Last weekend, Rick Clement was the toast of the nation as he walked in public for the first time since losing his legs during the war in Afghanistan.
It was a poignant occasion for the former British Army sergeant. He was told he would never walk again after he was cut in half when he stepped on a hidden Taliban bomb while on patrol in Helmand Province in 2010.
After months of gruelling preparation, Rick, 35, left his wheelchair behind to stand on two mechanical legs to lay a wreath at Blackpool Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday.
“It was very overwhelming,” said Rick, who also served in Northern Ireland and Iraq during a distinguished 14-year military career. “I didn’t expect it to be as emotional as it turned out to be.
I felt calm then it just hit me. After I took a few steps, I had to pause, take a breath and pull my thoughts together
“It was like nothing I had ever experienced before. I felt calm then it just hit me. After I took a few steps, I had to pause, take a breath and pull my thoughts together.”
The Big Issue was there with Rick in his hometown. We have documented his incredible story since he appeared on the front cover of last November’s award-winning Remembrance issue.
More than 1000 people gathered at the Remembrance service, with Rick arriving to a moving applause.
Shortly before 11am, he stepped from his wheelchair and, with his two physiotherapists Rachael and Cathy by his side, completed the short, testing walk before local councillor and fellow veteran Ian Coleman placed the wreath by the cenotaph.
There was genuine awe and admiration among onlookers, with many moved to tears by Rick’s determination.
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After the ceremony, he was the pride of Blackpool.
Hundreds waited in torrential rain along Blackpool pier to say well done, to shake Rick’s hand, to take countless selfies – while millions viewed footage of his walk after it was beamed across national news and went viral online.
Despite his celebrity status, Rick said his thoughts were firmly in Afghanistan, where he was injured and four of his comrades from the 1st Battalion, The Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment – Rocco, Taggi, Jordan and Coupes – were killed in conflict.
“This was the most poignant way for me to honour my friends,” he said.
“I’m sure they would’ve been looking down on me, very proud of what I’d achieved. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were looking down hoping I’d fall so they could get a good laugh.”
I wouldn’t be surprised if they were looking down hoping I’d fall so they could get a good laugh
Watching nearby were a number of Rick’s family, friends and former colleagues, including mum Kay and dad Graeme, and one of the medics who helped save his life on that fateful day, former RAF nurse Hayley Vendyback.
“Seeing Rick has been incredibly emotional and I’m so proud,” Kay said. “This is the first time I’ve seen him do this as he wanted me to see for the first time on Remembrance Day.”
“It was a special day for me, especially to share it with the people that have helped me get to where I am today,” Rick added.
“I was lucky that I made it home. I still get to be with my family and live my life to the full. I owe it to everyone that didn’t make it home to do just that.”