WASHINGTON (Feb. 29, 2012) --- Retired Army Capt. Alvin Shell suffered severe burns saving his fellow Soldiers' lives in Iraq -- actions that earned praise from his leaders and spurred President Barack Obama to hail him as a hero in a national speech.
Yet, when he separated from service, and despite extensive military and civilian work experience, Shell was unable to land a job. "I filled out over 100 applications," he said. "The tough part was getting about 100 no's."
Speaking to a group of private sector and federal employers during the 2012 Wounded Warrior Employment Conference here yesterday, Shell described the employment barriers he had to overcome before attaining career success. The conference, hosted by the services' wounded warrior programs, is intended to educate and encourage employers to hire wounded warriors.
Shell shared the story of his injury as told by the president during his Dec. 14 speech on Fort Bragg, N.C., to welcome home U.S. troops and mark the end of the Iraq war.
Then-1st Lt. Shell and his team were on a supply route outside of Baghdad in 2003 when a rocket-propelled grenade struck their convoy and engulfed his comrades in flames. Covered in gasoline, the officer ran into the fire to aid them. He then led them back to Camp Victory, two miles away, before he collapsed, covered with burns.
"When they told him he was a hero, Alvin disagreed," the president said in his speech. "'I'm not a hero,' he said. 'I'm a paratrooper.'"
Shell picked up the story from there. He recalled waking up from a coma, unable to move anything but his left arm, and hearing his father's words: "Hey buddy, you're a hero. Welcome back."
Shell showed the audience photos of his injured limbs, not for the shock value, he said, but to show the employers what wounded warriors experience during recovery. "Rehab was tough," he said, understating the anguish of multiple surgeries and physical therapy.
It took Shell about two years to recover mobility. He went from wheelchair to walker to cane, he said, and from walking to running. In fact, he ran four miles just that morning, he said to applause.
Shell was medically retired from the military by 2006 and, with a wife and three kids to support, embarked on a job search. He struggled to get employers to recognize his varied military experience and the skills he had gained working at civilian police departments.
He finally scored a job at the Homeland Security Department, he said. But the job was far from challenging, he added, so he sought out the challenge of tougher tasks.
Shell eventually moved into the physical security division, where he decided to be up front about his laundry list of medical issues with his front-line supervisor -- a decision he later came to regret.
When the chief security officer wanted to send Shell to the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, his supervisor intervened and said Shell couldn't handle it. "He's blind and can't run," the supervisor told the security officer, overstating the veteran's injuries. "You can't send him -- but you can send me."
Shell didn't learn of his supervisor's actions until later, when his new supervisor, a man with a "deep affection" for veterans, came on board. His new supervisor approached him one day. "Hey Alvin," he said. "I wish I could send you to [the training center], but I heard you were blind and can't run."
Shell explained this was far from the truth. He had some visual field loss and ran four miles a day. The school's requirement was a mile and a half. "I don't even get out of bed for a mile and a half," he joked.
Shell recalled what his supervisor then said: "Let's sit down and have a discussion about your abilities, not your disabilities."
Realizing he could take on the challenge, Shell's leaders sent him to the course and he went on to graduate "top gun" in his class, he said. He returned to Homeland Security and helped stand up the department's force protection branch. He later became the department's branch chief for force protection.
Shell said he's grateful for his leaders' support and for Homeland Security's ongoing commitment to hiring veterans. Leaders set a goal in 2008, he said, to hire 50,000 veterans by the end of 2012.
This effort isn't unique to his workplace, he noted. "Each federal agency is doing something," he said. "I couldn't be more proud."
Shell said he couldn't have attained this level of success without his family, who surrounded him with support from the start. When he first woke up in the hospital, he recalled, "My mother and father looked into my eyes with such assurance and strength," he said. They said, "You will walk again. You will talk again."
His wife, he said, looked at his burned body with the same love and acceptance as on their wedding day.
"For everything I lost -- physically, mentally and emotionally -- my family filled back up," he said.
While he was fortunate, Shell noted many other wounded warriors will wake up without that same steadfast support from family and friends. In those cases, the nation must step up to "give them a hand up and not a hand out," he said.
Shell lauded the employers for attending the conference and for making a commitment to hire veterans.
"When these Soldiers come home, don't forget their sacrifice," he said, "or their commitment to this nation."
If given the chance, he added, wounded warriors will "knock your socks off."