There's nothing that can bring a deceased child back to a parent. But the grieving mother of one fallen soldier now has a very vivid memento of his sacrifice and his dedication to duty thanks to 3D printing technology.
Army Staff Sgt. Liam Nevins was known by some of his fellow combatants as a "hard charger and a super soldier." He was killed in Afghanistan last September, but not before his uniform sleeve became legendary. Now, Nevins' mother and other family members have a 3D printout of that sleeve to hang on the wall and remember him by.
In a March post on the community forums of Shapeways, one of the leaders on the service side of the 3D-printing industry, Nevins' mom Victoria, appeared one day with a heart-rending story. "My son was killed in Afghanistan in September," she began. "In August he was shot in the arm and was supposed to be sent home. But as a Green Beret, he would not let a little thing like a giant chunk out of his arm send him home. So he checked himself out of the hospital and went back to his base."
That arm injury had left behind something that Nevins cherished for the short remainder of his life: the bloody sleeve that had been cut off his uniform after he'd been shot in August. Because of his determination and unwillingness to let fellow soldiers face battle without his help, that tattered bit of clothing came to be known as the "Sleeve of Destiny."
In her post, Victoria Nevins asked if anyone in the Shapeways community could help her produce a 3D printed model of the sleeve. "Obviously there is only one [original]," she wrote, "but we would like to have it 3D modeled and framed for his sisters, his nephews and a few of his friends."
The community, in particular builder Michael Williams, stepped right up to help.
In a blog post, Shapeways last week recounted Nevins' story and the sobering tale that led to his mother searching for a keepsake for herself and his family and friends. The tale made it clear that 3D printing something tied closely to Nevins made perfect sense.
According to Shapeways, Nevins had "wanted to build a business making custom equipment from his own designs. In the search for a method to prototype his designs, [he] and his mom found Shapeways. Everything was lined up to start his business."
"Unfortunately," the post continued, "Liam never made it home."
Nevins survived the August arm injury that had required that his bloody sleeve being cut off. But just a month later, his luck ran out. According to a Denver Post article about a memorial held for him in his home state of Colorado, Nevins was one of three soldiers shot dead last September 21 in the Afghani city of Gardez, near the Pakistani border. "In an incident still under investigation," the Post wrote, "a gunman wearing the uniform of the Afghan National Security Forces opened fire on troops during a training exercise," killing Nevins and two of his comrades.
Unable to reunite with Liam, Victoria Nevins turned to Shapeways in the hope that the 3D printing community there could help her. "Victoria had a vision," Shapeways community member Michael Williams, who made the 3D printed Sleeve of Destiny, wrote. "She wanted to replicate the sleeve of Liam's uniform, full size."
Liam had been shot in the arm at close range during a nighttime battle in Wagez, Aghanistan. Fearless for his own safety, Nevins ran to the aid of several fellow soldiers who were pinned down. "One commando was already down and another injured before Liam pressed forward towards the enemy," Williams wrote, recounting the story of Liam's injury. "After he was hit, Liam calmly came over the radio and said, 'This is Liam. I'm hit.' Then he extracted himself from the immediate area. There was disappointment in his voice. Not fear, not pain, not panic, just disappointment. As they treated his wounds he kept apologizing repeatedly for being shot. Anything that would take him out of the fight and away from the chance to help his brothers just crushed his heart. Because of his injury, his sleeve had to be removed. He held onto the sleeve as a badge of honor. The sleeve has become known as a Sleeve of Destiny."
At Williams' request, Victoria Nevins sent him several dozen photographs of the sleeve, from which he created a 3D model using Autodesk's 123D Catch software. He then made the actual 3D printed sleeve by producing three pieces -- a single-piece full-sized model would have been too big for the printer's tray. He then coated the model in a glaze to "give them a finish worthy of a presentation."
Nevins is just one of thousands of American troops to lose his life in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But as with so many of them, Nevins' commitment to his fellow soldiers left them with memories of him as almost larger than life. In the Shapeways blog post, Williams recalled the words of a fellow soldier from Nevins' memorial. "'Liam was a fearless warrior and I along with all of the other members of the team were comforted many times in battle knowing he was at our side or leading further to the front. He had dedication and resilience beyond that of any normal man. He was so tough that no enemy could stop him face on; a machine gun only slowed him down. He was strong; so strong that only a coward could kill him.'"