The power of love: The inspiring story of a soldier who lost three limbs and a girlfriend who never gave up on him
16th October 2010
When Sapper Matthew Weston asked his girlfriend Bryony Bolland to marry him nine months ago, she said yes without a second thought.
‘I was really happy and excited,’ she says.
‘I’ve wanted to grow old with Matt from the moment I fell in love with him. Nothing’s changed that.’
Given the circumstances, her devotion is profoundly moving.
Matthew, you see, lost both his legs and his right arm fighting for his country in Afghanistan in June 2009.
He also suffered horrendous internal damage to his liver, bladder, stomach and intestines after being caught in a bomb explosion partway through his first tour of duty with the 33 Engineer Regiment.
So terrible were his injuries that he became the most seriously injured soldier to survive the fighting. It’s a miracle he survived.
Today, Matthew, 21, is in a wheelchair and, more often than not, in dreadful pain. He cannot walk, relies upon a colostomy bag, finds it nigh on impossible to sleep and will never be able to father a child.
Bryony, a doe-eyed, gentle creature, is only 19.
‘Inside he’s the same Matt,’ she says, in a soft voice that’s almost a whisper.
‘People are dying out there. We know we’re actually really, really lucky.’
'I miss my job so much. I’d still get back on the plane to Afghanistan given my time all over again.'
She reaches for his hand and her beautiful diamond engagement ring catches the light.
‘This will get better. We have to remind each other of that,’ she adds, but her words are for Matthew, not me.
I first met Matthew and Bryony a year ago, just four months after a Taliban bomb devastated both their lives, and found him to be an upbeat, inspirational young man.
Bryony too. She never once flinched from his injuries. Never once stopped supporting him.
‘This is just the way life is,’ she told me. But it seemed so cruel. She was so young. Too young, I worried, to take on so much. Bryony wouldn’t have been alone if she’d walked away. Many partners do. And so, it was wonderful to learn of their engagement.
As Matthew’s father Bruce told me: ‘No one would have blamed her if she hadn’t stayed with him. But she just loves him. It’s like they’re soul mates. She’s so good with him.’
She has to be, because Matthew has been to hell and back since regaining consciousness in Birmingham’s Selly Oak hospital in July last year. A year ago, he was determined to be up and about in a flash, walking on prosthetic limbs and rejoining his squadron. But he’s now had to accept that is unlikely.
‘I miss my job so much. I’d still get back on the plane to Afghanistan given my time all over again,’ he says.
‘I was actually doing something worthwhile. But I don’t have much contact with my regiment now because they’re really busy and I can’t work alongside them any more.
‘I’m still with the Army but looking at doing an engineering degree with the Open University. I want to work. I can’t stand people who scrounge off benefits — who twisted an ankle four years ago and they’re still claiming because they can’t be a**ed to get a job. Even though I’m in a wheelchair, I don’t want to be one of those lazy people.’
Matthew, though, has struggled to make the progress he hoped. Numerous operations — he’s had 18 to date — have hampered his efforts to walk with prosthetics.
His frustration at this spiralled into depression and now he’s taking a break from Headley Court, the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre in Surrey.
‘Every time I had an operation on my legs, I’d have to have the prosthetic recast. It was mad. I was recast five or six times. I didn’t feel I was getting anywhere.
‘I’d reach a milestone and then something would go wrong — like a scar tightening and pulling on a nerve so I’d need surgery. I’d be back to square one. It began to make me depressed. I didn’t think I’d ever be depressed but I got it pretty bad. I didn’t sleep. Didn’t eat. Didn’t want to do anything. I spoke to my consultant and haven’t touched prosthetics since. That was about four months ago.
‘There is a mental health team at Headley but because everyone there’s in the military they’ve got this whole pride thing. They pretend they’re fine when there not. I know I did that. I would tell myself I was OK and I could crack on. Inside I was just a mess.’
Goodness knows how he’d have managed without Bryony’s selfless support. ‘What we have is just something more than lots of couples have,’ he says.
‘It used to be my job to look after her, now she’s looking after me — emotionally and on the day-to-day things. If there’s anything I can’t do — even opening a jar — Bryony does it for me.’
Bryony interjects: ‘It’s what you do if you love someone. If something happened to me, Matt would look after me.’
Which of course he would. But it frustrates the hell out of him that he can’t. For Matthew is a doer, an achiever.
After leaving school in Taunton, Somerset, at 16 with nine GCSEs, he joined the Army and excelled in training, before volunteering for bomb disposal.
‘I had dreams and ambitions,’ he says.
Meeting in the simply stunning three-bedroom penthouse flat in Norwich that he bought with the compensation for his injuries, I can see he’s rightly proud of their home, but would gladly trade it for his life as it used to be.
‘We had the oak flooring put down a few weeks ago so the skirting boards need painting, but I’ll have to get someone in,’ he says.
‘Stuff like that frustrates me.
‘It takes a while to adjust. Bryony and I used to go camping, but we can’t do that again because I couldn’t put up a tent. We used to love walking in the countryside. We can’t now. I like running in the rain and I can’t do that. It all got taken away.
‘And knowing I can’t have my own kids is just another setback, another thing.’
