Airman ‘keeps faith’ during hard times

  • Published
  • By Airman Eric Schloeffel
  • 347th Rescue Wing Public Affairs
After losing a leg in a helicopter crash, Lt. Col. Juan Alvarez lived by the motto “keep the faith” to help him through difficult times in his life. 

“Keeping the faith” was the theme of Colonel Alvarez’s speech at Moody’s annual Prayer Breakfast Feb. 3. As the guest speaker, the colonel spoke to the crowd about his blessings and how faith helped him beat the odds when faced with a potentially career-ending injury. 

When describing the specifics of the accident, blessed is not a word that easily comes to mind. Then a Navy lieutenant, Colonel Alvarez was the passenger in a helicopter that crashed in the dense jungles of Columbia Sept. 19, 1996. The aircraft pilot died on impact, and Colonel Alvarez was ejected through the windshield. The only other passenger, a Navy Seal, survived the crash and was stranded in a fast-flowing river alongside Colonel Alvarez. 

“In the ensuing mayhem, I struggled to maintain control, but I was able to make it to the surface and inflate my flotation device,” said Colonel Alvarez, 6th Special Operations Squadron commander at Hurlburt Field, Fla. “The Navy Seal tried desperately to get the pilot out the aircraft but soon realized he had died. 

“I was horrified when I saw my injuries to both legs. I had trouble breathing, sharp pains in my side, several broken ribs and a partially collapsed lung. There I was in the middle of nowhere without any real rescue assets.” 

Colonel Alvarez and the Navy Seal contemplated their fate, incapable of venturing out of the jungle and into civilization. 

“In the silence, I realized I was going to die, and I began to pray,” he said. “I was about to accept my fate. But then a rush of guilt and heartache came over me. 

“How could I do this to (my wife) and two kids?” he said. “What was to become of my children, and would they grow up without a father? I prayed in my anguish and despair and said ‘God, you can have my legs, but I must come home to my girls.’” 

As their conditions worsened and chances for a recovery became bleak with every passing hour, two native fishermen from a local village stumbled upon the wounded Americans. 

“When the fishermen arrived, I thought I was hallucinating,” said Colonel Alvarez. “To this day, my mom and wife believe they were angels sent by God.” 

The fishermen loaded the pair on a canoe and transported them downstream to an Ecuadorian base, where Colonel Alvarez received medical attention. Two hours later, a C-130 landed on a 2,800 foot airstrip in the jungle, to transport the two men to Quito, the Ecuadorian capital, so they could receive adequate treatment for their injuries. 

The next evening, Colonel Alvarez was told he was going to loose his left leg as a result of the injuries he sustained. He was taken to Wilford Hall Medical Center at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, later that week for surgery and recuperation. 

“Weeks later when I was back in the states, (the doctor who had treated me in Ecuador) asked why I was so (happy) the night he gave me the news I was loosing my leg,” Colonel Alvarez said. “It was because I knew I was going home to see my wife and children, and it only cost me half of what I thought God was going to take when we made that deal in the river. I got to keep my right leg.” 

After a few weeks, Colonel Alvarez returned to his home and family in Pensacola, Fla. 

“I’m not going to lie to you, it was very difficult at times to keep the faith,” he said. “The wheelchair quickly became my jail. But with the love and support of my wife and children, plenty of sweat and tears and a lot of prayer and faith, I was able to reach my goals.” 

Nearly two months after the accident, Colonel Alvarez was fitted with a prosthetic leg. At that time, he made a goal to be able to run before his daughter’s birthday on Feb. 22. He accomplished this two days prior to his deadline. 

Through the whole ordeal, Colonel Alvarez continued keeping the faith and received a non-restricted flight waiver from the Navy less than one year after the accident. He has since ‘crossed into the blue’ and commands the Air Force’s only combat aviation advisory squadron. 

“I’ve been blessed with the support given to me from my family, the military and team members during one of my most challenging periods in my life,” said Colonel Alvarez. 
“No matter how bad it gets in your life, faith will get you through.” 

And the colonel’s focus on faith was an inspiration for those at the prayer breakfast, said Airman Leah Santana, 347th Mission Support Squadron. 

“Lt. Col Alvarez’s speech was touching and inspiring,” she said. “He inspired me to be a stronger and positive person in everyday situations. The speech made me realize with faith and prayer, everything is possible.”