story & photos by Jessica Warzeniak
based on interview by Alexis Ann
Tech Sergeant Matthew Slaydon, U.S. Air Force (ret.), was serving in Kukuk, Iraq, when a roadside bomb changed his life forever. During an interview with the Resident, Matt talks about his experience in Iraq and the series of events that landed him at the Fisherman Restaurant, Noank, to tell us about it.
It all began in Iraq on October 24, 2007. Matt, a team leader for the Explosives Ordinance Disposal (EOD) Unit, responded to a call in an area known for improvised explosive devices. While inspecting the area, he saw something suspicious.
He ordered his team to stay in the trucks and took “the long walk” – when a leader scouts a site to avoid putting his team in danger. “They call it the long walk. You go by yourself, to do it by yourself,” said Matt.
Matt talks about disarming the bomb that nearly killed him. “In the process of trying to isolate where the bomb was, I slid my mine probe into the ground and it went off.” Only two feet from the bomb when it exploded, Matt was thrown 30 feet. “I shattered every bone in my face, my jaw bone twice.”
Despite wearing safety glasses, which were ineffective against 15 pounds of explosive, Matt lost his left eye and damaged his right one, leaving him blind. The bomb also severely injured his left arm resulting in amputation. “Fortunately, I was following procedure. If I hadn’t protected my off hand, I would have loss this one too,” said Matt. “There were two charges. The top one went and the bottom one didn’t. If it had, it would have killed me.”
Matt expresses his anger over the disregard for the laws of war. “I was sucker punched. It wasn’t honorable. It was cowardly. I despise these people. I hate them because they are cowards, murderers. He tried to murder me. It wasn’t lawful. It was attempted murder. They say that someone is killed in combat, but they are not killed by combatants.”
“He’s in prison, the guy that put the bomb there. They caught him in January of 2008. The follow-up EOD team collected evidence. We find a lot of them.” Matt explains that EOD treats the bomb site as a crime scene. “We are the only people allowed to disarm bombs. We collect evidence and figure out who put it there. We don’t blow everything up so there is evidence left to collect.”
Life after the injury isn’t easy for Matt. “It’s a massive adjustment,” said Matt. “It still hasn’t sunk in that I’m not in the service. It will probably be like that for the rest of my life.”
Matt says the toughest part of his injury is, “The loss of my career. That I can’t go [to Iraq] any more.” Matt was injured during his third tour and his EOD Unit is heading out for what would have been Matt’s fifth tour. He planned to retire after 30 years of service, but his injury cut his service in the Air Force short – to 16 and a half years.
The best part? “Learning how many people really do love me. Things like this bring out the best and the worst in people. You find out who your friends are,” said Matt. “It’s like when you need to move a couch. You find out who’s really your friend if they’ll help you out and this is a really big couch to move.”
Matt doesn’t waste any time wondering why he was injured. “Maybe it’s just that I’ve seen a lot of crazy stuff. I’ve seen a lot of bad stuff happen to good people and a lot of good stuff happen to bad people. I don’t need to know why. It’s up to the mechanic, the master planner of the universe.”
So how does a wounded Airman from Phoenix, Arizona, find his way to Connecticut? The answer is Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation, a non-profit guide dog school based out of Bloomfield. Fidelco, celebrating its 50th anniversary, pioneered In-Community Placement, a process that allows guide dog users to stay in their own home, their own community, and be trained.
“I first met Fidelco at the Blind Veterans Association conference. I talked to the staff at the Fidelco booth. I also met several veterans wounded before me who received guide dogs from Fidelco,” said Matt. “Fidelco is the only one that does home placement. Having them help me learn in my own area makes a lot of sense.”
Another reason Matt chose Fidelco for his guide dog was his love of German Shepherds – the only dogs that Fidelco breed and train as guide dogs. “I planned to get a Shepherd when I retired. They always impressed me. They are beautiful and smart dogs. I figured if I’m going to have one now, I may as well get what I always wanted.”
Fidelco paired Matt with his guide dog, Legend. “Together, Legend and I are highly functional. It’s only been a couple of days, but imagine what it is going to be like in a couple of years,” said Matt. “This is the first time I can get out and walk without hanging on to someone.”
“The motivating factor to getting a guide dog now is to be independent as possible. Returning to school is now a possibility. I hope to return to finish my Bachelors this fall, if not, at least in the spring,” said Matt. “Having Legend facilitates this process and I can focus that much more on school.”
Matt hopes to become a clinical psychologist for the VA. “I can’t fight with boots and bullets like I used to, but I can help to screw their heads on straight. It’s still winning the war. Like I say, there’s a lot more to it than what happens at the sharp end,” said Matt. “I think it will help with my own Post Traumatic Stress Disorder by helping others deal with theirs.”
More and more soldiers are returning with PTSD. “There are an increased number of vets that sustained injury. I would have died in any other conflict,” said Matt. “People ask, ‘What’s up with PTSD?’ The answer is they would have died normally.”
Normally, Fidelco relies solely on their In-Community Placement, but Matt’s situation was unique enough to warrant bringing him to Connecticut to work directly with a number of trainers and support staff, then continue training in Arizona. To keep his “good” hand free, Matt is learning to hold Legend’s leash with his prosthetic left hand; a task that required a lot of research and development on the part of Fidelco. Their rehabilitation specialist, include a prosthesis expert, worked with Matt to find the right combination of harness and handle that Matt could use.
Matt, who was left handed before the amputation, has a specially designed prosthetic for his left arm and hand. “It’s made of plastic and carbon fiber. It’s called the iLimb,” explains Matt. “It’s the only one right now. Next summer, I am getting a new model, the next generation. It is the only hand that can grab round objects. Everything else is a clamp.” To make it work, doctors separated the nerve from the muscle in the remaining part of Matt’s arm. He contracts one muscle and the hand closes. A different muscle makes it open and the elbow is automated.
Jessica Morrissey, Mystic, the catalyst for this interview, was involved in Fidelco since she was nine-years-old when her father helped Charlie Kaman, founder of Fidelco, find investors for the business. Philanthropists, like Jessica, allow Fidelco to provide guide dogs at no cost to their users. The more than $45,000 cost per dog is offset entirely by voluntary public contributions that support Fidelco’s services.
During the interview, Matt gets a chance to thank Jessica. “It’s because of people like you. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have Legend. This is what makes the U.S. so great. We are generous, kind, caring, and compassionate. I have experience that by seeing other societies. So thank you!”