Again, Bryony comforts him: ‘We weren’t going to have children for ages anyway. My idea of perfection is snuggling up with you in bed. It’s my favourite thing to fall asleep and wake up next to you — I almost lost you and I can’t bear to think about life without you. We’re just putting you back together at the moment.’
She turns to me: ‘Matt used to say he was worried he’d be a burden and hold me back but that’s not true. I try to forget the bad stuff and focus on what we’ve still got. I don’t notice things like his colostomy bag.’
Bryony was 16 and studying for her A-levels with ambitions to be a speech therapist when she was introduced to Matthew by a mutual friend. She says she liked his sense of humour, his ‘Matt-ness’, and, she says, she was enormously attracted to him.
Matthew was, after all, a very fit, handsome young man. The thought that he might be injured in Afghanistan didn’t really occur to either of them. Perhaps it was the naivety of youth, or perhaps it was easier that way. Whatever, Bryony was just desperately upset at the thought of not seeing him for six months.
Matt says: ‘I suppose I didn’t want to think about the possibility that anything might happen. I didn’t think it would. I was good at my job. But things go wrong.’
‘I said to one of the lads: “I’ve lost my legs.” I could see all the blood squirting out the end.'
Indeed. Matthew had been in Afghanistan little less than four months when he was injured as he searched with a metal detector for IEDs in the Sangin region on June 29 of last year. He continues to go over and over that night in his mind, but still doesn’t understand how a bomb was missed.
It exploded as he walked towards his team to give the all clear. The force of the explosion blew him 15 metres away. He remembers a flash, his ears ringing, tumbling through the air and hitting the ground.
‘I felt like I’d been punched in the head, but everywhere. It wasn’t really a sharp pain. It just felt like everything had been crushed. But the adrenaline keeps you going so you don’t really feel the pain. It’s hard to explain. You kind of think differently.
‘I said to one of the lads: “I’ve lost my legs.” I could see all the blood squirting out the end. The last thing I remember hearing was a quad bike engine.’
Did he think he was going to die? ‘Yeah, you do at that moment,’ he says. ‘You start to lose consciousness and don’t really know what’s going on.’
Matthew lost seven pints of blood, as well as losing his limbs and his internal injuries. He was flown from Afghanistan to critical care at Selly Oak, Birmingham.
Bryony was staying with Matthew’s mother Rena, a theatre nurse, in Taunton when a female officer knocked.
‘I opened the door and when I saw her uniform I panicked,’ says Bryony.
‘She sat Matt’s mum and me on the sofa and told us he’d been injured. She said he’d lost his legs and an arm but didn’t know much else because they were flying him back and had to wait until the plane landed.
‘I don’t remember going to Birmingham. I might have blocked it out. I can’t think about it. I break down now when I do so I really try and push it out of my brain.
‘If I think about losing Matt, it brings everything . . .’ she’s almost in tears now, so stops to collect herself.
‘When I saw him he was under a sheet and full of bandages. You couldn’t see his body. His face had some scratches, but he just looked like he was asleep. When I saw him I just knew he’d be fine. But there was lots of scary stuff when he was in critical care. He had lots of bad dreams. He kept telling me to get out of the room because he was scared I’d get hurt. He thought he was in a computer game.’
Thankfully, Matthew remembers little of that week.
‘The first day I remember being conscious was our anniversary [of the day they started seeing one another] July 8,’ he says.
‘When I first woke up I wasn’t sure what state I was in so I didn’t want Bryony to see me. But as soon as I was told she’d been with me most of the time, I wanted her back at once.
‘It’s hard to explain what it felt like when I saw her. It all seemed like a bit of a dream. I decided there and then I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her.
‘The first thing I did when I came out of critical care and got my wallet back was borrow a laptop to look at different websites for an engagement ring. I ordered one that I designed myself — I chose the diamond, the setting — and spent £3,000. That was everything I had at the time.’
Matthew says he was nervous as hell about proposing to her so procrastinated for months until January 16. When he eventually summoned the courage, Bryony was delighted.
He was really, really romantic,’ she says.
‘We were together in his mum’s conservatory and he blindfolded me so I couldn’t see the ring until he put it on my finger and said: ‘I should have done this a long time ago. Will you marry me?’
‘I never thought he’d propose. I know that he had this thing about being a burden and holding me back, but Matt is always Matt to me. My parents are the same — they really love him — although I think my dad had a bit of a father-of-the-bride moment when I told him, probably because we’re quite young. I know they’re happy, though, and we’re going to wait until I’m 21 to get married.’
For now, they’re both taking each day as it comes. They don’t think too far ahead; don’t make too many plans.
‘It’s just little steps,’ says Bryony.
‘I can’t think about the bad stuff.’
Which is, I realise, how Bryony manages to cope. She knows, of course, that there will be more surgery ahead, more struggles with prosthetics, more frustration, but nevertheless, the couple intend to marry on July 7, 2012, the Saturday before their fifth anniversary.
And Bryony, who is now studying at college in Norwich, says she really can’t wait. As for Matthew, well, he’s determined to be walking.
‘The only thing I really want to achieve is to be able to walk so I can stand for our wedding.’
I, for one, truly hope he does.