San Antonio, TX -- Staff Sgt. Matt Slaydon took a moment to compose himself.
Tears rolled down cheeks that bore the disfiguring scars of a battle fought far from home.
Nobody could begrudge him a moment or two to mourn. After all, he'd given up a lot to this war on terrorism. The improvised explosive device that blew up just a couple of feet from his face unmercifully claimed his left arm and left eye. It cost him his eyesight in his right eye as well, rendering him completely and permanently blind.
But he didn't get choked up because of a lost limb or because he'd spend the rest of his days in total darkness. He wept because he would never again be a part of the "bomb squad."
Slaydon, an explosive ordnance disposal technician from Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., received his injuries from a terrorist's IED Oct. 24 while deployed to northern Iraq. He doesn't routinely feel sorry for himself when it comes to the multiple mutilations he endured. Instead, he actually says he feels somewhat fortunate, because the bomb, which partially misfired, should have turned him "into a pink mist."
He does admit, however, that his stomach still sometimes gets tied up in knots when he has to face never again being an active member of the EOD team and mission.
"I loved being part of the bomb squad ... loved it, loved it, loved it! Even when it sucked, it was great," he said. He swallowed hard and his shoulders slumped. "I'd never had such a sense of purpose. ... I was saving lives."
Slaydon was no stranger to Iraq or the terrorists' weapon of choice -- the IED. On his third deployment there, he had already been involved in disabling and destroying about 65 of these deadly bombs. He'd been on 147 off-base combat missions, including two "bullets-whizzing-by-your-head" firefights that ended with four dead terrorists.
He had volunteered for this third deployment, just like the two before that, and had already informed his wife that he'd be signing up for a fourth.
"When it came to deploying for EOD, he was like that little kid in class who always raised his hand when the teacher needed a helper," said Annette, his wife of eight years. "Was I scared for him? Sure. The first time he deployed I watched CNN obsessively and barely slept. But who would I be, especially as his wife, to say, 'No, you can't have your dream.' I wouldn't do that in a million years."
Indeed, Slaydon, a self-proclaimed adrenalin junkie, said being on the bomb squad in a hostile environment is what he was born to do.
Outside the Wire
Slaydon arrived in Iraq June 3, 2007, and was four and a half months into his third tour of duty there when he went on the mission that changed his life forever.
As part of their duties to clear paths for military convoys, they "were called on to check out a suspicious sign at a particularly bad intersection of road where insurgents had planted multiple IEDs in the past," he said. "The sign basically expressed anti-American sentiments."
Slaydon led a team of three EOD technicians, as well as a weapons intelligence specialist. And he readily admits that he chomped at the bit to go on missions "outside the wire" -- outside the safety of the base perimeter.
"It's not that I'm crazy or had a death wish," he said. "We get excited to put our training to the test and save lives."
After arriving on scene and taking a long, careful look at the sign from the protective cocoon of their heavily armored joint EOD rapid response vehicle, it appeared to be harmless. But not one to leave things to chance, Slaydon made the call to deploy the EOD robot to pull the sign out of the ground.
"The robot has zoom cameras on it, so it allows us to safely take a closer look at anything suspicious," he said.
Near the sign, the robot's camera showed a pothole with freshly disturbed earth. The team had the robot drop an explosive charge on the suspicious-looking pothole. Then they had the robot back off so they could detonate the charge.
"There was nothing in the pothole," Slaydon said. "It was just filled with dirt."
They also had the robot pull the sign out of the ground.
Slaydon then decided to get out of the truck and recover the sign.
"If you don't take the sign with you, you'll have to respond to it again," he said.
Slaydon said it's always the job of the team leader to get out of the vehicle.
"It's known as the 'long walk,' and they want the most experienced guy out there because it's dangerous," he said.
He exited the vehicle, and the weapons intelligence specialist followed. But something caught Slaydon's attention, and he quickly ordered the intel troop to take cover.
Whatever he saw prompted him to take out his titanium mine probe, which basically looks like a 2-foot-long needle with a handle on the end of it.
"I don't know what caught my eye, but I knelt down and slid the probe into the suspicious area," Slaydon said.
The ground in front of him exploded.
After the Explosion
Shrapnel, dirt and sand blew with such force that the blast seemed intent on ripping Slaydon's face off.
Inside the truck, EOD technicians Senior Airmen Patrick Loveless and Edison Corbo, both deployed from Travis AFB, Calif., heard and felt the blast as it shook the vehicle.
"You see the cloud of dust, and for a split second, you're thinking, 'What happened? Who's hurt? What do we do now?' " said Corbo, a 22-year-old who was on his first deployment.
