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Injured EOD Airman returns to fuller life

Then-Staff Sgt. Matthew Slayton poses before leaving Baghdad in September 2007 to travel to Kirkuk, Iraq. Slayton was severely injured during a deployment to Iraq and is a recipient of the Purple Heart Medal. (Courtesy photo)

Then-Staff Sgt. Matthew Slayton poses before leaving Baghdad in September 2007 to travel to Kirkuk, Iraq. Slayton was severely injured during a deployment to Iraq and is a recipient of the Purple Heart Medal. (Courtesy photo)

Retired Tech. Sgt. Matthew Slayton plays with Legend, his guide dog, Oct. 24 at his home near Luke Air Force Base. Slaydon received Legend in October 2010 from Fidelco Guide Dogs, a nonprofit organization. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Staci Miller)

Retired Tech. Sgt. Matthew Slayton plays with Legend, his guide dog, Oct. 24 at his home near Luke Air Force Base. Slaydon received Legend in October 2010 from Fidelco Guide Dogs, a nonprofit organization. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Staci Miller)

LUKE AIR FORCE BASE, Ariz. (AFNS) -- (This feature is part of the "Through Airmen's Eyes" series on AF.mil. These stories focus on a single Airman, highlighting their Air Force story.)

In an instant, he went from living his dream to being utterly destroyed on a dusty road in Iraq.

An improvised explosive device exploded about two feet from his face, throwing him almost 20 feet -- leaving him so severely injured that he was almost unrecognizable. As his arm dangled to his side, he stumbled up and yelled for the medic. His teammates raced to begin the long battle to save his life.

Retired Tech. Sgt. Matthew Slaydon, an explosive ordnance disposal technician with the 56th Civil Engineer Squadron at Luke Air Force Base, was critically injured Oct. 24, 2007, 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.

His military career began in 1989 when he enlisted in the Air Force as an A-10 Thunderbolt ll and F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft armament systems technician. He was stationed at Nellis AFB, Nevada, Osan Air Base, South Korea and Luke AFB. It was at Nellis where he first learned about EOD.

"My supervisor at the time was a huge fan of EOD and it made me wonder what those guys were about," Slaydon said. "I took a tour of the EOD shop and thought to myself, how did I not know this existed?"

Unfortunately, no cross-training opportunities existed at that time. After serving for nine years on the flightline, Slaydon took a three-year break in service. He worked at Boeing and General Dynamics but disliked the civilian life and couldn't shake the thought of being an EOD technician.

"I despised being a civilian," Slaydon said. "So, I joined the Reserve and applied to the local EOD unit and got accepted."

In 2002, he joined the Air Force Reserve and began a year-and-a-half of EOD training, graduating second in his class. Following training, Slaydon was stationed with the 944th Civil Engineer Squadron EOD flight.

As an active reservist he completed two tours in Iraq.

"Before my second deployment, I decided I wanted to go back on active duty,"Slaydon said. "I was home for a month from Iraq and still had to go back through the military entrance processing station, but finally got back to where I wanted to be."

About a year later, Slaydon deployed for the third time to Iraq.

He worked in Baghdad for about four months before going to Kirkuk for an additional assignment.

"About three weeks into my deployment, I was out disarming a roadside bomb 20 miles outside of the city. While I was in the process of isolating it, it blew up in my face," Slaydon said. "I was kneeling right down on top of it with my hand over it. It blew my arm off and crushed in my face."

Slaydon doesn't remember anything from the day that changed his life.

"I don't remember any of it," he said. "I lost the whole day. I vaguely remember the night before and woke up a month and a half later in an intensive care unit."

Slaydon is now totally blind without light perception. Additionally, Slaydon suffered multiple facial fractures, shattered orbits, fractured sinuses, two jaw fractures, tooth loss and a collapsed lung.

A tore into Slaydon's body that day, but a lot of people helped keep his life together.

Four days after the attack, 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. A family liaison officer from 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 an emotional roller coaster," Annette said. "I was really glad to have Ryan with me."

Overall, the 56th CES's command did everything they could to help the Slaydons.

"If you're going to take a page from someone's notebook, pay attention to what my command did for me and my family," Slaydon said.

It's been a little more than seven years since the day Slaydon earned his Purple Heart in Iraq. He's spent his days focusing on his recovery, hanging out with his guide dog, Legend, and sharing his story to inspire others.

"I didn't have any goals," Slaydon said. "I had this massive skillset and no way to apply it. When the opportunity to do public speaking showed up, I took it."

Slaydon has given more than 100 speeches in locations all over the world.

"I found that speaking and staying involved gave me an easier transition back to civilian life," Slaydon said. "Being separated from the military felt like another limb had been severed. Speaking gave my sacrifice value."

Despite his injuries, he doesn't regret his time as an EOD technician.

"I regret nothing except getting blown up," Slaydon said. "Was it worth it? Yes, absolutely. I never got so much satisfaction out of anything in my life as disarming roadside bombs. Knowing that there are sons and daughters at home with their families because I did my job is what allows me to carry the weight."

During his three tours, Slaydon was credited with four enemy kills and more than 200 combat missions. He disarmed more than 100 roadside bombs and destroyed more than 150,000 pounds of captured enemy ordnance.

Slaydon was medically retired from the Air Force Aug. 27, 2009, as a technical sergeant.