Tony and Soraya

Falklands Veteran Tony suffered a devastating stroke, causing huge disruption to his personal and family life.

Tony and Soraya

Falklands Veteran Tony suffered a devastating stroke, causing huge disruption to his personal and family life.

Royal Navy veteran, Tony Rhodes, suffered a devastating stroke. Though lucky to be alive, severely restricted speech and movement brought an end to the full and active life he enjoyed with his family in France.

Tony’s wife Soraya made the tough decision to uproot the family and leave their life in France behind, so Tony could receive support in the UK. She had never lived in Britain before, but she knew it was where Tony needed to be for the best quality of life.

Worried and concerned about the system, Soraya turned to SSAFA for help. SSAFA’s French and Kent branches collaborated across borders to secure the Rhodes a new home and additional support for the whole family.

SSAFA continue to help the Rhodes family, providing lifelong support.

Most of us wanted to go home, but it was too late.

Tony joined the forces when he was 18 years old. He’d tried to join before, but his father, who had also been in the Armed Forces refused to sign his documentation.

Initially Tony joined the Army and served for two years, before transferring to the Navy, his dream career. But his dream quickly faltered when he served aboard HMS Glamorgan during the Falklands campaign.

He explains his experience in his own words.

“My father said, 'Don't do it. Don't do it.’” Tony said, “He had been in the Army, and he saw his friend blown up in Cyprus, as they were clearing landmines. He knew how hard it was, but I did it anyway.

“I wanted to join the Navy. I thought the Navy would be different and it was. I thought going around the world was good.

“I was in the Navy as an Able Seaman for six years. One year in training and two years were spent in Gibraltar.

“Then we got on a ship from Gibraltar and were out at sea. We didn’t know where we were going until we were halfway there. Most of the people thought we were going up north, but I knew we were going south. Then they told us, 'We're going to the Falklands.' As we got closer and closer most of us wanted to go home, but it was too late. It was war, and it didn’t happen like that.

“I was about 20 years old, and I was on board with about 550 men. We were there for 10 weeks. On ship we were up and down getting on with the job. We didn't have time to think about this and that, everybody just got on as normal. We were the ones firing missiles, so we thought we were alright. But three days before the end of the war, we were hit.

“I was working out on deck to one side, and my friend doing the same job as me on the other side of the ship got hurt as the missile struck. His leg was badly injured and burnt by the explosion.

“Thirteen men died on our ship. Some were missing arms, legs and heads. I was shouting at my good friend to get up, because I thought he was alive. His body was intact so I didn’t believe he could be dead. I knew then what my father meant. I remember it all the time.

“At the end of the war I asked to be sent home. Really, I wanted to leave the Navy. At first, they said no, but I asked again, and they put me on another ship to go back.

“I remember being stood on the side of the ship as we got back to the UK and a woman in the crowd shouted, ‘you weren’t even there to help HMS Glamorgan!’. She didn’t have a clue that it was the ship I served on and where I saw my friends die.

“I served three more years in the Navy after that. I was posted to Gibraltar in that time, and then I left service.

“I gave a year and a half notice to leave. The war had a big effect on me and during my service, my brother died in an accident, so I wanted to get away. I went to London but then decided I wanted to leave the UK so I decided to move away. At first I wanted to try America, but it was difficult to get in, so instead I tried Hong Kong. My family all thought I would go for two weeks, but I was away for 30 years.

“From Hong Kong I went to Australia, I worked in construction, particularly on boats and yachts.”

Our life was great.

Tony met his wife Soraya (originally from Columbia) in Fort Lauderdale in Florida. They have been married for 30 years.

“He went out dancing”, Soraya explains, “I was out dancing too, and we happened to meet. We moved in together two weeks later and have been together ever since.

“We had a lot in common. We loved to go out."

“He’d be working on boats all day, and I would work with him, then we would get home, get changed and go out for the night.

“Together we have four children. Our first child was born in New York, the second was born in Exeter in the UK and other two were born in Marbella in Spain.

“We lived in Gibraltar and then Spain for ten years, and then we moved to France. Our life was great. We were very active, always playing sport or running. Tony used to run marathons and the kids and I did 5km and 10km runs all the time.

“Every weekend we were on our bikes, swimming, diving or playing rugby as a family. But after the stroke everything changed.”

It wasn’t until the second year after his stroke that it really hit me.

In 2012, Tony went to Hong Kong on a business trip, working as a wine merchant. It was on the flight out there that he suffered a stroke that would change his life forever.

