A SILVER figurine usually hangs above the bay window of Martyn and Michelle Compton's welcoming East Sussex home. It's a guardian angel, positioned to watch over the young couple who have journeyed to hell and back in the past few years.
Martyn was a 22-year-old lance-corporal in the Household Cavalry when he was so badly burned in a 2006 Taleban ambush in Afghanistan that he "died" twice. He suffered third degree burns to three-quarters of his body and his thigh was shattered after he was shot in the leg as he lay engulfed in flames, his body armour melting into his flesh. He lost his ears, his nose and his hair, and his eyelids were fused inside out.
Sedated for almost three months, Martyn lay in a coma in Broomfield Hospital, Essex. Constantly at his bedside was his fiance, Michelle Clifford – a guardian angel if ever there was one.
Her love for him, and the dedicated care of the doctors and nurses who have looked after him, helped Martyn come through more than 50 hours of surgery – many more will follow. New ears will be "grown" and his nose and face will slowly be rebuilt. How many operations has he undergone? "Oh, more than 15," he replies, turning to Michelle, who admits that she's lost count, too.
Martyn was the only survivor of the horrific Musa Qala bombing in Helmand province on 1 August 2006. For him, as for so many of the casualties of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, the war will never be over. Certainly, he will be battling the injuries he sustained for the rest of his life. He says, simply: "I may not have the life I once had, but at least I have a life."
He and Michelle, who finally married in what Michelle calls "a dream wedding" last July, are in the process of moving to a larger house, in a village only a few miles away from their home near Hastings. Despite the many packing cases in their living room, it's still comfortable, and Martyn, now 25, and Michelle, 28, like to cuddle up on the sofa to watch Coronation Street. Martyn has also been following Return to Afghanistan, Ross Kemp's graphic exploration of modern warfare for Sky TV.
"He tells it like it is," Martyn says. "He shows how talented soldiers are – and the dangers they have to face. It's amazing that I was part of that, and, yeah, I'm gutted it's over."
Building a new life for themselves at last, they started packing at the weekend. One of the first possessions to be carefully stowed away was that guardian angel from over the window, a gift from Angela Nicholls, the widow of 27-year-old Lance-Corporal Ross Nicholls, who died on that terrible day alongside Captain Alex Eida (29) and Lieutenant Ralph Johnson (24).
"We are so grateful to her for meeting us, so grateful that she wanted to be our friend," says Martyn who, with Michelle, has written a poignant and powerful book, Home From War: How Love Conquered the Horrors of a Soldier's Afghan Nightmare, which draws on their unique voices, as well as extracts from Michelle's diaries and their love letters.
Prince William, a fellow member of D Squadron, The Household Cavalry Regiment, wrote the foreword, paying tribute to "this remarkable man" and his inspirational courage, adding that it was a privilege "to count Martyn Compton as a friend".
Repeat the Prince's words to Martyn and he demurs. "Inspirational? I don't know about that – I've just tried to come through with Michelle by my side. I don't know how to do anything else. You just have to get on with it."
"But why me?" he asks in Home From War. "Why should a guardian angel watch out for me more than Ross, Ralph or Alex? Don't tell me it was their time. I don't believe that. Don't tell me they were abandoned by their spiritual protectors. They were good men, with good families."
He says now: "The truth is, there is no reason. What happened, happened. I was lucky, that's all. Lucky to live. Some people might think that I wasn't lucky – that I would have been better off dying. Not me. I don't think that; Michelle and my family don't think that. I'm grateful for every day."
He and Michelle refer to what happened in Afghanistan as "the incident". Only five weeks into a four-month tour of duty in Helmand, Martyn and his troop were attempting to resupply Danish soldiers when they came under fire from Taleban fighters before being hit by a roadside bomb.
Martyn was driving because the regular man was down with heat exhaustion, otherwise he too would have been in the back of the Spartan armoured tank. They were in an apparently abandoned village when the back of the vehicle was blown off. A rocket-propelled grenade hit the engine, which exploded, engulfing Martyn's upper body and face in a fireball.
Somehow – despite breaking his arm as he leapt from the driver's cab – he managed to pull off his molten body armour and helmet, before rolling in the sand to try to douse the flames. (Later, it emerged, he had picked up flesh-eating bugs from the sand.) As he crawled for cover behind a wall, he was shot in the leg by a Taleban fighter. Only an act of selfless bravery by three of his colleagues saved him. Lance-Corporal of Horse, Andrew Radford, who has since received the Conspicuous Gallantry Award for his courage, led the rescue, the three men hauling Martyn's body into their tank. His skin was so badly burned they could hardly recognise him. All Martyn remembers, through the excruciating pain, is saying to his comrade: "Radders, I could kiss you."
