By Ian Graham
Special to American Forces Press Service
July 22, 2009 - A wounded airman and his wife plan to use the lessons they've learned about marriage and friendship through military service and adversity to help servicemembers who might be struggling after deployment or injury. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Matthew Slaydon was wounded Oct. 24, 2007, while inspecting an improvised explosive device in Kirkuk, Iraq. He and his wife, Annette, spent 15 months at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio while he recovered from his injuries and figured out what life after the Air Force would mean.
"Fire can either burn you up or temper you," Slaydon said. "Luckily, ... it tempered us. We've seen a lot of couples that it's burned up, and ate away. They've divorced and gone their own ways, and nobody's better for it."
The issues the couple has faced while working with the medical system and the government, as well as Slaydon's own personal struggles, have given them a new direction in life: to serve those who face the same problems.
"What makes our country great is the concept of the servant-leader," he said. "Since my injury, I've truly, truly learned the greatest thing I can do is serve my fellow man. And to serve those who wear the uniform is a blessing."
Slaydon saikd he began a "love affair" with aircraft at a young age, and as he grew older, it brought him to the Air Force. Though his father had served in the Navy – Slaydon was born on a naval base in Kenitra, Morrocco – it was his desire to work with aircraft that brought him to the military.
"I wanted to work on aircraft and be a part of the Air Force," he said. "As I grew up, I developed a sense of patriotism, and I wanted to be a good [noncommissioned officer]."
Slaydon began his career as an aircraft armament technician, loading and unloading weaponry from planes. He saw a unique opportunity to learn and lead in explosive ordnance disposal – the bomb squad. He was drawn to EOD while working on F-16s at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz.
"Any time we had a munitions difficulty ... EOD would come out and take possession of any damaged munitions," Slaydon said. "I learned about who they were, and I got a tour of the shop, and from that point on, I was in love with the idea of being an EOD technician."
EOD isn't for everyone; the squad's job is to get up-close and personal with bombs. By collecting evidence and samples, a squad can determine the materials and techniques used to build the explosive and, ideally, pinpoint its source.
"Anybody can blow something up," Slaydon said. "If we do everything right, there will still be an explosion. But it's going to happen when I want it to happen, and not before. We defuse danger."
Walking the Long Walk
During a patrol in Iraq, Slaydon stared fate in the face, as he had many times before. He'd been on more than 200 calls and disarmed more than 100 IEDs, and this one was routine; in fact, his team was familiar with the site, an intersection near a village known to be hostile.
Slaydon never thought he would be the one to get hurt. In fact, he insists, the people who assume they will get hurt are a danger to themselves and, most importantly, those around them.
"I wouldn't want to be with somebody who's fatalistic," he said. "In reality, if I had a team member or team leader who's fatalistic, I'd probably run it up the chain and try to get them out of the field. We're smarter than the bombers. ... You have to step out of the truck with confidence in what you're doing. Otherwise, you'll just be paralyzed with fear."
After sweeping the area with a robot from inside the truck the day he was hurt, Slaydon and his team were preparing to leave when something caught his eye. He directed his team to stay in their vehicles as he went on what EOD technicians call "the long walk," when a leader scouts a site before putting his team in danger.
"The idea behind that is, one, if something happens to you – there's a detonation or you get shot, whatever – your team members are safe and sound," he said. "And two, you have somebody there to pull your fat out of the fire."
The weapons intelligence officer got out of the vehicle to take pictures, and Slaydon yelled at him to stay behind the truck.
"That was probably the last good decision I made as an EOD technician," he said. "I don't think I could have forgiven myself if I had hurt him, also."
Slaydon approached the suspect item, which was buried. He knelt over it and inserted his mine probe. That's when the IED – about 15 pounds of homemade explosives – exploded two feet from his face, throwing him about 30 feet.
"The blast mangled my left arm. ... [It] shattered my face, it broke my jaw, it destroyed my left eye," he said.
The blast also severely damaged his right eye, collapsed his left lung, knocked out a tooth and punctured both of his eardrums. As a result, he's lost his eyesight.
"I did have safety glasses on, but they don't make safety glasses for that kind of impact," he said.
As it turned out, Slaydon said, a second 15-pound IED was stacked under the one that detonated.
"The top one did more than enough to knock me out of the fight," he said. "If the second one had detonated, I'm sure it would have scattered me all over the road. I guess it was a mixture of some really bad luck and some good luck that I managed to survive that."
The Journey to Recovery
The first step in Slaydon's journey to recovery was an airlift to Balad, Iraq, where Air Force Senior Airman Larry Miller, a friend on a different team with whom he had deployed from Luke Air Force Base, met him. Miller requested a helicopter from Baghdad, where he was stationed at the time, to stay with Slaydon at the hospital.
"They didn't know if I was going to live; I was very badly injured," Slaydon said. "Larry sat by my bed for three days. I guess people would bring him food, because he wouldn't leave my bedside."
In Balad, Slaydon underwent nearly 11 hours of surgery to stabilize him for travel to the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. This meant removing his damaged eye, stabilizing his jaw and facial bones, and ensuring what remained of his left arm could be saved. As it turned out, the medical team had to remove most of the arm.
The Air Force flew Miller to Landstuhl to stay with Slaydon before returning him to the front lines in Baghdad.
"Larry is one of the finest people I have ever met," Slaydon said. "He is one incredible human being, and a ferocious warrior. I feel privileged to be able to call him my friend."
