London: The letter from the Home Office was abrupt to the point of rudeness, revealing a decision made by a nameless bureaucrat whose lifetime achievements, we can assume, bore no resemblance to those of the young man to whom it was addressed.
It read simply: ‘British citizenship: Application denied.’
It landed nearly two years after Cayle Royce had lost both legs and most of his left hand when he stepped on an improvised explosive device (IED) while serving with the British Army in Afghanistan.
Six months later, another letter arrived, again denying him citizenship. By this time Cayle had been awarded the MBE, counted Prince Harry as a good friend and admirer, and was well on his way to raising £1 million for charity.
South African-born Cayle’s loyalty to this country could hardly be in doubt, as shown by the awarding of the MBE. But after fighting the Taliban, he was now locked in a battle with another formidable opponent – the Home Office.
For many, it would be seen as the worst kind of betrayal. After all, here was a man who had risked life and lost limbs to serve Britain, yet when it came to welcoming him as one of our own, he was cast aside.
As Cayle says, it’s ‘not in his nature’ to give up. So rather than dwell on his hardship, he kept trying to obtain a British passport (more of which later) and also directed his energies towards a new challenge.
By the time he received his second rejection for citizenship – again unsigned – he was battling 60ft waves and 80mph gales, rowing the Atlantic and helping the charity Row2Recovery raise funds for wounded veterans.
Now Cayle, 30, is preparing for his next astonishing mission – rowing an 8,500-mile route across the Pacific Ocean from San Francisco to the Australian city of Cairns. When he reaches shore, it will be his spectacular revenge on fate, the fate that led to injuries so severe he was convinced death would be the only outcome.
May 2, 2012, began like any other day for Cayle and his mother Bronwyn. The Lance Corporal was in Afghanistan, and she was 3,500 miles away in the art gallery she manages in Dartmouth, Devon. By the end of it, their lives would have been changed for ever.
In Dartmouth, the weather was bright and crisp; in Lashkar Gah, Helmand province, it was a sweltering 40C, conditions Cayle found even more unbearable thanks to his heavy body armour.
Their accounts of that day make compelling reading.
Cayle was not long past his 26th birthday, 6ft tall, handsome and one of the fittest men in his regiment, The Light Dragoons, Brigade Reconnaissance Force. Even now, he epitomises the image of a sports-mad South African.
‘It was 3am and I was part of a 15-man patrol,’ he recalls. ‘We pulled out of the compound and were exposed on a totally flat poppy field. That’s when the Taliban opened up on us, launching grenades and hammering AK-47 and PKM [another type of automatic gun] fire at us.
‘Ahead was a long, stinking irrigation ditch which was our saviour, even if we were waist-deep in vile slime. The main thing was it offered great cover. We kept exchanging fire until we peeled off into the ditch and they couldn’t see us any more.
‘But what with carrying so much kit – metal detectors and weapons, everything sticking out from the side – the decision was made that it wasn’t practical to stay there any longer. The two guys in front of me moved out, then it was my turn.’
And that was when Cayle’s life changed for ever.
He says: ‘I weighed a ton because of all the equipment I was carrying and was just getting to my feet when I stepped on the IED.
‘Somehow the other two had missed it, maybe because they were lighter or maybe because they simply missed it.
‘Inches make all the difference out there. There was a fairly substantial bang but it’s not like the films – more of a big pop and blinding white light. The two guys in front of me and the medic behind were blown over by it.
‘I used to play a lot of rugby and it was like the most solid tackle I’ve ever had in my life, completely knocking the wind out of me. I remember the impact of hitting the ground again – coming back to earth if you like – with a terrible high- pitched screaming in my ears.
‘The air from the blast couldn’t escape around me and it wrecked one of my eardrums. My immediate reaction was, ‘I need to get into cover’, so I was trying to push with my heels to move along thinking I was lying on my back. In fact, I was face-down in the mud.
‘It was then I realised I didn’t have any heels – my legs had been blown off by the blast.
‘Well, one was technically still hanging on by a sinew. My hand had been messed up, my body armour had been blown in towards me, my rifle had hit me in the face and my lips were blown to pieces.
