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A living example of courage
Spotsylvania retired Army captain lives through horrific injuries he suffered during a fire in Iraq-and is determined to keep going

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Date published: 12/23/2012


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.

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INSPIRATION is an occasional series about people who encourage others with their kindness, courage or perseverance.