Paul eager for wedding after overcoming Afghan trauma

Paul Lambert who was badly injured in Afganistan and his fiance Gillian Spence
Paul Lambert who was badly injured in Afganistan and his fiance Gillian Spence
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LIKE most blokes, Paul Lambert is looking forward to getting his hands on his latest hi-tech gadget.

It’ll have Bluetooth, he explains. “Plug it in, charge it up and away you go,” he adds.

There will be a microprocessor tucked inside, it’s custom made and will change his life. So what might this clever piece of kit be? Is it the latest smartphone? A do-it-all sleek and clever tablet? Perhaps a new laptop?

“They’re my ‘bigger boy’ legs,” he smiles, eyes twinkling, as he anticipates getting his hands on what every soldier brought home from Afghanistan minus his lower limbs really wants.

“There are a lot of terms for them,” continues Paul, now something of an expert since his legs were blown off by a Taliban landmine. “We call the prosthetic limbs ‘stubbies’ – well, these are long stubbies – but the correct name for them is ‘C Legs’.”

Terminology out of the way, Paul sets about explaining the technical bit. “You need to charge them up, they are programmed using Bluetooth,” he adds. “It’s like hydraulics inside so when you put one leg down, it knows to kick. All really hi-tech.”

But what’s most important about these new legs is that they will take Paul and his devoted fiancée, Gillian Spence, a giant step towards the biggest day of their lives.

Horrifically injured in Afghanistan in late 2009, just a few weeks later amid Christmas decorations and get well soon cards, Paul asked Gillian to marry him. He’d already asked her father for her hand: “My dad apparently said ‘Wait, you’re on a lot of morphine, son, are you sure?’” splutters Gillian, eyes rolling at how her far-too-sensible dad very nearly scuppered her entire future.

Convinced, Paul sent his future in-laws off to buy an engagement ring where they told a girl in the jewellers what they were doing. By the time they had picked the ring, the shop staff were sobbing.

Back at the hospital, Paul ushered everyone else from his hospital room, asked Gillian to stand up and close her eyes while he lowered his bed as far as it could go, almost as if he was bending down on one knee. It was possibly the most emotionally-charged marriage proposal imaginable.

When she said “yes” – although even now they gently argue with each other over whether she actually said the “yes” word or just burst into tears – they struck a deal that he would be up on his feet and walking tall and proud for their wedding day.

There was never, Gillian says, any question that she wouldn’t agree to his proposal. “I’m totally head over heels about him,” she says, stunned at the thought that his injuries might have made her think twice about the man she was taking on. “The thought of not being there with him is what scares me.”

Now after two-and-a-half years of waiting patiently, Gillian, 32, simply smiles and shrugs when asked when the big day might be. And yet, as they edge closer to the cherished “C Legs” arrival, she has at least allowed herself to start wondering if it could be soon.

“I’ve looked at a few wedding things,” she concedes, engagement ring glinting on her finger. “I’ve looked at venues online, I might have mentioned a few to Paul,” she giggles while he sighs in mock frustration. “And flowers, I’ve looked at flowers.

“But it’s important to Paul that he can walk down the aisle. And if that’s what he wants then it’s important to me, too.

“But,” she adds jokingly, “he needs to start pulling the finger out.”

Setting dates is dictated by what surgery Paul might need next. Certainly, the journey from Selly Oak in December 2009 to their stylish home in Harrison Road, Polwarth, has frequently diverted the couple back and forth to rehabilitation services at Headley Court, where injured servicemen like Paul are nursed – broken body and traumatised mind – before being coaxed into prosthetic limbs and eventually eased back to civilian life.

“We can’t put a date on anything,” interjects Paul, 31. “There could be hold-ups with the next operation, I don’t want anyone disappointed.”