‘There were big holes in my chest full of shrapnel. My lungs and heart were bruised and felt like they were bursting. But somehow I stayed conscious throughout, although extremely shaken and dizzy, and it felt like someone was pouring boiling chip oil over me. The pain was more excruciating than I could have believed.’
From experience, soldiers know that one IED usually signals another is close by. So before treating a colleague who has been hit, they are encouraged to use metal detectors to ensure the ground is clear. But this time Sergeant James ‘Shorty’ Short knew there was no time for such precautions.
Cayle says: ‘Shorty is a good friend and he just ran in and started treating me immediately, rolled me over on to my back, got the tourniquets on – God, they hurt because you have to get them so tight on the upper legs, which were not exactly in a very good state.’
Shorty then handed over to the patrol’s medic, Corporal Ian ‘Jacko’ Jackson, highly trained as a specialist paramedic, and Captain Harry Amos began organising medical help and evacuation.
For some reason the Taliban didn’t re-engage at this time. As Cayle, with his dry sense of humour, remarks: ‘What gents!’
That’s when the full might of the Army kicked in. Medics at the British HQ, Camp Bastion, were contacted and told of the extent of Cayle’s injuries.
‘I was still conscious – I remember seeing the state I was in and thinking, ‘This is bad.’ But you don’t want to upset the guys so you try to make light of it. It’s not an exceptional case.
‘But I do admit I thought I was pretty much dead meat and was fairly confident I was going to die. I was in tatters and very weak, and by the time I was on the chopper my body was just screaming.’
Pumped full of ketamine, he began to drift in and out of semi-consciousness. Once at Camp Bastion, medics amputated the leg that was still attached by a thread, stabilised Cayle and got him ready for the flight to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham where his mother was pacing up and down in anticipation of his arrival.
Bronwyn Royce is a pretty, slim 55-year-old. She was born in South Africa and came to Dartmouth in 2007. She says: ‘I’d had a great day at work and was feeling on a high when I walked to the gym at 5pm as usual.
But when I got there I felt something was wrong. Instead of doing a workout, I went to the pool. I said to a friend that I didn’t feel happy so went home – I just felt sure that something had happened to Cayle.
‘I sat on my sofa and waited, just waited. It was a weird feeling at that stage, rather than a premonition. At 6.45pm the doorbell rang. That instant I knew something awful had happened. It took me an age to find the strength to get to the door and, when I did, I could see two guys on the other side of the glass. I couldn’t open the door but I just said, ‘Is Cayle alive?’
‘One man replied ‘Can you open the door?’ and I said, ‘No, is he alive?’ ‘He is but can you open the door?’ I let them in and they said, ‘How did you know?’
‘They had a piece of paper with them and gave me very sketchy details. They said he had lost one leg and that he was in the operating theatre in Bastion at the time and they couldn’t give me any more information. Then around 7pm, one of them received a call telling them that the other leg had also been amputated. There were other injuries but they weren’t going to tell me what they were.
‘I phoned my other son, Seth. He is a Royal Marine and he was on a Pashto language course in Buckinghamshire getting ready to deploy to Afghanistan later that summer.
‘He was in the car and immediately said ‘Mother!’ in his usual cheery way. I interrupted him and said, ‘It’s Cayle.’ He knew straight away and just said, ‘When is he coming home? They are supposed to get him back within 24 hours.’
Seth is three years younger than his brother and as children they were inseparable. We both know what a fighter Cayle is and how strong he is, that he would not give up easily.
‘One of the visitors at my house asked to speak to Seth privately because they knew he would cope better and they could give him more detail. And the other one phoned Cayle’s father, Richard, in France. By then Seth was driving to Dartmouth, and when he arrived at midnight we just sat there crying all night.’
Later, they were taken to the hospital in Birmingham and were able to see Cayle briefly before he went into surgery.
‘The first thing that hit me,’ says Bronwyn, ‘was that I could see the drop under the sheet where his legs were missing. I felt almost able to cope with the idea of his legs but very apprehensive about what other damage there was.
