Five years ago an explosion virtually cut Rick Clement in half.
This weekend, the former army sergeant will defy medical expectation and walk to lay a wreath at his hometown’s Remembrance service.
In May 2010, Rick, then 30, stepped on a hidden Taliban bomb while on patrol in Afghanistan and had both legs blown off. He suffered debilitating internal injuries and, in the days after, had to be resuscitated from the brink of death twice.
Doctors feared the Blackburn-born solider wouldn’t survive, and he was flown home to die with his family by his side. Somehow, Rick survived. Three weeks later he woke up in the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham. Now, with incredible technological advancements and more than half a decade of gruelling, intense rehabilitation, Rick, now 35, will leave his wheelchair behind to pay tribute to fallen colleagues at Blackpool Cenotaph on Sunday, aided by two incredible mechanical legs.
This is the most apt way that I can pay my respects
“It’ll be a special day for my family,” Rick says. “This is the most apt way that I can pay my respects to all those that have lost their lives, from the friends I lost, to all of the people that have served their country.”
Not only did Rick lose his legs in the blast, but he lost any chance of ever fathering his own children. And in the early weeks of his recovery, he was warned that his amputations were too high for prosthetics. “There were dark times, no doubt,” Rick adds. “Back then I couldn’t even go to the toilet. I thought I’d never drive again, never swim again, and definitely thought I’d never walk again.”
Today, Rick lives in an impressive wheelchair-friendly home in Blackpool and spends his time split between running his charity, A Soldier’s Journey, and a gruelling training programme at the Specialist Mobility Rehabilitation Centre in Preston.
This is where, against all odds, Rick took his first slow, painful steps in December last year under the supervision of Dr Fergus Jepson and a team of leading physiotherapists and prosthetists.
“This was a million miles away at one point,” he notes.
Fittingly, Rick’s battle to walk again has been aided by a £15m boost in government funding, with the Preston facility one of nine centres across the UK receiving a share of fines placed on banks found guilty in the Libor interest rate-rigging scandal.
“The highness of my amputation has presented difficulties but we’ve been able to try all sorts of new things, such as sockets that were only available in America before,” explains Rick.
In total, more than 92,000 people have sold The Big Issue since 1991 to help themselves work their way out of poverty – more than could fit into Wembley Stadium.
Every step requires arduous strength and effort. With that, however, comes considerable pain and fatigue. “I’ve had to learn how to manage the pain,” he says. “In the early days I was drained. I started trying to walk four days a week but that was too much so we dropped down to two. As I got fitter and increased the rest time in between, it got easier. I have always been set on achieving my goal but I had to treat my body with respect.
“Now I’m able to walk a few metres, using a crutch on my right arm and a stick on my left. I’ve been gritting my teeth at points but it’s never got to the point where I’ve thought it wasn’t worth it.”
Rick’s intensive rehabilitation began in 2010 at Headley Court, the Surrey-based centre for injured soldiers. Here, he was approached by rock star-turned photographer Bryan Adams, who was compiling a series of candid images of injured British and American soldiers for his book, Wounded: The Legacy of War.
I’ve been gritting my teeth at points but it’s never got to the point where I’ve thought it wasn’t worth it
This is where Rick’s connection with The Big Issue began. His remarkable story demanded to be told, so we contacted our friend Adams – and his striking photograph of Rick, resplendent in his military medals recognising his 14 years of decorated service, was featured on the cover of last November’s Remembrance issue. It was a standout front page that said so much about the brutality of war, and the lives left to be rebuilt. Some months later it was shortlisted as British Cover of the Year at the PPA Awards – the magazine industry Oscars.
We did, you may remember, triumph with more than a third of a fiercely competitive public vote. It was an emotional ceremony, with Rick and Grammy award-winning songwriter Adams welcomed on stage to a moving standing ovation, where Rick offered a poignant tribute to three comrades who didn’t make it home.
Now, as he prepares to take his first steps in front of friends and family in his adopted hometown on Sunday, The Big Issue will walk with Rick as we continue to document his astonishing journey.
While his long-term dream of walking unaided might still be unclear, one thing remains certain – our man Rick is up for any challenge.
“I can’t get ahead of myself and, in the long run, I’m trying not to set my sights too high. Even if, potentially in the future, I could walk to my car or drive to a restaurant, that would be life-changing.”