His next surgery is a skin graft to repair one of his stumps, but he’s a veteran now of 30 operations, each to tackle the mass of lingering problems caused by the blast that ripped off his legs and caused such massive internal damage that his heart stopped on the way to the field hospital and two medics had to violently pound his chest in a desperate attempt to keep him alive.

By the time the helicopter taking him from Wisthan, the most heavily IED-ridden part of Helmand province, to the medical centre at Camp Bastion, former Musselburgh Grammar pupil Paul was “dead” – heart stopped, pupils dilated, not breathing.

That could well have been that. Except that Paul was in the hands of a remarkable medical team which point-blank refused to chuck in the towel. One desperately sliced his torso open from his groin to his neck, reached inside his mangled body to grasp his stilled heart and massaged it back to life.

Incredibly, Paul pulled through. He arrived in Birmingham’s Selly Oak Hospital in an induced coma, had three weeks in intensive care, some spent simply grateful to be alive, some amid a fog of confusion and misery as he came to terms with an explosion that didn’t just rip off his legs, but blew his whole world apart.

By the time he got to Headley Court for rehab, he could barely lift a 2kg weight. The first time he tried prosthetic legs, he vomited and fell over before getting up and trying again and again.

He will travel to Headley Court later this week to be issued with his new legs, a step further in his recovery and closer to his retiral from the army on medical grounds. He could have stayed in – a job in the storerooms may have been a possibility – but that wasn’t for Paul. “I’m a soldier,” he says simply. “I don’t want to work in stores.”

To keep him busy, he’s involved with The Soldiers’ Charity – formally the Army Benevolent Fund – which cut through bureaucratic red tape that been hindering him receiving a vital wheelchair ramp. The charity has been so helpful that Gillian wanted to give it something back and now uses her spare time to act as a volunteer in its Edinburgh offices.

Paul stays active, too, helping the charity and venturing into primary schools to talk to wide-eyed pupils about disability and the importance of remembering sacrifices made by servicemen and women. There, he fields probing questions from curious, straight-talking youngsters about what it felt like to step on a landmine and, in one fascinated little girl’s case, precisely how far his legs travelled from his body when they were blown off.

Paul laughs it off. He may have struggled to answer that one, he concedes, being otherwise engaged at the time in simply trying to stay alive.

Life’s certainly different now and the couple are planning a future which, if Paul gets his way, will be different again. Once married, he hopes they can move to a house somewhere along a bumpy track deep in the countryside with chickens and possibly a brood of children.

“There has been a lot of adjustment in our lives,” nods Gillian, “but we were so close to losing Paul that you just think, ‘well, it could have been so much worse’.

“When he was in Headley Court in a coma, the doctors said there could be brain damage, he’d gone so long without oxygen. When he did wake up, he turned and said ‘hiya’ and it was unbelievable,” she smiles.

“So everything since then has been moving forward and getting better.”

Paul, soon to be sporting those new hi-tech legs, remains astonishingly pragmatic, practical and simply grateful.

“I always say I’m not unlucky to be in this position,” he shrugs.

“I say ‘no, I’m very lucky’.”

Yomp to raise funds

Paul Lambert was serving with 1 Scots when he was injured just weeks into his first tour of duty in Afghanistan.

He’s been helped by The Soldiers’ Charity, which makes financial grants to support serving and former soldiers and their families.

Next month, teams of soldiers and civilians will join forces in a 52-mile “yomp” across the Scottish Highlands, aimed at raising vital funds for the charity, formally known as the Army Benevolent Fund.

The 2012 Alliance Trust Cateran Yomp starts at Blairgowrie and leads teams of between three to six people through Kirkmichael, Spittal of Glenshee and Kirton of Glenisla, with checkpoints and fun activities, such as archery and clay pigeon shooting along the way.

Teams can take part at different levels – bronze at 22 miles, silver at 36.5 miles or the ultimate – gold challenge – at 52 miles.

n For further details and to register to take part, go to www.soldierscharity.org/yomp or contact yomp@soldierscharity.org