When Martyn met Michelle Clifford, a PE teacher and keen women's football player, it was love at first sight. His dad introduced them, in January 2006 – he was a regular at a pub where she worked in the evenings.
"We just clicked," Michelle recalls, adding that the first evening they spent together they sat up all night talking. Barely six months later, Martyn learned he was being deployed to Afghanistan, so he bought a diamond engagement ring and proposed to Michelle at her family's home in Frittenden, Kent. A fortnight later, he left with D Squadron for Helmand.
Michelle remembers telling him, amid the tears, to come back safely. She then steadfastly refused to watch news bulletins or read newspaper headlines. She got tender love letters from him and bouquets of flowers; then came the dreadful news that he was injured – neither she nor his dad knew how badly – and that he was being flown home.
When she first saw him, he was covered in bandages and his body was horrifically swollen. She didn't trust herself to speak without breaking down. Silently, she says, she willed him to live; then she began talking to him and playing their songs – Van Morrison's Brown Eyed Girl and Queen's Don't Stop Me Now.
For almost a year, she took on the daily tasks of feeding him, washing his face and brushing his teeth. His skin needed moisturising every few hours. ("I was a guy who always moisturised anyway!" he laughs.) When she first held up a mirror to him, he cried uncontrollably, but she held him until he stopped.
He told her he would understand if she didn't want to marry him, looking the way he did; but she had already set the date, put a 500 deposit on a wedding dress, and booked the ceremony and reception at a Kent mansion. A local designer offered to create her a dress for nothing, after reading a newspaper article about their wedding plans. ("The other shop refused to give me my deposit back – it didn't matter, though. I got a special dress that made me feel like a princess.") And Martyn walked her down the aisle, just as she'd repeatedly promised him he would during the early days as he lay in a coma in hospital. They honeymooned in Sri Lanka and the Maldives (a 10,000 wedding present from a travel company boss touched by their story), where Martyn, unbelievably, went scuba-diving.
There's a remarkable lack of self-pity or bitterness about them as they tell their story – even when discussing the trouble they had securing compensation for Martyn's injuries. Initially awarded just 98,837.50 for his three worst injuries under the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme, the eight other wounds he'd suffered counted for nothing. How did he feel about that?
"Do you mind me saying this word? Pissed off!" he exclaims.
In May, 2008, at the Britain's Best Awards, he told the Prime Minister about his situation and Gordon Brown "listened graciously". Falklands hero, Simon Weston, who was also badly burned serving his country, backed Martyn's campaign and late last year the rules on multiple injuries changed, and Martyn received an additional award. The lump sum was also increased to almost four times the original figure.
"Obviously, I wanted to be able to look after Michelle and the family we plan to have. That's all I've ever wanted out of life," he says. "I was pleased for myself and for all the soldiers who will be injured in the future. Thanks to the support of others, I was able to change the rules for them.
"What's the point in feeling bitter? We have each other. What happened can't be changed. It's too late to regret; it's too late to be angry. We've both got scars, yes, but scars are only wounds that have healed. They're the sign of getting better."
In November, the Comptons flew to New York to take part in Walk New York in aid of the Household Cavalry Operational Casualties Fund. They raised a staggering 35,000.
Moving forwards means a relentless regime of rehab for Martyn, who is getting more mobile daily. He does lots of jobs around the house and even cooks. "He could barely do beans on toast once," laughs Michelle.
Moving forward also means starting a family. "We both desperately want children," says Michelle, as Martyn tells how, when he emerged from the coma, one of the first things he asked was whether his "bits" were intact. They were, doctors told him. Nonetheless, he insisted that his dad look under the sheets to double-check.
True love, says Michelle, goes beyond sexual attraction. "I fell in love with Martyn the man – I loved his cheeky smile and sparkling eyes and when I look at him now, that's all I see. He may look different on the outside, but on the inside he's the same Martyn. In hospital, the first time he opened his eyes, he just looked at me and said: 'Hello, babe, how are you?' That's typical Martyn – thinking first of me."
• Home From War by Martyn and Michelle Compton is published by Mainstream, priced 14.99.
• For information about the Household Cavalry Operational Casualties Fund, tel: 01753 855207.