‘I went to kiss the top of his head, very carefully avoiding all the wires and tubes attached to him. Then I looked down and saw that his face was so badly damaged that his lips were practically hanging off, as if somebody had taken a piece of meat and finely sliced it.
‘They put Cayle into a 48-day induced coma, and every time they tried to bring him out of it he would fight and try to get out of the bed. At the end of it, Cayle had almost lost half his body weight, down from 14st to 8st. But as he reminds me, ‘Well, I did lose a couple of legs!’ ‘
Cayle says: ‘I remember seeing faces – seeing Mum and Dad [Richard had driven over from France] and Seth and some friends. Just bits and bobs really. I think I remember flashes of the motorcade into Birmingham from the airport. The cocktail of drugs gave me terrible hallucinations and flashes.
‘On one occasion I hallucinated that I was watching myself lying on the ground looking at blood pouring out of my legs. Then there was the time, with Mum and Dad visiting, when I was convinced that the people walking around in white coats were Taliban who had come to kill me. Tip number one: never read Dante before going to Afghanistan!’
Not long afterwards, Cayle was moved to Headley Court in Surrey, the UK’s main rehabilitation centre for seriously wounded servicemen and women. In the dark humour of Headley’s patients, a leg amputation below the knee is known as a ‘bit of a scratch’. So when Cayle arrived with both limbs amputated above the knee, he was afforded full respect, or as one fellow South African put it: ‘Nice stumps, bro!’
It was this remark that spurred Cayle on to a life less ordinary. So when he took a call from his close friend Captain James Kayll, Cayle knew he was about to embark on the next phase of his short but remarkable life. The pair had sailed for the Army on many occasions and Cayle remembers: ‘James asked if I fancied a new challenge and I thought the idea of getting back on a racing yacht would be great fun.
‘Then James told me there would be no mast, no sails, no auxiliary engine and no glamour – just oars and waves 60ft high. And a 29ft rowing boat appropriately named Endeavour.’
Before setting off across the Atlantic in December 2013, Cayle – aware that, with no legs and a damaged left hand, he would not be able to stay in the Army for ever – applied for UK citizenship. It would surely be a formality. After all, he had almost died for the country and besides, his parents had British passports and his grandparents were also British.
Cayle now faced the citizenship test, which demands learning, parrot-fashion, Britain’s customs and some seemingly pointless information such as how many representatives there are in the Welsh Assembly.
There is also an English language test. Considering this was his mother tongue, one could safely assume this would not prove to be an obstacle. And he was happy to pay the cost of applying for citizenship, which is currently £1,236.
‘You certainly have to go through hoops to become a citizen, and quite right too,’ says Cayle. ‘I was, and still am, living in Dartmouth, so I was sent to Bristol to be tested on the English language and to Exeter for the Life In The UK test.
‘I was very disappointed there were no topics relating to the practical things that might actually be useful to acclimatising to and living in this country.
‘One of the questions was, ‘Have you been out of the UK?’, which amused me considering I was bearing the physical evidence of my trip abroad.’
Six months later a letter arrived at his home, which read: ‘We regret to inform you that your application has been unsuccessful.’
‘There was no explanation at all, just that,’ says Cayle. ‘As it’s not in my nature to accept defeat, and as it was vital to me that I became a citizen, I started the process all over again. And after a further six months I was sent another refusal letter!’
So is this really what we think is a fair return for the loyalty, bravery and dedication of L/Cpl Cayle Royce MBE? Or is it the result of some unforgivable disconnect between the ‘system’ and what we, as existing citizens, would want as fair and just?
We may never know because, with the Atlantic crossing rapidly approaching, Cayle decided to go for the hat-trick and put in a third application. It was to be his final victory – for this time, a month after returning from his 3,000-mile epic, it was approved. ‘I was very chuffed to say the least and was asked to go to Exeter for the Oath of Allegiance swearing-in ceremony with the Lord Mayor.
‘It was a happy day, particularly as the document they gave me said, ‘You are now a British citizen.’