While Loveless radioed the patrol to send a medic, Corbo jumped out of the truck to help his team leader.
"I saw Sergeant Slaydon lying on the ground," Corbo said. "His face was torn up, and his head was red with blood."
And it only got worse.
Slaydon's left arm seemingly hung on by a thread, as two tendons were the only thing keeping it from being completely severed. His face looked as though someone had taken a hammer claw to it. Multiple puncture wounds left gaping holes that allowed those working on him to see into his fractured sinus cavity. His nose had been peeled open, and a chunk of his ear was missing. The orbital bones around his eyes were shattered. His left eye had been practically torn out, while the right took shrapnel deep into the socket. The blast broke his jaw in two places, and busted up his front teeth, as well. The force of the explosion caused the lining of his chest cavity to hemorrhage, and blood started to pool internally.
A medic, who had been with a nearby Army patrol, put a tourniquet on Slaydon's mangled arm and did his best to bandage the numerous facial lacerations. Corbo, meanwhile, tried to keep his team leader from going into shock.
"He was awake, and he was in a lot of agony," Corbo said.
Through clenched teeth, Slaydon begged them to make the pain go away.
"I tried to take his mind off the pain and keep him from going into shock by talking to him about his wife and family," Corbo said. "It was a tough situation. I've seen guys injured before, but it's different when it's someone you've spent nearly five months with inside the close confines of a truck."
Corbo and Loveless also helped the medic strip Slaydon of his body armor, which had shrapnel embedded in it.
While his teammates, the medic and an Army doctor who had rushed to the scene desperately tried to keep Slaydon alive, a medical evacuation chopper arrived.
"I didn't know if he'd make it; he'd lost so much blood," Corbo said. "All I could think of is let's get him patched up and get him out of there, so he might have a fighting chance."
The Journey Home to His Wife
In the helicopter that was headed to Kirkuk Air Base, Iraq, Slaydon's heart stopped. The medevac team had to do chest compressions in flight to get his heart beating again.
When he arrived at Kirkuk, doctors cut a hole in his chest to release the pooling blood. That relieved pressure on his heart and lungs, helping to stabilize him.
Then they flew him to Balad AB, Iraq, where he underwent 12 hours of surgery. Doctors were forced to amputate his left arm and remove what remained of his left eye. They wired his broken jaw shut. They performed a tracheotomy, cutting a hole in his neck to insert a breathing tube.
From Balad, he flew to Landstuhl, Germany, and then to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
While doctors worked to save Slaydon's life, Luke AFB officials notified Annette that her husband had been injured.
She found out Oct. 25, a day after the IED exploded.
A paralegal, she was at her office in downtown Phoenix when she got a call from the 56th Civil Engineering Squadron commander.
"The first thing I thought was, 'He's calling to invite me to a barbecue,' " she said. "Then it hit me ... why would (the commander) be calling me for that? At that point my heart just kind of leapt."
The commander told her that Matt had been wounded, but that he was stable. He didn't want to elaborate over the phone and asked to meet with her.
"I was crying too hard to give him directions, so someone else from my office had to do it," she said.
A five-member military entourage consisting of the group, CES, and medical group commanders, as well as a base chaplain and Slaydon's officer in charge, arrived at her office soon afterward.
"The group commander held my hand and told me that Matt had lost an arm and an eye, and that they were trying to save the right eye," Annette said with a shaky voice as tears streamed down her face.
The next few days were a whirlwind as Annette prepared to reunite with her critically injured husband.
"I found out on a Thursday morning; I didn't sleep that night, and I didn't sleep Friday or Saturday," Annette said.
So on Sunday when she finally saw her husband for the first time in nearly five months, she said she "was kind of delirious and emotionally spent."
"It was shocking, because even though I knew he was injured, I thought I would be able to recognize him," she said. "But he looked nothing like himself."
His face was swollen to the size of a pumpkin and carved up like one too. Annette forced herself to study him.
"I needed to find something familiar," she said. "So I sat down next to him and stared really hard. I wanted to see him."
It wasn't easy. Besides all of the distorting wounds, Matt was hooked up to a respirator, IV and monitors to track his vitals. He had so many tubes and wires protruding from his broken body that it resembled a mad scientist experiment gone wrong.
Finally, her eyes rested on the top of his head.
"That's the one thing that looked familiar," she said. "The top of his head still looked like him. I know it sounds silly, but you grab onto anything you can."
Wrought with worry over the thought of losing her husband, those first few days with him weren't much more than a blur.
"I remember being by his bedside so thankful he was alive, but also afraid to touch him," Annette said. "He was so swollen I was afraid I'd hurt him more. Plus, I had an awful cold -- probably from stress and loss of sleep -- and he was already so compromised that I feared I'd make him even sicker."
