To hell and back. Sergeant Rick Clement, the soldier who survived a bomb blast, has taken the long route home - but home is now very definitely Blackpool.
The big-hearted townsfolk have taken the injured soldier to heart and made him their own.
It’s helped the courageous squaddie reach a personal goal which seemed almost unattainable when he embarked upon his charity quest a year ago.
Rick’s registered charity A Soldier’s Journey (a book, he promises, will follow but at a slower pace...) hits £100,000 at a charity boxing event at the Imperial Hotel on Saturday. It’s all for soldiers’ charities, to help those who helped him on the road not so much to recovery but a re-adjustment in all he valued.
The sum has been raised, even in the most grim of economies, in the last 12 months.
The final £30 ticket sales will not just nudge past the target - but smash it by a couple of grand. A knock out.
The milestone marks a triumph of human spirit and sheer physical and emotional fortitude for the former serviceman from Clitheroe who moved to Blackpool with his then girlfriend, and later wife, Leanne.
His marriage, he admits, was short lived. It’s now over. Too many obstacles in the young couple’s path.
“I think we both didn’t realise just what would be involved, the enormity of it all,” he admits. “We’ve split now. It’s like any other break-up really.”
Unable to have children of his own, he remains close to his ex-wife’s children.
“Leanne was lovely, she really was. But what happened changed the dynamics of our relationship. It was only later down the line when I was a lot better, when there was time to sit down and think, that we realised too many things had changed.”
For the foreseeable future, he admits, his labour of love is his charity.
“I’m just focusing on that.”
He’s living life in the faster lane. He’s recently acquired a hand cycle and has already taken it out for a spin. “It was great but it takes some getting used to, but it will help me build up my strength.
“Ultimately I hope to do an endurance event. It’s strange, you feel like you’re almost laid on the floor in the positioning and feel quite vulnerable ... and all others can see is a flag sticking in the air but it’s brilliant for me.”
Rick lost both legs and almost his right arm after stepping on an incendiary device in Afghanistan in May 2010.
He suffered massive internal injuries - which meant he would never father children.
He lost more than that, of course. He lost the day to day banter of the British Army, the companionship, being able to have a jar in the sergeants’ mess and turn out, time after time after time, doing a job he loved, no matter the risks or dangers, in the sure and certain knowledge he was living his dream. Army life’s not for everyone but it was the right fit for Rick.
He’s still part of the regimental family, the 1st Battalion Duke of Lancaster’s no less, but for some time it was his own family who nursed and nurtured him, his mum and Leanne picking up the pieces of a badly broken life.
Rick has nothing but praise for the specialist care he got in Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Birmingham, but admits the system has let down some others – particularly those suffering Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Broken on the inside.
“That’s on my hit list too,” he muses. “I want to do more for them. It can take ages before they get the help they need. And some never do. I know some who are suffering really badly, nightmares, all sorts, and they’re still trying to work full time. It’s the unseen side of conflict.”
Rick admits he and Leanne fought to keep their life together, went ahead with their planned marriage, tried to deny that all that had happened could and would blight their future.
“But we were kidding ourselves,” he adds.
Rick admits he owes a huge debt of gratitude to Leanne and his family for helping pull him through the aftermath of the explosion and his rehabilitation home.
“I wasn’t too bad a patient although I’m sure I had my moments, but I snapped and stuff.
“It was so frustrating. I’m massively independent anyway. I found what happened horrendous, my mum and girlfriend – as she was at the time – running around and that, trying to help me but also trying not to do too much to make me feel better about myself.
“I had nurses poking me with needles 10 times day, family running around, it was difficult. Part of me just wanted to hide. There came a point when I felt I was in people’s way in shops and other places.
“I struggled to snap out of that. Then over a couple of weeks something clicked and I decided it’s not going to stop me shopping and going out.
“And when I did just that I understood I wasn’t in the way. In fact people wanted to speak to me, some even cried.
“I suppose the real breakthrough came as soon as I got back to a state of independence - or something approaching independence.
“I could get myself out of bed. I became strong enough to wheel myself around in a chair, do stuff for myself.
