Rob Cromey-Hawkes was left brain injured when he was blown up in Afghanistan. It means he cannot remember the simplest things. Catherine Scott reports.
A wedding album is important to all married couples, but for Rob and Karen Cromey-Hawkes it is vital. Without the scores of photographs Karen had taken of their wedding day last month, Rob would struggle to remember their special day at Coniston Hall Hotel, near Skipton
The former soldier cruelly lost his short and a lot of his long term memory when he was blown up while serving in Afghanistan in December 2012.
Other than an injury to his back, Rob appeared unscathed, but the blast caused permanent brain damage. It meant that he struggled to remember anything about the attack or details of his life with Karen and her two sons before his injuries.
“It is like a jigsaw with some of the pieces missing. Often I can recognise people but not know their names or why I know them,” says Rob. As well as his memory the blast robbed him of his personality.
“Rob went off the Afghanistan the most romantic, thoughtful person,” says Karen. “ He never forgot anything, anniversaries, birthdays. He wore his heart on his sleeve and wasn’t afraid to cry. That was the man I fell in love with, but he came back a completely different person.”
Rob came back cold, frustrated and angry. “I think we were both in denial for at least the first 18 months,” says Karen. “I knew something was very wrong but I didn’t want to know. I had my head in the sand.”
“I was very frustrated,” admits Rob. “I had been told what an amazing guy I had been before I went to Afghanistan and I became frustrated by not being able to do the things people told me I could do before. I just couldn’t deal with the emotions.”
At one point things got so bad that Karen thought they might not stay together. But this brave and determined couple have made it despite the odds and they now have a marriage and a precious new life in Pippa who was born at Christmas.
“It got to the point where I either walked away or found a way to move forward. I decided that Rob’s injury wasn’t going to define us or our relationship. Things aren’t perfect and I still get things wrong but we are learning,” says Karen a teacher from Skipton. “We had some very dark times and when we didn’t think the relationship was going to work. We’ve had to build anew relationship. Both of us have had to fall in love again. He is a different person and I have learnt to accept that.”
The pair met in a bar in Rutland five years ago. Both were separated from their partners and Karen was living in Germany with her sons Connor and Charlie now 14 and 17.
Rob had joined the Parachute Regiment at 19 before going off to Sandhurst and becoming a captain in the Royal Engineers.
The pair hit it off, messaged each other and eventually Karen moved back to the UK becoming a Deputy Headmistress in Skipton, 50 miles from Rob’s base at Catterick.
They had been together 18 fantastic months when Rob was sent on his second tour of Afghanistan.
“He always phoned me twice a week at the same time but then one evening just before Christmas he phoned me unexpectedly,” recalls Karen.
“He said there was no need to worry but a few days earlier his vehicle had driven over an IED which went off. I knew he was playing things down as he had always protected me from the dangers of his job. He said he would be home earlier than expected, on Christmas Eve and that he was fine.” But it soon became clear to Karen that all was not fine.
“On the drive home every bump we drove over caused him agony.” Rob was diagnosed with spinal injuries and over the following 16 months he was admitted seven times to Headley Court in Surrey, the armed forces’ dedicated rehabilitation centre. Each visit lasted for around four weeks. The centre provides the best possible medical care, but it was a long way from Karen.
SSAFA’s Norton House provided accommodation and support for Karen and the boys while Rob was at Headley Court so they could spend weekends with him. But it became clear to Karen that his back wasn’t Rob’s only problem.
“He started doing things like leaving the cooker on or the keys in the ignition when he went to the supermarket.” After six month it became clear that Rob had a brain injury and tests showed he had lost 30 per cent of his cognitive and social skills.
“I hit some very dark places,” says Rob. “I just couldn’t understand why I couldn’t do things. I was a soldier we aren’t used to admitting that we can’t do things.” Rob put on a lot of weight and became depressed.
But with time and a lot of support from psychologists, a variety of charities and Karen, Rob learned to accept his limitations and make the most of what he could do.
“I have come to terms with what I can and cannot do,” says Rob who now works as an inspirational speaker for charities and businesses.
“I talk about the fact that you don’t have to suffer a head injury to reassess your life.”
But life is still tough for Rob, a keen sportsman and is in training for Prince harry’s in the Invictus Games in Orlando.
“I have to have a lot of structure and routine in my life and everything is ruled by planning, alarms and my iPad. If I didn’t set alarms I wouldn’t remember to have a meal, or clean my teeth. I know I am not going to get better, I just have learnt to deal wit it better.”
Karen is passionate about raising awareness of the need for support not only for the injured person but for their family.
“It is knowing support is out there and asking for it. We have come a long way. The future is really bright.”
SSAFA, the Armed Forces charity, is searching for new volunteer recruits to join its ranks.
The needs of the local Yorkshire Armed Forces community are increasing and becoming more complex and SSAFA is looking for more volunteers to provide front line support for a range of issues experienced by local military veterans and their families in need. SSAFA believes that they have had our backs and now it is time for us to have theirs.
If you are interested in joining the Yorkshire SSAFA volunteer team, please contact SSAFA on 0845 658 1167 or visit www.ssafa.org.uk/newrecruits