Soldier Reflects on Personal Toll of Iraq

At a joint security station in Baghdad, NPR's Eric Westervelt recently ran into Sgt. James Slayton, a soldier he first met and traveled with in the Kuwaiti desert in 2003 during the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Slayton is now on his third Iraq combat tour in five years. He reflects on the personal toll of the five-year-old fight in Iraq.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

As the war in Iraq grinds on, American soldiers continue to face multiple combat tours away from home and family.

NPR's Eric Westervelt recently ran into a soldier he first met nearly five years ago on the eve of the U.S.-led invasion. He has this Reporter's Notebook from Baghdad.

ERIC WESTERVELT: There's something strangely comforting about seeing a familiar face when there's gunfire about.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

WESTERVELT: I had just arrived at the small forward base known as a joint security station in the Washash neighborhood in west Baghdad. A checkpoint nearby was taking some small arms fire from Shiite militiamen when I spied Staff Sergeant James Slayton.

It's good to see you again.

Staff Sergeant JAMES SLAYTON (3rd Infantry Division, U.S. Army): Yeah, I saw you get out of the Humvee and I was just, like, I know him. And it kind of put a smile on my face.

WESTERVELT: Down the road was pretty peaceful. I come up here with Slayton and you get shot at.

Staff Sgt. SLAYTON: Yeah. That's (unintelligible) for you. So we still got one battery.

WESTERVELT: I first met James Slayton in late 2002 back when he was Specialist Slayton training in the northern Kuwait desert for the imminent invasion of Iraq. He's been with the 3rd Infantry Division's Battalion 164 Armor ever since.

When I first met you, you were just 20 years old, I think. You're 25 now.

Staff Sgt. SLAYTON: I was 20, and now, I'm 25. Yeah.

WESTERVELT: Yeah.

Staff Sgt. SLAYTON: Three or five years I've spent over here in Iraq.

WESTERVELT: Slayton was a gunner in a Bradley Fighting Vehicle during the invasion in which 164 Armor often led the Army's push northward. I saw him again in 2005 in east Baghdad when he was back for his second stint in Iraq. He didn't get a scratch during those first two combat tours, but on patrol here in west Baghdad, a few weeks ago, his luck ran out. A powerful armor-piercing roadside bomb known as an explosively formed penetrator blasted into his Humvee.

Staff Sgt. SLAYTON: It punctured through where the vent is on the front of the Humvee, and it hit my left leg. And it left a crater, six-foot-by-three-foot-by-three-foot, so it was a big boy.

WESTERVELT: But relatively simple anti-roadside bomb technology saved Slayton's life. A long metal pole with a dangling chain, a device known as a rhino(ph), now sticks off the front of most Humvees in Iraq. The device is designed to trigger laser-activated roadside bombs early so the blast rips into the engine block, instead of soldiers.

Staff Sgt. SLAYTON: That was, like, the most amazing thing that could have probably ever happen to me is that tripping that laser and causing it - if it went off a second later, I probably won't be sitting here talking to you right now.

WESTERVELT: Staff Sergeant Slayton now has at least two pieces of shrapnel embedded in his lower leg. He's still recovering and walks with a slight limp, but after just a few weeks, he was back fighting with his unit.

YDSTIE: That's NPR's Eric Westervelt in Baghdad.

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