“Tony flew from Germany to Hong Kong” Soraya said. “He felt tired and wasn’t able to write on the landing card he needed to fill in for arrival. In his mind, he wasn’t ill so he carried on and went to the hotel. He hadn’t called me which was unusual, and his friend in Hong Kong who he was meeting said Tony hadn’t called him either.

“The next day, his friend went to the hotel, and they found him on the floor. He’d had the stroke already.

“An ambulance took him to hospital, but he couldn’t say a word and he was completely paralysed on his right-hand side.

“I remember speaking to the doctor. Tony was always so healthy, he didn’t smoke and didn’t drink so it was all unbelievable. I thought, 'It's not true.' So, I asked the doctor, 'Can I talk to him?' and he said, 'He cannot talk now.' I thought it's because he's asleep, not because he physically couldn’t talk. I thought, ‘what am I going to do with four children?’, 'my life has changed forever', so many thoughts came to my mind.”

“I could tell something was happening inside me” Tony added, “then I just fell down. That is all I remember. I don't want anybody to go through what I've been going through, but I am, unfortunately. That’s it.”

Soraya called Tony’s insurance immediately to get him into a specialist private hospital. He didn’t usually buy insurance cover, but fortunately had for that trip.

Tony was in hospital for a month, the day after he was admitted, Soraya flew out to be by his side for the duration, leaving her children for four weeks with friends.

“I knew Tony was alive so in my mind I knew I was going to see him. But I was thinking ‘how is he going to look? How he's going to act or say or things?’. I was allowed to see him for two minutes when I got there because I arrived so late, and he recognised me. He was making noises at me but couldn’t say a word. You have no idea what it is like until it happens.

“The rest of the month they set me up to sleep in the same hospital room which was really nice. I stayed the whole time. I knew the kids were being well looked after so I concentrated on Tony.

“I told them their dad had a stroke and he could not speak and they saw him on Skype.”

Tony said, “The care was incredible. After ten days my heart stopped, and I was brought back to life by the doctors. Soraya was in tears because she saw it all. But the insurers wanted to send me back home because the care cost so much money.”

“Tony was receiving therapy to help improve his speech and movement from the first day he was admitted to hospital in Hong Kong. There was speech therapy even though he couldn't say anything, and when he wasn't sleeping, they moved his legs, his arm and his hand. After a month he was strong enough for us to bring him back to hospital in France. In France he was given therapy every day for two years. In total he spent half a year in hospital.” Soraya said.

“The children saw him when we were back in France. I took them to see a psychologist to help them through it, and they explained that children find it easier to see a big change in a person than an adult does. It seemed they took it better than me, but still it really affected them.

“Tony couldn't speak, he was having epileptic fits and was effectively a zombie. I would go to work to pay for our rented flat, look after the kids and visit him. That was my life.”

It was too good to be true

Soraya first contacted SSAFA, after Tony’s dad advised her that the charity may be able to help. She initially asked for some financial assistance in 2012 to help with medical costs and for funding for acupuncture, to help Tony in his recovery. But a couple of years later, she asked for more support, to go to England.

“It wasn’t until the second year after his stroke that it really hit me. I was like, 'This is really happening.' And I became very depressed. I went away to see my sister in Portugal because I needed a break, and that is when I decided we needed to go to England.

“I’m not French, Tony's not French, he’s completely isolated and though we did have some help from the government, the pressure was all on me to work and hold everything together.”

After two years of struggle, Soraya called SSAFA’s branch in France in 2014 where she spoke to Divisional Secretary John Roberts. She was then visited by her local caseworker Yvonne Chappell, and together they started a crusade to help the couple.

“The SSAFA team said, 'If you want to move back to England, we can help you'” Soraya said, “I just thought ‘Phew!’. Although I had some savings which might have got us all to the UK, but I knew that I would have to find a job straight away or we wouldn’t be able to afford to eat. It was a huge relief because you can’t get anywhere without money.

“They found us a Royal British Legion Industries (RBLI) house in Kent and collected money from a number of charities, which made up the first three months’ rent. They paid for us to travel and to move all our belongings to our new home from France and provided us with extra money for things for the girls such as clothes and toiletries. They were a huge support.”

“It was too good to be true.” Tony added.

On one of her visits, it became apparent to Yvonne, that the Tony’s young daughters were finding the reality of his illness very distressing. He was regularly fitting in front of them, and they were constantly worried about him. She contacted John, and they suggested the idea of sending the girls to boarding school to the couple.

