It was July 4, 2009 when Lieutenant Colonel Stewart Hill had his independence taken away from him. But he doesn’t remember much of what happened on that hot, dusty Saturday, and has no recollection at all of the moment the lights went out on his former life for ever.
His last memory was of a Chinook helicopter rising from a ploughed Afghan field. It carried the lifeless body of 18-year-old Private Robert Laws and other injured men of the Light Dragoons and 2 Mercian, victims of an attack with rocket-propelled grenades by the Taliban. After that, the gaps have to be filled in by others.
Although Hill was in an area that had been swept with metal detectors for improvised explosive devices (IEDs), one had escaped detection. After the helicopter had taken off, Lance Corporal David Dennis stepped on an IED and was killed. Hill, who was in command of 160 men, was blown into a hedge by the explosion. As he says now, these things happen – they are simply the cold and cruel reality of war. He was found curled up in the foetal position, his radio antenna embedded in his skull.
He also had shrapnel lodged in his cerebellum (part of the brain at the back of the skull) and had badly bruised the frontal lobe of his brain. On the flight back to the UK, the plane had to land twice for fear that the medical team was losing him, but he made it back alive to the Queen Elizabeth hospital in Birmingham.
Today, there is little to show that he was blown up by an IED. He lost none of his limbs and suffered no disfigurement. The only physical signs that something might be wrong are the hearing aids fitted to both ears – his eardrums were perforated in the blast.
The casual observer would probably not notice that when 41-year-old Hill goes to make a coffee, he forgets to put a cup in the machine. You might attribute the fact that he frequently rubs his temple to tiredness. He is tired. Sometimes, he needs 14 hours’ sleep a night, and even then he wakes up exhausted, unable to function properly because he has what is known as a traumatic brain injury (TBI) – his so-called “executive functioning” damaged, and with it his ability to concentrate or pay attention or to process information. His sense of taste and smell barely exist.
When he talks about himself, he refers to his “old” and his “new” brain. With the new brain has come a personality change that makes him barely recognisable from the tough-talking Army man of the past. “I went from commanding 160 men to struggling to command myself,” he states simply.
But he is, as he says now, “in a fairly easy position. I have post-traumatic amnesia, which means I don’t remember anything from half an hour before the accident to about three weeks after it – the worst three weeks of my life, essentially.”
His wife does, however. Melissa, 40, has a clear memory of everything, from the moment she received a knock on the door “at about 10 to one in the morning on the Sunday”, through to today, as we sit among the Christmas decorations in their family home just outside Nottingham. Their two-year-old daughter Annabel drives a toy car through the kitchen; their 12-year-old Olivia is at school.
“It can be quite difficult living with a toddler, an adolescent and a man with a brain injury,” is Melissa’s wry response when asked how she finds things.
The men from the Ministry of Defence told Melissa that her husband – they have been together since she was 19 – had a serious head wound and was unlikely to survive. The next evening she was told that they were considering bringing Stewart back to the UK, assessing whether or not he would survive the flight. “The hardest thing was Olivia. I had nothing to say to her because I didn’t know how badly injured he was. She was only nine.
“When I eventually told her, I said that I had some bad news. She said 'Has Nanna’s dog died?’ and I said no, the dog was fine. And then she said 'Is it Daddy?’ and she just screamed. It was awful.”
When Melissa first saw her husband in hospital, “he looked oddly fit. He had a tan from being out in the sun and was all pumped up from the work. There was just a bandage around his head. It wasn’t what you expected to see from a man who had just been seriously injured in Afghanistan.”
But she was about to learn that even though his body was fully intact, his mind was not. Despite an operation to remove the shrapnel from his cerebellum, two pieces had to be left in. “They were 2mm from the spinal cord and could have paralysed him,” she says.
After the operation, he was put into a coma. When he woke for the first time, a week after he had been admitted to hospital, he thought it was 2002. He did not recognise his brother. Several times, he had to be told that men had died during the operation that had injured him, and each time he would cry.
He didn’t believe anything was wrong with him – “I told Melissa that I was like Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and that it was all a conspiracy” – and he became paranoid that people were trying to get him, that planes would fall out of the sky and kill everyone around him.
“I had woken up with a different husband,” says Melissa. “He hadn’t lost a limb, but sometimes I wondered if maybe it would have been easier if he had. At least he would still be the same person he was before he went to Afghanistan.”
As well as having a serious brain injury, Hill was deeply depressed, and depression was something he had previously seen as a sign of weakness. He just wanted to get back to Afghanistan, to start fighting again. “I missed the leading,” he says, starkly. “I missed commanding my men.”
He was desperate to leave hospital. He spent five weeks in the Queen Elizabeth, then a further four at the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre at Headley Court, in Surrey. But after six months at home, pretending everything was OK, he accepted that things most definitely weren’t and returned to Headley Court for more help. It was there that he discovered that playing golf could be an important part of his rehabilitation.
“It quietened my mind, and more importantly, it got me outside,” he says.
It was through this introduction to the game that he became involved with the On Course Foundation, a charity dedicated to training injured Servicemen in a sport that they can play competitively and enjoy, that will assist their physical and mental recovery, and that can lead to a new career.
Without On Course, he isn’t sure how he would have muddled through. “It enabled me to be with like-minded people, to stay in with the military way of doing things – it is hard, when the Services are your life, to suddenly have all that taken away from you.”
In March of this year, he was discharged from the Army. He has put in a service complaint against the Ministry of Defence, because he feels that the care he received after the injury simply wasn’t good enough. “That makes me cross, more so than the injury,” says Melissa. “He got most of his rehabilitation from places like On Course.”
Today he is the charity’s employment officer, working three days a week to help find jobs for other injured Servicemen. “It has been a huge boost to his confidence and his self-esteem,” says Melissa. “Because all of that goes when you experience what Stewart has.”
And the injury has brought unexpected changes to the Hill household. “Having a new husband is not necessarily a bad thing. Before, his work came first and we came second. Olivia barely knew her father while she was growing up. He was the kind of man who volunteered for tours of Afghanistan without telling me.
“But what has changed is that he has learnt the value of family. Annabel spends all her time with him, and Olivia has her daddy back. So there are positives. There are many positives.”