Thursday, June 24, 2010

Real Valor

Looking at the flag around the 4th of July, beer can in hand, we sometimes forget that the red in the flag is a sign of blood. The flag, incidentally, is not, as is commonly thought, a symbol. It is a sign – which is to say it IS the thing it signifies. One stops for a stop sign; one need not stop for a stop symbol. Those who know what the flag signifies will place their hand over their hearts when it passes by in a parade, a sign of affection and respect we do not extend to symbols. Those who have shed blood for the country will understand the difference. It was a sign to the joyful and generally peaceful heart of America when the flag was unfurled at Iwo Jima. The sign signified an impending victory, followed by a long and lasting peace.

Tech Sgt. Matthew Slaydon has more than a notional understanding of the flag’s color scheme.

"The blast blew off my left arm, crushed my face in, destroyed my left eye completely -- left eye is a prosthetic -- and blinded my right eye. I honestly wished I had died for a very long time," Slaydon said.

During his long convalesence in various hospitals, where he was recovering from injuries suffered from an IED that had exploded a foot from his face, Sgt. Slaydon drifted in and out of consciousness, but he remembers his “steely eyed wife” telling him of the extent of his injuries. Annette had been told by a nurse that she could not give into her grief in her husband’s presence; she would have to be “steely eyed.” And she played the part with great courage, abandoning herself to grief only when she was alone.

Slowly, Sgt. Slaydon came to understand that he would have to live with his injuries. The quotes below were pulled from the U.S. Department of Defense site, “Wounded Warriors Diary”:

“I woke up three and a half weeks after my incident. I was unconscious through, I think, the traumatic brain injury, and also by being on very heavy pain killers. The hardest was, I think, when I woke up. The first thing I remember was Annette’s voice, and she was asking me if I wanted to know what my injuries were. And, as you can image, it took me a little while to really understand what was happening. And I feel for Annette because, as it turns out in hindsight, she actually had to tell me what my injuries were multiple times, because I would forget, due to the traumatic injuries, the TBI. I remember her telling me that my left arm had been traumatically amputated – and I knew what that meant, I knew what that meant – and that my left eye had been removed, and they were trying to save the vision in my right eye. And that’s when I started to figure out that I couldn’t see; that I’m like okay, it’s not dark; I don’t, I mean, I have bandages on my eyes, but that’s not why I can’t see anything. I can’t see anything because I’m blind. And that’s when reality slowly started – I mean, a little bit of it was crashing, but then I’d wake up, and I wouldn’t understand, or they’d give me a heavy dose of sedatives and, you know, it would take me a little while to figure out where I was again. So that was the hardest part, I think, was the initial awakening. My wife, Annette, took the bull by the horns when it came to my medical care. And anything they would let her do, she did. And, you know, you can imagine, I was just physically and emotionally and mentally, just wrecked – devastated. And I knew I was going to be safe, though, when I felt her hands on me.”

Sgt. Slaydon and his wife were remarried on April 13, 2008, a date, Annette says, that now marks their real wedding anniversary:

“We are celebrating the beginning of a new life together. And it’s certainly not the life we thought we were going to have, I can tell you that. But what we have realized is that we’re still going to have a fantastic life together, and we’re both dedicated to making sure that happens. It’s just going to be different than what we thought it was going to be… When Senator [John] McCain was giving his speech at the Republican convention, he said something that really hit very close to my heart, and I hope he will forgive me if I borrow a phrase from him. But he said he had been ‘blessed by misfortune.’ And I felt like he was talking to me when he said that – because though I would give everything for my husband to have his vision back, so that he can continue his career, we have been blessed by the love and caring of so many people. It’s been a positive experience, and we’ve both grown a great deal. We have made life long friends… When we renewed out wedding vows, he said something – I’m sorry, I’m going to cry – but he told me that it was all worth it, what he’s gone through, for us to have this love and everything at that moment; he felt it was all worth it.”

With some assistance from a Connecticut company, the Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation, Sgt. Slaydon, an Arizona resident, will be able to return to school and get his doctorate in psychology.

A few days ago, Robbie Kaman, co-founder of Fidelco with her husband Charlie Kaman, died after a painful illness. She was a hands-on owner, as anyone blessed with of a Fidelco guide dog can testify. It seems somehow appropriate that Kaman is defense related.

As the Fourth of July approaches – a day, John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail, that “ought to be celebrated by pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other..." – we should be mindful of the true valor of soldiers, and in our joyous illuminations we should see tokens of the love poured out for them by their families and others, such as Robbie Kaman, whose touch heals the deepest wounds.
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