After only a day and a half, Slaydon was moved from Germany to Walter Reed Army Medical Center here, where his wife met him.
The flight to Walter Reed is probably the hardest flight any spouse has to make, Annette Slaydon said. When she arrived, she found her husband unrecognizable.
Though she was suffering emotionally through Slaydon's recovery, Annette said, she stuck to advice given by one of her husband's friends: to be "steely-eyed" and keep her tears to herself. She said she would keep her sadness inside, letting it out only during private moments, such as while taking a shower before bed.
"I wanted him to focus only on him getting better," she said. "I didn't want him to worry."
After Slaydon had spent a few days in Walter Reed's intensive care unit, the Air Force flew the couple to Brooke Army Medical Center.
"[The caregivers there] told my wife I don't know how many times ... [that] all of them consider it an honor to be able to work on and to help the wounded warriors to recover," he said. "They don't make words big enough to allow me to thank them."
Slaydon spent the next 15 months recovering at Brooke, his wife guiding him through the difficult healing and rehabilitation process. She quickly learned how important she was going to be in her husband's recovery.
"One of the most important things you can do is [to] be an advocate for your wounded spouse," she said. "Things will go much smoother, and you'll have a better experience. It's so important that you do that. People won't get angry if you ask questions; the doctors want you to get involved. Don't just drop your spouse off at therapy. Go through therapy with them. The recovery time is shorter, the recovery is better, and I think the intimacy you can have in going through something like that is so important."
Coming to terms with his injuries and understanding what had happened when he first woke up, Slaydon said, was the hardest part of the healing process. He had lost memory of about 24 hours prior to his injury, so when he woke up in Texas three weeks later, he was confused, to say the least.
"I remember [Annette] telling me my left arm had been traumatically amputated, and I knew what that meant," he said. "My left eye had been removed, and they were trying to save the vision in my right eye. That's when I figured out I couldn't see. ... I had bandages on my eyes, but that's not why I couldn't see. That's when reality slowly started to sink in."
Slaydon said Annette really "took the bull by the horns" when it came to his medical care. Anything that needed doing, he explained, she not only did, but wanted to do.
"Feeling her hands on my shoulders as she slowly sponged me off -- I knew I was going to be safe," he said. "I was physically, emotionally and mentally just wrecked -- devastated. I'd feel her hand on me and hear her voice, and I knew she wasn't going to let me fall. It was such an amazing moment. I didn't know you could have a moment like that."
The Future, a "Joint Venture"
Following his injury, Slaydon wasn't sure how to move forward. His injuries made it impossible for him to resume his duties in the Air Force, so he had to find something new to do.
"Early on, I had a great loss of purpose. I knew my career was over. I couldn't be an EOD technician any more," he said. "[Your job] is who you are, down to your DNA."
Annette recalled a remark made by former prisoner of war Sen. John McCain during his acceptance speech for the nomination as Republican presidential candidate. He said he had been "blessed by misfortune."
"I felt like he was talking to me when he said that," she said. "Although I would give anything for my husband to have his vision back, and his arm back, and be able to continue with his career, we have been blessed by the love and caring of so many people, that it's been a positive experience, and we've both grown a great deal."
One thing stood out to Slaydon: he wanted to pursue a doctorate in psychology and counsel wounded warriors. Because he's lived through traumatic injury and knows it doesn't have to mean total defeat, he said, he's in a unique position to help others who have been hurt in the line of duty.
"I want to help them either get back to the battlefield where they want to be, or headed in another direction doing something else," Slaydon said. "But we'll get them doing it with their head screwed on right."
Slaydon said he wants servicemembers to know, even if they're wounded, they can still win the fight. If they lose hope, they're giving the enemy exactly what he wants: an American trooper who has been defeated physically and spiritually.
"You're not retreating [by seeking treatment], you're attacking in another direction," he said. The only way wounded warriors can retreat, he explained, is by giving up on themselves.
Because Slaydon now is considered 100 percent disabled, Annette is eligible for veterans' benefits, and will join him in returning to school. Like her husband, she wants to use the lessons she's learned to help others who have to follow the same path.
"What has become really clear to me is that I want to be able to give back to the thousands of people who have given to us as we've gone through this experience," she said. "I'm considering getting a counseling degree, maybe working in the family support center at the VA. I haven't made a decision, but I'm going to pursue that in some way."
What the Slaydons learned is that all tragedies don't require a negative consequence. Slaydon has found a new purpose after losing his Air Force career, and Annette is moving on to a new career. They've been able to make their future something it would never have been.
Annette recently was hired as a recovery care coordinator at Luke, where she will help wounded, ill and injured troops and their families.
"What we realized is we're still going to have a fantastic life together, and we're both dedicated to making sure that happens," she said. "It's just going to be different than we thought it would be."
The Slaydons renewed their wedding vows April 13, 2008, and now they celebrate that day as their anniversary. That renewal, they explained, symbolizes a fusion of their goals together and the start of their new life.
"When we renewed our vows, he told me it was all worth it -- everything he'd gone through," she said. "For us to have the love and everything he felt at that moment, it was all worth it."
Slaydon officially retires from the Air Force on Aug. 28.
(This is the 11th installment of the Wounded Warrior Diaries series. Ian Graham works in the Defense Media Activity's emerging media directorate.)