Few love affairs can have been more intense than the one Rick and Leanne Clement shared.
Rick was a soldier, a sergeant in the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment, and his relationship with Leanne was punctuated by partings and reunions; by yearning and then passion.
But three years ago, Rick was critically injured while on duty in Afghanistan.
He stepped on a Taliban mine while leading a foot patrol in Helmand Province and lost both his legs.
The injuries to his lower body were, quite simply, catastrophic. Rick, 33, was not only deprived of his sex life and his chance to have children, he also ceased to feel any physical attraction for the woman he still adored.
Loved: Despite their marriage Leanne has left Rick and the spacious four-bedroom home they shared in Blackpool because their relationship disintegrated after he stepped on a mine
Even so, Rick and Leanne, 31, were married in a lavish ceremony at Little Singleton, Lancashire in June 2011. Leanne believed optimistically – and wrongly, as it turned out – that, with love and patience, their problems could be surmounted.
Brave: Rick had joined the Army at 17 after leaving school and served as a sergeant before he was badly injured
But the marriage that started with such hope has disintegrated: Leanne has left Rick and the spacious four-bedroom home they shared in Blackpool. Divorce will follow.
‘The Rick I knew never returned from Afghanistan,’ she says. ‘The man who did was a stranger. The change in him was shocking. He put on a brave face to the world, but when we were on our own, he was an emotional wreck; always crying. The cuddly, caring man I’d known had gone.’
Leanne clung onto the hope she could do without sex as long as she had affection, but never realised how hard their lives would be.
It was a far cry from the early days of their relationship, prior to Rick’s injuries, during which the couple had enjoyed a very passionate love-life. ‘He was an affectionate man, warm, caring, tactile,’ recalls Leanne.
When she reflects now on the tumult of emotions that preceded their marriage – the terror that Rick would die; the heart-lurching relief when he didn’t, and the slow and painful process of his rehabilitation – she realises she had not prepared herself mentally for life with a man who had changed irrevocably.
When they met via Facebook in 2008, she was struck by his caring nature. ‘He was a nice, genuine, easy-going person,’ she recalls.
Rick, who had joined the Army at 17 after leaving Clitheroe Royal Grammar School, was stationed at Catterick barracks, North Yorkshire. Leanne, a carer in a nursing home, lived with the children from her first marriage, Erin, 11, and Kyle, eight, in a flat in Blackpool.
They met at weekends and when Rick was on leave, and as their love affair gained momentum, they planned a life together: marriage and children of their own.
Coping: Leanne with her husband, who both hoped their love would endure even though his life changed forever after Afghanistan
So when, in April 2010, Rick left for a six-month tour of duty in Afghanistan, they parted with promises that when he returned there would be a wedding. It was a comfort to Leanne, who could barely cope with their separation.
Sad: Leanne Clement has now parted with her husband because the tactile and affectionate part of their relationship had gone
‘We’d spent the day together: Rick, his mum and dad, Kay and Graham, and his sister Katie,’ she recalls.
‘It’s rare for me to cry, but when we hugged goodbye, I thought: “What if this is the last time I see him?” We cried and hugged. We didn’t say much except: “I love you, I’ll miss you.” And we promised to write.’
They exchanged dozens of letters. ‘Rick sent me two or three every day, and I wrote back – some long, hand-written ones, some quick typed e-blueys (the email system Army personnel and their families use).
‘I’d send him parcels, too: sweets, crisps, photos. His mates took the mickey, there were so many.’
Then, when Rick had been away for five weeks, the awful news came.
Leanne remembers worrying that his usual stack of letters had not arrived. ‘Then I got home and there were nine of them. I was excited,’ she remembers.
‘I ripped them open, put them in date order and was about to start reading them when Rick’s dad’s number came up on my phone.
‘I remember him saying, “Hiya chuck. Are you OK?” and I could just tell from his voice that something had happened to Rick. I screamed, “Is he dead? Tell me, for God’s sake. What’s happened?”
‘Graham told me what had happened. He said I should prepare for the worst. I remember feeling panic, sheer panic. It was like someone had their hands round my throat and I couldn’t breathe.’ Two hours later, Rick was being flown home and Leanne, Rick’s parents and his sister were on their way to the military hospital in Birmingham; they thought it would be to say their last goodbyes.
They steeled themselves for the worst. ‘The doctor briefed us. He said Rick was in a very bad way,’ Leanne says.
‘We went into intensive care. Rick was in a coma but he was almost unrecognisable. The nurse said it was normal. I couldn’t cry at first because of the shock.
‘All I remember was this horrible smell of burnt flesh.
‘His mum said: “What have you done, Richard, what have you done?” then I broke down. I was hysterical. We just stood there crying. It broke my heart. I thought: “This poor woman’s baby is going to die.”
‘But I remember saying, “Please don’t die. You promised faithfully you’d come home to me”. It was three days before the extent of Rick’s injuries fully dawned on Leanne: he was now just a head, arms and torso. ‘They took away the table and sheet that was shielding him. I thought, “He really is half a man.” I was shocked by how little was left of him,’ she says, her eyes blurring with tears.
