Staff Sgt. Woodrow “Woody” Slate was meant to be an Army diver.
A competitive swimmer his entire life, the Newport News native loved spending hours in dangerous waters, performing tasks such as welding, construction work, bridge and dam repairs, body recovery and more with the 86th Dive Detachment.
“The Army diver is more well-rounded, I get to do more things, and it’s more challenging,” he said Tuesday with his wife Sandra sitting by his side in their Newport News apartment. “… When I’m underwater, for me it’s like being on the surface.”
After being deployed to Iraq in February 2004 and spending months diving in the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, Slate developed a severe case of compartment syndrome — when excessive pressure builds up inside the legs and stops blood flow — which eventually forced doctors to amputate both of his legs below the knee in 2012 after more than 40 surgeries.
The Army veteran was fitted with prosthetic legs and discharged from Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C. in 2013. From there, he moved with his wife Sandra and their three children Lane, Kyle and Christy Lynn — 16, 14 and 11, respectively — to a Newport News apartment that was not conducive to his wheelchair, which he uses more frequently than his prosthetics due to the pain they cause after minimal wear.
On Saturday, Slate walked among a crowd of about 100 friends and family members as he broke ground at the site of his family’s new wheelchair-friendly home in Seaford.
The single-story house, located off East Branch Lane off Old Wormley Creek, will be built and donated by Home for Our Troops, a privately funded nonprofit organization that provides specially adapted, mortgage-free homes for severely injured veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Slates’ new four-bedroom, two-bath, $442,000 home will have 40 accommodations that a typical home or apartment does not provide for amputees, including automatic doors, pull-down shelving, wider hallways and doorways, and roll-under sinks and counters.
Corporate sponsors such as BAE Systems, Armstrong, Kohler and Sterling provide design and contracting services as well as building materials and home appliances, and Homes for Our Troops makes sure all the county and state codes for the house are met.
After being escorted down the driveway of his future home Saturday by members of the York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office, the York County Fire and Life Safety Department, the Patriot Guard Riders of Virginia and the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association, Slate was at a loss for words.
His close friend Ryan Shelton and his wife Sandra told the crowd Slate was selfless, always putting others before him, often with little concern for himself and his needs.
“Woody knew he had a mission to get done. He always did what had to be done for the mission and for the team,” Shelton said, calling him a “hero of the noble qualities.”
“I cannot describe how honored I am,” Slate said after a minute of searching for the proper words to say to the crowd, who was applauding and waving American flags in his honor.
On Tuesday, Slate told WYDaily Homes for Our Troops appealed to him because the homes were not extravagant, and he and his family had control of many of the decisions regarding the home’s look, including the floor plan and color scheme.
“One of the bigger things that I saw with Homes for Our Troops that I was really happy about is the fact that they don’t give you some big giant mansion that you’re going to have to pay a huge electric bill or heating bills or whatever that can become a burden on you in the years to come,” he said.
After the house is built in about six months, a community work day will be held for volunteers to landscape the yard and make the home move-in ready.
About six weeks after the community work day, the Slates will be given the keys to their new home during a “key ceremony.”
Now medically retired from the Army, Slate enjoys going on recreational dives with other injured service men and women when he is not spending time with his family.
“[The divers] are already nervous themselves, so if they are diving with someone who’s really calm and knows exactly what to do, it’s helped a couple guys that I’ve gotten to dive with, and I’ve really enjoyed that,” he said.
His wife Sandra, who has been by his side since they met as children, said she is ready to settle down permanently in their new York County home.
“I’m excited. The love and support we’ve gotten from friends and family has just been amazing, through everything,” she said.
For more information on Homes for Our Troops, click here.