Retired Army CPT Alvin Shell was burned over 30 percent of his body as he rescued a fellow Soldier from a burning vehicle. He has successfully transitioned as a federal employee of the Dept. of Homeland Security and shared his story with the Wounded Warrior Employment Conference attendees at the Fort Belvoir Officer’s Club on February 28.
By Erich Langer, WTC Public Affairs
Retired Army CPT Alvin Shell has been overcoming obstacles all his life. Since being severely injured in Iraq in 2005, one would think that overcoming the big obstacles would be behind him. For Shell, an Army Wounded Warrior Program (AW2) Veteran, there were more obstacles to navigate.
With too many injures to count, his Family held vigil throughout his recovery, knowing he would wake from his coma, that he’d talk again, walk again, and do much, much, more.
He had severe burn injuries over many parts of his body; broken bones and invisible behavioral health wounds. It would be easy for someone in Shell’s place to take the easy road. But for Shell, such a path was not part of his mettle.
“When I awoke from that coma, my Family was there; my mom, my dad and my wife were all with me. I’ll never forget the first words out of my dad’s mouth. ‘Son, you’re a hero,’” he said.
Hearing Shell explain his injuries was difficult for many attending the Wounded Warrior Employment Conference hosted at the Fort Belvoir Officers’ Club. The skin grafting processes he routinely went through for more than two years was arduous—the excruciating and continuous pain he suffered was just as difficult.
“The doctors would remove my damaged skin and muscle tissue and then replace the burned skin with skin tissue harvested from other parts of my body” said Shell. “Doctors would remove the undamaged skin with a tool similar to a wood planning machine you’d find in a wood working shop. They’d take the ‘good skin’ and stretch it tight, then staple it to the area needing replacement skin.”
In many ways, securing employment was every bit as challenging as the recovery process. Finding a job to support his Family was essential. Shell attacked the employment process with gusto. “I filled out more than 100 federal job applications—I also got more than 100 rejection letters.” The young man with a bachelor’s degree, an Army commission, a wife, three kids, and two dogs had no job. After two years in Army hospitals, he was ready to show employers what he could do.
“I run four miles a day, don’t tell me what I can’t do!”
When hired at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), there were more obstacles to maneuver. “I think when I was hired at DHS, people thought I would sit dutifully at my desk and folks in the agency would come by and express their appreciation for my service and my contribution to my country—that would be about it. Well, I’m not made that way; I had much more to contribute than sitting behind a desk and being recognized!”
Shell would get away from that desk, go to meetings, and ask questions, lots of questions, of his fellow DHS employees. It wasn’t uncommon for Shell to invite himself to meetings and briefings where he served as a voice for wounded Veterans and their capabilities.
But obstacles persisted.
“I learned from my first-line supervisor that I wasn’t being considered for a position because I was blind, couldn’t run, and couldn’t shoot,” he said with a smirk. “I quickly put that to rest. I’ve got 20/20 vision in one eye and even better in the other. And running, well all that was required was completing a 1.5 mile run…I could do that without getting out of bed.”
By stepping up and making a strong case for himself, he soon found himself off to Georgia to attend federal law enforcement training. He graduated with high marks and for a guy who couldn’t shoot, he’d notch the class’s best shooting scores.
“I learned to shoot left-handed and qualified on the M-4 and nine millimeter pistol,” said Shell. “It is all about confidence in your abilities and in some instances retraining yourself. I shot tops in my class.”
Now a supervisor at DHS, Shell has hired eight or nine individuals – 85% have been Veterans. Today, he has a better understanding of the hiring practices from the hiring managers’ perspective.
“I can’t be more proud of what all these folks at the Wounded Warrior Employment Conference are doing in the federal and civilian sector to hire wounded Soldiers and Veterans,” said Shell. “I’m equally proud of what this conference can do for our service members and Veterans as they learn methods to make themselves more marketable and ultimately employable. I’m so proud of each and every one of you for assisting with employment.”
My father and grandfather were both Veterans, but programs like the ones we have today weren’t around then. I never knew about all the initiatives available until I needed them,” Shell said. “I make it a point to encourage all Veterans seeking employment to learn as much as they can about a prospective employer. Get on the phone and call all those 1-800 numbers at USA Jobs and talk to people. You’ve got to be persistent.”
He interviewed for his DHS job while he was recuperating in bed—he didn’t let that stop him. Shell searched the Internet and learned as much about the agency, division, and branch, as well as supervisors and personnel that worked there.
“You have to be able to sell yourself. I told the three-person interview panel that I could do anything they wanted me to do in Homeland Security…I just didn’t know what they wanted me to do.”
Today, Alvin Shell knows what he is doing and is reaching out to Soldiers, Veterans and hiring mangers to assist all who need help getting a job or learning about the process.
Hats off to Shell and other passionate wounded warriors assisting their fellow comrades in arms.