It was the last thing I wanted to hear. 'Afghanistan?' I gasped. 'Only for six months,' my fiance Terry McDonald said. 'I'll be back for the birth.' Three months pregnant with our first child, I couldn't bear the thought of Terry being at war. But I wasn't just worried about him making it back in one piece. I was scared the fighting would change him forever.
On 12 March 2008, five days before our son Cameron was born, Terry came home, threw himself into being a dad. Snuggled up with me each night. But his mask of happiness soon slipped. Romance turned to rows. He’d go boozing on a Friday night, not return until Sunday. ‘ You’re a dad,’ I’d say. ‘Your son is more important than beer.’ He’d just shrug. I refused to give up. The man I loved was in there somewhere. A year on, in March 2009, we had our daughter Holly, bought our first family home in Wigan. True to his word, Terry left the Army. But it was far from the quick-fix solution I had hoped for… Terry drifted from selling vacuum cleaners into roofing. We struggled to make ends meet, and what he did make he blew on booze. I put up with it. Didn’t want to lose him. But in September 2010 I reached the end of my tether. One Saturday, the kids had stayed with Terry’s sister, Melissa, 14, and mum, Kim, 48. Terry promised to take the kids out on the Sunday. Instead he stayed out all night. ‘Where were you?’ I fumed when he returned later. ‘Out!’ Terry spat, his eyes bulging with anger. Another blazing row. I hardly recognized him. ‘I’m going to set fire to the house,’ he ranted. ‘Do it!’ I shouted, slamming the door behind me. The second the words left my mouth, I regretted them. But I was angry. ‘I don’t understand why he’s changed,’ I sobbed later to Kim. Melissa and Kim went back to check on Terry. Upset, I went to see my mum, Trish. Minutes later Melissa was hammering on Mum’s door. ‘Terry’s tried to burn the house down,’ she panted. My God! He’d really done it. Terrified, I called the police, then raced round. When I arrived, the fire was out. I was gobsmacked as I staggered through the front door. Everything was covered in black soot. ‘W-what happened?’ I stammered as I stared into the burnt-out kitchen. ‘Terry tore down the lounge curtains, then laid them across the hob,’ Kim explained. ‘Smoke was billowing when I arrived, and I could see the curtains smouldering on the cooker.’ Kim had raced round side of the house to the shed, whipped the damp towels from the washing machine and smothered the flames with them. The searing heat had melted the cooker and kitchen cabinets. Seconds later the police and fire crew had arrived. Stormed upstairs. Found Terry in bed. ‘I don’t deserve to be here,’ he’d screamed. ‘I want to die.’ I listened, stunned as I heard Terry had put up such a fight as fire crews tried to rescue him. He even had to be restrained. As I collapsed into sobs, Kim helped me outside. Terry was lead out, his head hung low, hands cuffed. He was charged with arson being reckless as to whether life is endangered. How had it come to this?
Three months on, last December, at Liverpool Crown Court, Terry admitted arson. As his lawyer spoke, my heart sank. He explained Terry was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder due to his experiences of war, including terrible flashbacks… What he’d seen had really affected him. Two months into his tour of Afghanistan, he’d witnessed the deaths of his platoon sergeant and a corporal after the vehicle they he’d just got out of exploded. It had hit an anti-tank mine. Terry had run to help, but it was too late. He had survivors guilt, the court heard. Didn’t feel he deserved to live. The fire was a cry for help. Oh love, I thought, guilt-racked. I hadn’t realised. I was horrified when Terry was sentenced to two years. He appealed and, on 9 March this year it was lowered to a year. I hated myself for missing the signs, but knew I needed to help Terry recover. The Royal British Legion were a lifeline. Put me in touch with military charity Combat Stress. They visited Terry in prison. Arranged counselling. Overnight, he changed. It was like the weight of guilt had been lifted. Terry was released from prison after six months. He’s still having counselling, and is opening up to me. We’ve even set a date for our wedding next July.
Though Terry might not feel it, he’s my hero. And I’m so glad he survived.