Wounded Warrior: Air Force family helps Purple Heart recipient, wife

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Mike Hammond
  • Air Education and Training Command Public Affairs
Staff Sgt. Matthew Slaydon lay motionless on a dusty road in Iraq, his body riddled with shrapnel after an improvised explosive device exploded about 2 feet from his face. His left arm hung by a couple of tendons and his face was unrecognizable.  His friends worked frantically to save him from an early grave.  

Sergeant Slaydon, an explosive ordnance disposal technician from the 56th Civil Engineer Squadron at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., was critically injured Oct. 24, while serving to protect convoy routes in Iraq. The explosion left him completely blind. His left eye was gone. Doctors amputated his left arm above the elbow. He also suffered a collapsed lung and numerous facial fractures and lacerations in the attack. 

A terrorist's bomb may have blown Sergeant Slaydon's body apart that day, but since then, a lot of people have helped him keep his life together.

An agonizing trip

Days after the attack, Sergeant Slaydon's wife of more than eight years, Annette, made the difficult flight to meet her badly injured and unconscious husband at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

"It was an agonizing trip," Mrs. Slaydon said. "I had hardly eaten or slept in the three days since I heard of his injuries."

A family liaison officer from Sergeant Slaydon's EOD shop at Luke AFB, Staff Sgt. Ryan Winger, accompanied her on the flight to see her husband for the first time.

"It was very rough emotionally. There was no way I could've handled all the details without Sergeant Winger's help," she said.

When she finally arrived and saw her husband for the first time since he left for the fateful deployment, she couldn't believe her eyes.

"I just kept looking at him and looking at him ... his whole face and head was so swollen ... and really, the only thing I could recognize was the top of his head," she said.

A little help from their friends

Sergeant Slaydon was not regularly conscious for the first three weeks after the attack. He would have no memory of the days ahead, but Annette soon discovered she was far from alone.

A combination of people and resources has been at her service since the moment she found out her husband was wounded. A team of Air Force members, along with financial support from the Air Force Aid Society, has "made it possible for me to spend most of my time with my husband, instead of dealing with bills and other distractions," Mrs. Slaydon said.

In the early hours of Oct. 31, the Slaydons arrived in San Antonio, where Sergeant Slaydon would continue treatment and begin rehabilitation at Brooke Army Medical Center.

"Before the engines on that plane even shut off completely, Chief Page was on board," Mrs. Slaydon said, referring to Chief Master Sgt. Stephen Page, 12th Flying Training Wing command chief master sergeant. "He introduced himself and said, 'You're in Air Force country now -- I've got you,' and he gave me an EOD coin to give Matthew so he'd have a coin on him," she said. 

"When I met Chief Page, it was the first time I really thought everything would be OK ... eventually, at least."

With Chief Page was Senior Airman Dan Acosta, a fellow EOD Airman who was also severely wounded by an IED in Iraq on Dec. 7, 2005. Airman Acosta took over family liaison officer duties from Sergeant Winger, who returned to duty at Luke only after being assured his comrade was in good hands. Mrs. Slaydon said Airman Acosta and his wife have been incredibly supportive and helpful since they can personally relate to the various challenges the Slaydons face each day.

"The first several weeks were very chaotic," Mrs. Slaydon said. "I was there with Matthew the whole time I could be. My days were spent going to the hospital and back, and then I would go home, do essential things like laundry, and go to sleep. Then, I'd get up and do it all over again."

Easing the burden

As the couple faced severe hardships, many more people reached out to them.

For instance, Army policy would be to permanently move an injured soldier to San Antonio during treatment. This would have been a hardship for the Slaydons, if not for the help of Senior Master Sgt. Debra Westmoreland, a member of the AETC command action group.  Sergeant Westmoreland met the Slaydons while getting background information for a Purple Heart presentation ceremony.  She helped ensure they could keep Luke as their home station. Since then, she's helped them with numerous other issues and treated them like family, according to Mrs. Slaydon.

The sacrifice required of families such as the Slaydons goes well beyond the physical injuries and emotional difficulties. There is a heavy financial toll as well.

"Back home in Arizona, I'm a paralegal and I bring in a good paycheck," Mrs. Slaydon said. "But being here with my husband, I'm not collecting that check anymore. We also own a house there, so there are mortgage payments to think about."

That's where the Air Force Aid Society lightened the load.

Steve Mayfield, at the Randolph AFB Airman and Family Readiness Flight, arranged for the AFAS to fund the Slaydons' house payments for a couple of months. Air Force Aid also took care of some unexpected expenses that came up, like termite treatment on the home.

"It was hard to ask for help," Mrs. Slaydon said. "We're very self-sufficient and good with our money. It can be hard to get over your pride to 'stoop' and ask for financial assistance, but Mr. Mayfield explained the aid was a benefit my husband earned through his service -- even before he was wounded. That made me feel better about it."

Meanwhile, back at Luke, Sergeant Slaydon's co-workers, along with the base and local communities, pitched in as well. They quickly raised more than $3,000 to help the family, according to Capt. Matthew Hileman, 56th Civil Engineer Squadron EOD Flight commander.

"There is nothing the EOD community and the Air Force family will not do to help those who risk their lives defending their country," the captain said. "Their sacrifice is a debt we truly cannot begin to repay."

"The support from my home unit at Luke has really allowed me to focus on healing," Sergeant Slaydon said. "They've come out to visit me, they've been taking care of my house along with friends and neighbors, not to mention helping Annette in the early days after I was injured."

Finally, at a national level, John Beckett, of the Air Force Survivor Assistance Program, has worked closely with the Slaydons to get them through current issues and help them look toward the future.

"He's personally called to check on us regularly, and been a huge help to us," Mrs. Slaydon said.

The road ahead

Sergeant Slaydon's recovery is still a work in progress. He's learning to cope in total darkness. He has been fitted with a prosthetic for his left arm and is trying to get used to that.

Despite a schedule full of medical and therapy appointments, community reintegration events, and public speaking engagements, he was able to clear some time on his calendar for the one he loves. He and Annette renewed their marriage vows April 11. That was important to them, because in a future full of uncertainties, they could only be sure of their love for each other.

"A big challenge for me in the near future will be transitioning from active duty to medically retired," Sergeant Slaydon said. "Not so much the paperwork, but just being ready to leave active duty. I loved being in Iraq on patrols, manning a gun, defeating the enemy's most dangerous weapons. So it'll be a different life ahead."

Sergeant Slaydon said he's looking to go back to school to obtain a doctorate in clinical psychology. He wants to work for the Veteran's Administration in the field of post-traumatic stress disorder so he can help other people just like his Air Force family helped him.

"The bottom line for me is -- yeah, I could sit around on the couch and collect a check for the rest of my life, but to hell with that," he said. "I want to do something and still make a difference."