How Veteran John Alvarez pays it forward
John Alvarez's almost 24 years of military service—11 in the Navy and 13 in the Air Force—stemmed from his love of country. Both his grandmothers and parents escaped communist Cuba in the late 1950s, followed later by his grandfather and uncle. Thanks to his grandparents' courage, John's dad, mom, uncles, and aunts could live the American dream.
While his dad worked as an industrial engineer, several uncles chose to serve in the U.S. military, giving back to the nation to which they'd escaped. John hoped to follow his uncles' footsteps, but having left war themselves, his parents wanted him to pursue a college education. John studied architectural engineering at the University of Miami then promptly joined the Navy. As a naval aviator, John flew MH-53E helicopters, conducting airborne counter-mine operations and special operations support in the Pacific and during the early 1990s.
The Crash That Led to John's Life-Long Mission
John was selected to join an exchange program with U.S. Special Operations Command assigned to Air Force Special Operations (AFSOC), flying MH-53 Pave Low helicopters. His time with AFSOC including deployment to the Balkans and Africa in the mid-1990s to conduct special operations aviation missions and counter-drug and counter-terrorism missions worldwide.
In August and September 1996, John deployed to Panama and then Ecuador, where he and his team formed a Joint Special Operations Task Force with Navy Special Warfare assets to conduct a counter-narcotics advisory mission that supported Ecuadorian joint forces. When a helicopter he was on crashed into a river, John's training kicked in to help him survive the wreckage despite his grave injuries.
While bleeding out into the river, John thought about preparing himself for rescue but realized no one would arrive soon enough. Guilt and sadness flooded his mind as he thought of his wife, Shelley, and two young daughters—then anger and a will to survive for them took over.
John, and a Navy SEAL on the flight, survived and were picked up by natives who came to the crash site on a small canoe. They pulled John out of the river and brought him to the base. The SEAL, who couldn't fit in the canoe, remained in the piranha-infested water, swimming alongside the craft and fighting to keep John awake.
When they reached the jungle base dock the task force was working from, John remembers the relief he felt knowing his brothers in arms had him. Through the heroics of his joint task force members, their deployed flight surgeon, SEAL corpsmen, and an MC-130 crew that flew into and out of an improvised jungle dirt strip, John was evacuated to a hospital in Quito, the capital of Ecuador. After several blood transfusions and surgical efforts to save both his legs, his left leg had to be amputated.
When the flight surgeon told him that he'd have to lose his left leg, John asked whether he would get to keep his right one and felt immense gratitude to learn it would be saved. Days later, John was evacuated to Texas via a C-141 transport plane. The critical care team onboard fought to keep him alive and deliver him to both Wilford Hall Medical Center and his family.
Amidst many surgeries and extensive recovery, John received constant support from his family and fellow service members. Despite initial expectations and medical advice, he went from a wheelchair to walking, running, and flying again.
John’s chaplain and family encouraged him to tie his goals to meaningful dates. By Thanksgiving 1996, John had mastered walking with his prosthetic leg—his goal was to make sure his grandfather could see him walk again. He began to run a few days before his daughter's birthday in February 1997.
After nearly a year filled with physical therapy and training with his prosthetic leg, followed by multiple evaluations in simulators, deployed physical tests, and a final formal Board of Flight Surgeons review, John was back to flight status.
He is the first amputee to return to combat flight duty; his first flight back was in September 1997. He requalified shortly thereafter and continued flying the MH-53 Pave Low and later several other airframes including Russian aircraft.
Continuing His Mission of Service
In May 1998, John completed an inter-service transfer to the Air Force and continued to serve for another 13 years. When he and Shelley later welcomed their son, they named him after the man who made John's prostheses. The flight surgeon who saved John's life became his son's godfather.
Following 9/11, John had the opportunity to pay forward all the efforts spent saving him and getting him back to work. He mentored two service members who lost limbs near Camp Rhino, Afghanistan. He has also mentored and paved the way for other pilots to return to flight status in the Air Force and Army.
John continued to deploy as a special operations combat aviation advisor and commanded forces conducting special operations and combat search and rescue worldwide. He also served in NATO and two embassies before retiring in 2010. Since retirement from active duty, John and Shelley have both been active advocates for service members and veterans with similar injuries, as well as for their families.
John's Civilian Work and Its Connection to His Military Service
After 12 years in the defense aerospace industry, John now serves as the vice president of business development and strategy for the military and veterans health solutions group at Leidos.
“The programs we support serve active-duty service members, veterans and their families," he says. “These efforts also aim to improve the lives of those heroes who provide military healthcare."
Many of the people who work on John's teams are also veterans and most, he says, served in healthcare. Not only does John appreciate supporting and working with fellow veterans—many of whom took care of injured service members—but he's also gratified to work at a company that champions values he holds close to his heart.
, VP, Operations Business Development and Strategy
Integrity is the first core value in our guiding principles, and that speaks to me as a former military member," he says. “I'm proud that I can continue honoring my service and never have to compromise my integrity while representing a company that's recognized industry-wide as an ethical leader.
He notes that despite being retired from the military, he still feels like he's part of something larger than himself while working with a team that he has faith in to help him rise up when needed.
“I'm grateful to have experienced brotherhood and to have witnessed courage, commitment, and selflessness while serving in the military, and I still get to at Leidos," he says. “We strive to be reliable teammates, to each other, our customers, and the companies we support."
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