For the next three months, she remained in Birmingham with him, making only two brief weekend visits to Blackpool to see her children, who were staying with their father. ‘My ex-husband said: “Be with Rick. If he dies, you’ll know you did everything. The kids are safe here.”’
Cause: The couple have campaigned for soldiers to be able to freeze their sperm and for better body armour to protect them following their experience
So she was at his bedside when, three weeks on, he emerged, confused and rambling, from the coma.
Admission: Leanne said she was thrilled when her boyfriend survived the Taliban attack, but said: ‘I couldn’t celebrate that he was alive because he had such devastating injuries’
‘His eyes were shut, and he was talking,’ she remembers, ‘he was really confused.
‘He said: “Pass me my shoes. I have to get back to work.’ It went on for ten days, this confusion.
Then his dad spoke to an Army officer, a captain, and he told Rick: “Your fight in Afghanistan is over – you’re fighting for your loved ones now.” It seemed to make a difference.
‘Rick knew I was there. I asked: “Do you know who I am?” and he said: “You’re my girlfriend, Leanne,” and that gave me comfort. But I couldn’t celebrate that he was alive because he had such devastating injuries.’
After four months, in August 2010, he was transferred to the Forces’ rehabilitation centre at Headley Court in Surrey. ‘It gave him hope,’ says Leanne. ‘He started to be positive. He saw other servicemen with horrific injuries who had some quality of life.’
Leanne, who had returned to Blackpool, visited Rick every weekend.
They began to discuss their future. ‘We’d made a pact to be together, we’d already planned it,’ she says. ‘I remember thinking: “I love him, I don’t want to lose him.” I could think of no reason to cancel our plans.’
She considered the implications of her decision: not only would she be living with a husband confined to a wheelchair, she would also be giving up any prospect of a normal sex life.
She recalls one occasion: ‘We lay on the bed together and cuddled, and I said: “It’s OK. It doesn’t matter that we won’t have sex.” And I meant it.
‘I thought: “I’ve got two kids and they love Rick,” and I thought we’d have warmth, intimacy and that I could manage with that.’
And in the blur of activity following Rick’s homecoming in December 2010, Leanne, it seemed, failed to confront how profoundly the man she intended to marry was traumatised.
They bought a large house, specially adapted to his disabilities, using part of the £575,000 compensation he’d received, and their June wedding was a euphoric celebration of his survival. A honeymoon in New York and Bermuda followed. But Leanne says the one-sided physical nature of their relationship made her uncomfortable.
‘I felt selfish and guilty,’ she recalls.
A sense of unease remained as they began their new lives together. To start with Leanne, accustomed to her professional role of carer, did everything for her husband: ‘I bathed him, emptied his colostomy bag and his catheter, helped him in and out of his wheelchair and into the car.’
Then, a few months on, Rick changed. ‘He was determined no one would think of him as disabled. He learned to drive an adapted car. He washed himself. He emptied his bag. He became fiercely independent.
‘He’d shout at me if I treated him as disabled and say: “I don’t need anyone!” We rowed a lot and one night he was determined to show me he could get in and out of the car on his own.
‘He wheeled himself out of the house and broke his wheelchair into bits, then he got into the car. He did it out of sheer frustration.’
The relationship began to unravel. Rick – a man whose career had been founded on his physicality, his strength, his masculinity – felt diminished and emasculated.
Leanne, meanwhile, found herself redundant, side-lined, rejected.
As their relationship disintegrated, Rick threw himself into raising money for his charity, A Soldier’s Journey, which helps injured soldiers. He was lionised for his efforts and carried the Olympic torch through Blackpool.
Leanne, meanwhile, coveted a ‘normal life’ – evenings watching DVDs, trips to the park with the children; meals out – but that everyday existence of small, shared pleasures eluded her. Rick, it seemed, swung from euphoric highs when his charity work consumed him, to depressive lows when he barely left the house.
‘In the end I insisted we saw an Army counsellor,’ she says. ‘She came, but Rick said he didn’t want her help. He cried and said he loved me and I said: “I’ve spent 12 months trying to save our marriage but you just won’t listen”.’
Leanne felt all her hope leach away. She told Rick she was leaving him. ‘I was hoping he’d ask me to stay, but he said: “This is what you want. I love you so I will let you go”.’
Their short, doomed marriage had lasted just over a year. Leanne duly moved into the tiny terrace house she shares with her children, who still see Rick.
She has a new man in her life, but chooses not to name him. She has dealt with a torrent of abuse that has come her way for daring to leave her hero husband.
‘People think I’m horrible,’ she says. ‘They assumed I married Rick for his money, but I didn’t.
‘It’s his money, his compensation, and he needs it for the care he will have to have for the rest of his life.
‘They do not know I was there for him in his darkest times. I don’t deserve what happened either.
‘They say the tragedy happened to him. They don’t see that I travelled the journey with him, too.’