A former sailor left a virtual MUTE for eight years after watching two comrades die in a training incident has finally found his voice – to propose to his new sweetheart.
Matthew Rawlins, 37, was only able to speak properly for the first time again after meeting his partner Amy Fletcher, known as AJ, 28.
He had lived with the horrors of PTSD since witnessing two fellow sailors drown after they had fallen overboard during a training exercise in the ice-cold Baltic Sea in 2002.
The subsequent years left him only able to communicate via hand signals as his muffles were inaudible.
And he even spent time living in a log cabin in his parent’s back garden after being medically discharged from the Royal Navy.
But after suffering in silence he finally found the inner strength to begin speaking again after meeting his now fiancée and love-of-his life across a fire at a scout camp.
He said: “We hit it off instantly. It was an incredible moment and a life-changing one for me.
“I had spent eight years struggling with my speech and after any sign of progress I was being knocked back again.
“But when I met AJ everything just clicked.
“She was the first person I had really been able to talk with and open up to. She was gently asking questions and we took things slowly but gradually my speech became fluent again.
“That was the defining moment for me. We were sat around the camp-fire from about 9pm to the early hours just talking and we had so much in common.”
The couple met in Plymouth in 2010 and got engaged in May this year.
This will be the first Christmas the pair are spending together and they plan to wed in July 2017.
It has been a long road for Matt who was initially diagnosed with PTSD just two months after the training incident, and he also credits the charity Help for Heroes for playing a crucial role in aiding his recovery.
And he has now spoken for the first time about his remarkable journey and the battle to shed his inner-demons.
He had been part of a team of first aiders battling to save two German sailors who capsized while being transferred back to their ship after a “swap” during a UN training task force in the Baltic Sea.
Their inflatable boat hit a wave and was caught underneath by a giant gust of wind.
It flipped over and plunged the three Germans and two British Royal Navy personnel into the water.
Matt was part of the team onboard HMS Cumberland who gave CPR to both casualties for up to two hours, but said they were already dead by the time they came aboard.
He recalled: “I was working getting the evening meal ready and peeling some potatoes and as I did a ship alarm went off to announce a man overboard.
“A call then went out for all qualified first aiders to get onto the boat deck.
“We threw everything we could to try and save their lives but unfortunately it was just not good enough.”
The three other casualties were brought back on board but despite suffering from cold and shock they made full recoveries.
Struggling to deal with the horror of what he had seen, Matt, who had joined the Royal Navy in 1999, said they all initially coped in the only way they knew how.
He said: “We used dark humour and alcohol as a way to try and forget.
“But it was a really horrific part of my life and was something that no-one on board expected. It hit us like a missile with the same amount of force.
“It was the wrong thing to do, but we coped as well as we could. We felt at the time we would be weak if we went to get help.
“Thankfully, because of the all the work done by Help for Heroes and Combat Stress, all of that has changed now and PTSD is a lot more recognised.”
But without that later support, Matt attempted suicide a few months after the incident.
He said: “Everything got to me and I felt like I could not cope anymore. I felt alone so I attempted to take my own life.
“At the time I believe it was my intention to kill myself but luckily I was not successful and a fellow crewmate found me.”
The stricken sailor was then taken to a military hospital and diagnosed with mixed Dissociative and conversion disorders which resulted in severe muscular tremors and affected his speech so badly he was considered a mute.
He said: “I knew what I wanted to say but nothing was coming out of my mouth.
“It was very frustrating as I thought I was speaking but other people could not understand what I was saying or if I was talking at all.”
He was put back onto a ship but suffered a relapse while heading off the Gulf at the outbreak of the Iraq war.
He said: “I was told I would be leaving the ship and my bag was packed and I was put ashore.
“I was taken into a Greek military hospital where I was looked after until a nurse could fly out and bring me back to the UK.”
Matt eventually left the Navy in December 2005 but struggled to find regular work due to his condition.
He said: “My speech had got so bad I had to do sign language to my parents.
“I would make the tea sign with two hands and had to make other symbols just to explain what I wanted. It was just a thumbs up and thumbs down.
“I would get night terrors and it got so bad that although my parents wanted to look after me – they knew if I stayed in house they would not be able to cope.
“My father then built a log cabin for me in the back garden so I could live close enough to get help and they could make sure I was eating, sleeping and cleaning myself properly.
“I am 100 per cent different and meeting AJ and getting all the support I have from Help for Heroes has been a huge part of that.
“I am now able to look after myself and speak again quite fluently.
“I definitely thought I would never be in this position and six years ago I would never have believed it was possible.”
AJ, a former servicewomen with the RAF, said: “I met Matt the week I was meant to be discharged from the RAF at the Scout camp.
“Matt was not talking back then – but I saw a little twinkle in his eye and though ‘he is alright’
“We sat around the campfire til 4.30am the next mornign and our friendship blossomed form there.
“It took a long while for Matt to come round from a speech point of view – but I thought it was really important to give him the time to speak no matter what. He needed to talk, it is a human thing to do and sort himself out.”
Matt and AJ have both been benefiting from the new recovery centre run by Help for Heroes in Plymouth, that has already supported more than 500 veterans since it opened in April 2014.
Jock Easton, Head of Recovery West at Help for Heroes said: “Since Matt was introduced to us at the beginning of 2014 he has progressed massively.
“He was unemployed and unsure of his next steps. We linked him up with a local training provider and he is now thriving, with our continued support and the backing of his fiancée AJ who, as a beneficiary herself, also makes use of the Plymouth Recovery Centre.
“It has been great to see Matt’s self-confidence grow in recent months and, as a result of that and his own determination, his speech has improved dramatically.”