“Getting out of bed into the wheelchair was a massive thing.
“I didn’t think I’d be able to do anything at the start.
“The next big step was getting out of the electric wheelchair into a self propelled one.
“My right arm was badly injured but it’s massively better now compared with the early days - although I’ve only got limited movement.
“I’ve had people say why not have an electric wheelchair but I would rather struggle for miles and do it off my own bat than rely on some battery operated thing.”
He also hopes to get involved in sports. “Football was the biggest loss although I still watch but I’d play pretty much any sport given half a chance and the range of movement. I fancied wheelchair basketball but I had a hernia repaired and it’s come back because I chuck myself about a bit to much - I’m awaiting an operation.”
Meantime he’s ploughing on with A Solder’s Journey.
“I used to live in Clitheroe but I moved to Blackpool with my then-girlfriend and I’m staying put. I love it here. And Blackpool is way more wheelchair friendly and accessible than Clitheroe.”
He’s made good friends at Blesma (the British Limbless Ex-Servicemen’s Association) at South Shore, not far from his home just off St Annes Road.
“I get to Stanley Park regularly and along the front - I’ll be doing more of that on the hand cycle soon to build up my strength.”
And, in typical squaddie style, he still enjoys a good night (and morning) out - and recently wowed Sanuk clubbers at the Joey Essex event there.
“He’s a lovely guy,” says Rick. “I never come on strong to celebrities. I went to the Bond premiere and a few other big events and I’ll pass them my card but I’ll never come onto them about supporting me or money or anything like that. And I find that approach is better, a few have got back to me - such as Sir David Jason who supported the charity when I met him.”
Rick also received a Millie award (Military award) from a national newspaper for his charity fund-raising work.
The former sergeant embarked on his £100k fund-raising drive last January.
“I wanted to make sure the help I received is there for injured troops after me - because there will be a hell of a lot more.”
He was helped with equipment and housing, although at one point really struggled for sufficient recompense from the system.
“I felt I had to give something back so that their support continued for the many injured soldiers that continue to happen in Afghanistan and Iraq and also those who gave everything in earlier conflicts and now need our help. I get into Blesma regularly and meet the old guys and they’re all inspirational. I’m nothing special.”
To date he’s organised raffles, dinners, parachute jumps and even did a shark cage dive to confront the Great White. A recent charity dinner and auction at Blackpool Club raised an astonishing £55,000.
“Blackpool Football Club have been amazing helping me fund-raise. I’m going to make sure every penny of the £100 grand - plus £2,000! - counts. It will be split between Blesma, SSAFA, ABF The Soldiers charity, Combat Stress and Help for Heroes and I can tell you from personal experience it makes a massive difference to us injured soldiers and our families. The money will provide transport and facilities for newly disabled soldiers and their families as well as help buy essential things such as wheelchairs.
“Before this happened to me I was quite ignorant of the needs out there. Not because I didn’t want to know but because I never really thought about it. I was just active all the time and it was something that never crossed my mind. I couldn’t have had better care, from the hospital, the nurses, my mum, my family, but I know quite a few people who are suffering extremely badly.”
Rick admits his confidence has soared since he started A Soldier’s Journey. He’s become an adept social networker, amassing followers via Facebook and Twitter and his own website: http://a-soldiers-journey.co.uk.
His own following also ensured he gave an old soldier a proper send off recently - when it emerged that former Bomber Command ground crew veteran Harold Jellicoe Percival who had died, at 99, in a nursing home in St Annes, had no close family to attend his funeral.
So what next? Well, first there a few tickets still up for grabs for Saturday’s charity boxing do at the Imperial. Then? “I think I’ll try to raise £250,000 next,” Rick concludes. “In fact, when I got close to the £100k target in my head one thought really came to mind... I thought, wouldn’t be it nice to raise a million pounds before I die.
“I’m 34. Plenty of time...”
* A Soldier’s Journey charity boxing event runs from 4.30pm to 10.30pm at the Imperial. For tickets call John Boswell 0791 335 8440