The Soldier Poets

Emma Willis first realised how poetry had the power to help servicemen and women in the physical and psychological rehabilitation process when former Apache helicopter pilot Karl Tearney wrote her a striking poem of thanks for a Christmas party held by her charity Style for Soldiers and the bespoke shirt they had made him.

Style for Soldiers began in 2008 when shirt designer Emma first visited Headley Court Military Rehabilitation Centre to measure injured service personnel for a bespoke shirt as a gift of gratitude for their service and sacrifice. Over the next eight years the charity visited the hospital every two months providing them bespoke shirts and military walking sticks engraved with initials and regiment, cufflinks suits, shoes and hats, to help with confidence and self-esteem for the next great challenge of interviewing for a new job and career with often life changing injuries.  

The charity also now gives the largest reunion parties for injured service personnel and their partners and the family day to include children in the summer at Woburn Safari Park.

The discovery that several servicemen and women were finding creative work extremely therapeutic in the process of recovery inspired her to sponsor talented artists with tuition, painting materials and studios, learning that the act of creation helps re-route the neurological pathways of the brain. 

When she received the poem from Karl she decided to contact all the 700 injured service men and women whom she has met over the 9 years at Headley Court and regularly communicated with to see if others were writing or had written poetry or if they might be encouraged to as it had helped others so much. 

The response was remarkable. Emma received  many extremely moving poems and  decided to hold The Soldier Poets Dinner at Spencer House in December 2017 to give them a forum for their writing, and tell others of their unimaginable challenged through this powerful medium. 

To a packed but hushed room, the audience heard poems about the difficult upbringing that led a young man from south London to enlist; another that evoked the pain and confusion of battle, another the strain of coping with PTSD and loneliness. Many had never shown their poems to anyone before let alone performed them. Each in their own way said after the dinner how much it had benefited them.

Poetry readings, and being part of a poetry-writing network, can create a valuable sense of camaraderie and shared recovery. Ex-military poets have realised that poetry can be a powerful and profoundly personal way of unblocking emotions, and a highly effective tool for self-analysis. Sometimes it is easier to say things through art, whether poetry, painting or acting, than through normal conversation.

At first, it seems a very brave thing to do, as most have never written a poem before, but for the soldier poets discovered by Style for Soldiers, it is becoming an intrinsic part of their lives.

The thank you poem to Emma led to a prolific output of poems and a book of poems for children.

More published work is expected to follow. 

See more about Style for Soldiers.