ditch, Shell didn't immediately notice his injuries; his concern was his missing weapon.
"I remember when I got out of the ditch, I still thought I had my weapon in my hand," he said. "I looked down, but my weapon wasn't there. It got so hot that it melted the skin in my hand, and my weapon fell on the ground."
Shell continued to look for his weapon and told his company that no one would leave until 100 percent weapon accountability was performed.
After accounting for all the weapons, Shell and two others injured during the attack were taken back to Camp Victory. During the ride, an officer told him he was a hero. Shell simply replied that "a hero is a sandwich."
"I did anything any other paratrooper would do," he said.
Within a few days, he was sent to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, where he remained in a medical-induced coma for a week. He was then transferred to the burn unit at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, where his family was waiting for him.
Shell would endure 18 months of rehabilitation and therapy, and more than 30 surgeries. During this time, he relied heavily on his parents, friends and wife.
"My father retired and actually came up and lived with me when I got hurt; he was there constantly," Shell said. "My wife was there constantly. They pretty much moved to Texas and took care of me 24 hours a day.
"I think my family and my friends were pivotal," he continued. "I couldn't have recovered to the point I am right now. I think I would have healed -- my wounds would have healed and scabbed over -- but when you talk about actual recovery or you reach a point of wellness, I don't think I would be that person today."
He said all wounded warriors need someone to bounce their anger off of and properly manage all the complex emotions they have to sort through during the long road of recovery.
Shell said many families have to give up their lives to take care of their wounded soldier.
"They are taking themselves out of what they have done all of their lives, the jobs that they have, to say that they will give all that up to take care of their soldier," he said. He understands the personal sacrifices his wife and parents made. When Shell was injured, he said, his wife took care of their children - ages 6, 9 and 9 months - "and a husband that couldn't feed himself."
"I admire my wife, because she is tough as nails," he said.
Danielle Shell's strength and positive attitude helped her husband learn to walk again. "I would try to be there from when he woke up for breakfast and be there until dinner," she said.
Through nearly five years of recovery, she added, they have come through a more united and connected family.
"As far as the family goes, I think it helped," she said. "We appreciate each other more, and he could have easily died that day. I appreciate him more for the little things he does."
Despite qualifying for 100 percent disability, Shell said, he believes having a purpose every day also assists in the healing process. So, as he continues working 50 to 60 hours a week at his job with the Homeland Security Department, he counts his blessings every day, he said, thankful for his wife, three sons, parents and parents-in-law.
After almost five years, Shell's recovery continues. He will require at least two more surgeries on his right hand, and he may need physical therapy for the rest of his life.
"I don't think that it is in me to accept my 100 percent and not go to work," he said. "I could have accepted that 100 percent disability check, and my wife would have gone to work and would have never complained, but my parents didn't teach me any other way but to work."
(This is the 10th installment of the Wounded Warrior Diaries series. Navy Lt. Jennifer Cragg serves in the Defense Media Activity's the emerging media directorate.)