Gunner Mark Stonelake’s story begins in 2006 when he met and started dating Donna.
Mark served with the 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery, who train troops to become warfare specialists for all terrains including mountains, deserts and jungles, whilst Donna served as an Able Seaman in the Royal Navy.
Two years later Mark was deployed to Afghanistan. As a Servicewoman, Donna understood the possibility of Mark being sent to war but focused on staying positive.
“Obviously I was really worried,” said Donna.” As soon as I found out he was going, I thought ‘Oh God!’ because I’ve heard so many horror stories about Afghanistan. But I think my experience in the Forces helped me to cope with it better than someone who wasn’t serving. I just kept telling Mark to be careful and we just focused on him coming home – we always looked ahead.”
Tragically Mark’s tour was cut short by a roadside bomb, which left him severely injured. His leg had to be amputated and his other foot was badly damaged. He also suffered a fractured back, and broken bones, nose, jaw and teeth.
Upon arrival back to the UK, Mark was sent to the Selly Oak Hospital for treatment. Donna was serving in Edinburgh and only found out the news when Mark’s father rang her.
“Mark’s dad rang me and I was just hysterical, struggling to take it all in,” she recalls. He told her that Mark was being put into a medically induced coma and had only 80 percent chance of survival.
“Mark’s dad rang me and I was just hysterical, struggling to take it all in.”Donna Stonelake
“We didn’t know exactly what had happened, but we knew he was in a bad way and he’d lost his leg. The worst thoughts went through my head - I just wanted to see him, hold his hand and pray he’d pull through.”
A week to see him
Donna had to apply for compassionate leave, but was kept from seeing Mark until a week after the attack.
Thankfully by then he had beaten the most likely outcome and regained consciousness.
“I had to wait a week to see him, which was the worst week of my life. As soon as I saw him I couldn't believe how different he looked. His left leg was gone from above the knee and he just looked so skinny and pale. It was a huge shock to see him looking so ill.
“Mark was convinced he was still in Afghanistan, but thankfully he didn't have any memory of the attack, which meant he’d never have any horrible flashbacks.”
As he had no memory of what had happened to him, Mark had to be told that he’d lost his leg and, heartbreakingly, he feared that Donna might leave him because of his injuries.
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
"Initially Mark was devastated to lose his leg. He asked me if I would leave him but that thought never ever crossed my mind.”
Donna was undeterred by his life changing injuries and she vowed to stand by him.
"I told him how much I loved him and that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him. Mark replied saying that, once he was better, he would marry me."
"I told him how much I loved him and that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him."
Donna’s support gave Mark the strength to get better.
“Once Mark knew I would always be there for him he started to accept what had happened and didn’t dwell on his injuries. Instead he was just so thankful to be alive. I truly admired his spirit – not once did he moan or say ‘why me?’ and he actually gave me the strength to deal with it.”
The Road to Recovery
Just three months later, after being referred to a spinal specialist in North Wales, he learnt to walk again at Headley Court with a prosthetic limb. Whilst receiving treatment there Mark was one of the first wounded soldiers to benefit from the Legion-funded Battle Back programme.
“Mark amazed everyone with his recovery - he got used to his prosthetic limb very quickly and even skipped the crutches stage so he could walk unaided. Looking at him now you would never imagine the pain he’d suffered.”
Over the next 12 months Donna supported Mark on his slow and painful road to recovery.
“In the Navy you are taught to be quite resilient to bad news, but nothing ever prepares you for something like this. It knocked me for six but I knew I had to stay strong for Mark’s sake and we just focused on the future taking one step at a time.
“The attack was the worst thing we have ever been through, but in a way, it’s actually brought us closer together and made us stronger. Our daughter Grace was conceived while Mark was receiving treatment at Headley Court, so he was certainly determined to prove he wanted to spend the rest of his life with me!”
They bought a house together, and Donna gave birth to their daughter Grace almost a year to the day after Mark’s attack.
“Mark is a fantastic husband and father and I know that, as long as we stick together, we can get through anything.”
The couple are now happily married and have two more daughters, Mollie and Olivia. Donna left the Navy in 2011 to be a stay-at-home mum and Mark has been medically discharged from the Army.
Despite everything he has been through, Mark feels stronger than ever and now volunteers helping the elderly in care homes.
“The Royal British Legion is my personal favourite charity, and the people at the Legion down in Devon helped me while I was in the Army, and I know that help will continue, should myself or my family need it in the future.”Mark Stonelake
SUPPORT THE POPPY APPEAL
Helping us to support members of the Armed Forces community like Mark and Donna and their families is just one of the reasons to wear a poppy each November.
There are thousands of other stories behind the poppy. Please share them to show people how The Royal British Legion poppy is both a symbol of Remembrance and one of hope for our recent veterans and serving men, women and their families.