So she would scrub her hands like a neurotic germaphobe, just so she could hold her husband's hand. She would talk to him even though he was still unconscious.
Slaydon slipped in and out of consciousness for days, but he has no memory of the three weeks after the bomb nearly erased him.
"My brain got rattled around quite a bit from the blast," he said. "Some post-traumatic amnesia is fairly common with that type of injury."
His first post-bomb memory is of his wife telling him his arm was amputated.
"Of course, he doesn't remember the million times I told him that I loved him," Annette said with a chuckle.
"I was actually conscious and communicating before Annette told me about my arm, but I was still in delirium and confused," he said. "My mouth was wired shut, everything was dark, and I didn't yet grasp what was going on. But those words cut through all the haze."
He said he didn't freak out or panic. He just lay in his bed, and soaked it in for awhile. Then he reached over with his right hand and felt his stump.
"It was just such a big piece of news that I think it snapped me back to reality," he said. "It was all so overwhelming."
The New Reality
A week after the IED explosion, Matt, accompanied by Annette, flew via C-17 to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio Oct. 31 to continue his recovery.
In the days following his injuries, a plastic prosthetic replaced Matt's left eye. When efforts to restore sight in his right eye failed, doctors offered to remove it and replace it with a prosthetic as well.
"But I couldn't bring myself to part with it," he said. He took a deep breath and slowly exhaled. "It just seemed creepy to me to have no eyes ... like some kind of monster movie."
So he chose to keep it even though that decision meant more surgery and pain.
"One of the worst things that happened to me was having my eyelid sewn shut while I was awake," he said, cringing at the thought. "I had to lay there while they stuck needles into my eyelid."
Later, after doctors reopened the eye, medicating drops had to be put in it every 30 minutes, 24 hours a day so it wouldn't dry out and to treat a fungal infection. That lasted for about a week. Then, they had to do it every hour for three weeks.
"I would set an alarm and get up at night to do the eye drops," Annette said. "I'd get three or four drops on his cheek before one finally went in, but we got those damn eye drops in, I'll tell you that!" she said with a laugh.
"She worked her butt off," Matt said. "It would have been easier on everyone if I had just elected to have the eye removed. But everyone understood and supported my decision. Annette did great; she's really been there for me through all of this."
While still going through recovery with more surgeries and an exhausting schedule of recurring medical appointments ranging from physical therapy to dental to mental health and more, Matt was able to piece together what went wrong in Iraq.
"I found out that the sign was actually hooked up to a pull switch," he said. "It should have gone off when the sign was pulled from the ground by the robot. When that failed, it literally could have been a grain of sand that was holding the switch open. So when I put in my probe, I disturbed the switch and it snapped shut. Then ... BOOM!"
"There's a million woulda, coulda, shouldas," he said. "But I'd rather find it and suffer these injuries, than have some 19-year-old kid step on it and get wounded or killed because I missed it. I couldn't live with that."
Most days he is able to shrug off the severity of his wounds and even put a positive spin on his new reality. But accepting that he has lost his dream job?
That's another story.
"If I could get just one eye back, I'd go to Iraq with this claw in a flat second," Slaydon said, waving the prosthetic attached to what is left of the arm that had been severed above the elbow.
He paused, the lump in his throat momentarily robbing him of speech. He shifted uncomfortably, and then apologized for getting emotional.
"That's one of the hardest pills to swallow," the 37-year-old said. "I can't be an EOD technician anymore. ... Ever ..."
His voice cracked as it trailed off, and the finality of his words lingered in the silence. Then he shook his head as if trying to rid himself of this moment of vulnerability.
"I went from being in sixth gear, going on combat raids, to being slammed in reverse with my injuries. So sometimes the gears grind," he said. "Do I get pissed off? Sure, sometimes my mood turns dark."
It doesn't help that he planned on being a "lifer" in the Air Force.
"They were gonna have to kick me out at 30 years," he said. "So sometimes when I'm laying on the couch staring at nothing, you might hear me yell a few choice obscenities."
But just because he will face a medical retirement somewhere down the line, that doesn't mean he's given up. He still wants to be involved with the military, albeit in a different fashion.
"I'm going back to school to get a doctorate in clinical psychology," said Slaydon, who in January was awarded the Purple Heart, the Air Force Combat Action Medal and two Army Commendation medals, one with valor, by Gen. William R. Looney III, commander of Air Education and Training Command. "I want to work with the Veteran's Administration to help troops suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. They'll take one look at me, and I'll have instant credibility."
Then, they can sit back, relax and tell each other their stories ... from war hero to war hero.