“The SSAFA volunteers knew that our daughters’ lives were disrupted by all the change” Soraya said.

“One was 14 and the other was 12. Tony was very sick, and SSAFA suggested sending them to a Naval boarding school (The Royal Hospital School), so they didn’t have to experience all the difficulties at home, the seizures, the ambulances and the trips to the doctors.

“They said they would try to seek funding for their education. SSAFA arranged everything, including their admission interviews. They contacted the Royal Naval Crown charity, Greenwich Hospital, who were incredible, and agreed to pay both the girls’ fees and boarding costs, every term until they left school. Greenwich Hospital gave so much to us it was unbelievable. The generosity was incredible and they still help us now.”

The team at the SSAFA France branch connected with the SSAFA Kent branch to make sure the family were supported the whole way to the UK as they started their new life. Soraya had never lived in the UK before, and so needed support to navigate the system. SSAFA connected them to the Royal British Legion Welfare team who helped the family apply for benefits.

“All the SSAFA volunteers were incredible. They were super nice people. Always polite, and they never made me feel like I was begging or asking for too much.

“We’d arrived from France in a small Toyota, with our two young girls. The boys were older and stayed in France to finish university. We only had a few things. When we came to Kent, we met Mr Stiles our local caseworker. He said, ‘What do you need?’ But we didn't know how much SSAFA could help. He asked, 'Do you have a fridge?' I said, 'No, we have to buy one.' He said, 'No, we'll get it for you.' They did the same for the cooker, a washing machine and even carpets. We had a big garden and there was a lot to maintain, so they helped cover the costs of tools I needed too. It was great. A perfect service.

“SSAFA has kept our family going and every single one of us is so grateful.”

They've never stopped helping us.

SSAFA has continued to support the Rhodes family since 2014. Tony and Soraya’s daughters are now both studying at university, and the couple moved to a new home in 2019, as their former accommodation was demolished to make way for a new development. Their new caseworker, Gavin Crickett, stays in regular contact.

“When we moved, they bought us a new cooker for the home. The floor was just cement, so they got us new flooring.” Soraya explains.

“This house didn't have a garage for Tony’s exercise equipment which he needed for his rehab. We mentioned this to SSAFA and they recently secured us funding for a large summer house which we converted into a gym.

“In November they got us a new carpet for the living room, because the house can be very cold, and it means we don’t have to pay as much for heating.

“They've never stopped helping us.”

Now Tony is doing really well in his recovery. Soraya is his full-time carer and he has taken part in multiple medical trials at hospitals in London to regain some mobility and his speech. Though still limited, the couple are amazed by his progress. In Tony’s eyes, a lot of that success is down to SSAFA’s support of the family.

“We didn’t know about SSAFA, but they became family. Some couples break up when something like this happens, but Soraya stayed by me, which makes me lucky. SSAFA has helped keep us together by making things easier. I can focus on getting better. It's unbelievable, really. We have found hope. It's great.”

“When I tell people about SSAFA, people don't believe it.” Soraya adds, “It is incredible that we can get so much help from them. It’s a back-up, it’s our security. I know that if something happens, we can count on SSAFA. We don’t know if Tony’s condition will get worse in future but I know they are there.

“I always get a letter from SSAFA saying, 'This charity gave this much. This charity gave this much.' We always send emails thanking everybody, because it really is incredible that we are getting all this help. Without them I would be very stressed and that would affect Tony too. I can’t keep it to myself like him. It would be horrible scrabbling for money to get by. With all this help, I can be relaxed, and Tony can be relaxed, it's been great.

“For me, I'm glad he was part of the Armed Forces here. That's one of the reasons that we're here and we're having a better life than we could be having in another country. Tony can’t read or write so everything falls to me. I feel so much weight on my back, but all this help that we're getting from SSAFA is really good.”

John Roberts, from SSAFA’s branch in France added, “One of the features this case reveals is the excellent working relationship that was achieved across a broad spectrum of benevolent funds, and the cooperation between our SSAFA branches.

“We were so pleased by the generosity shown by RBL, the RBLI, Lloyd’s Patriotic Fund, The Sodexo Homelessness Fund, Royal Naval Benevolent Trust, and Sailors’ Children’s Society. As a branch we were astounded by the donation from The Greenwich Hospital Crown Charity. We’d never seen an amount donated quite like it, thousands of pounds, spanning a number of years.

“It is absolutely wonderful to hear that as a result of our hard work and the cooperation of all these charities, that the family is doing so well. I am happy that we could support them.”