- Photography by Mr Boo George
- Styling by Mr Dan May, Style Director, MR PORTER
- Words by Mr Chris Elvidge, Senior Copywriter, MR PORTER
Headley Court, the medical rehabilitation centre for the British Armed Forces, is where soldiers who have suffered severe injuries in the line of duty take the first difficult steps towards a new life. For many of these young men - some of who have lost one, two, or even three limbs - it is a life that has been altered beyond all recognition.
Supporting them along the path to recovery is a full-time team of medical officers, personal trainers, therapists and prosthetics specialists whose goal, if not to return these injured soldiers to active duty as soon as possible, is to prepare them for a transition out of the military and back into civilian life. One woman helping to ease this transition is Ms Emma Willis, who since 2008 has provided bespoke shirts for the patients of Headley Court through her charitable incentive, Style For Soldiers. A shirtmaker by trade - Ms Willis has a shop on London's Jermyn Street and a workshop in Gloucester, and her eponymous brand is available on MR PORTER - she was motivated to offer her services after hearing about the rehabilitation centre on a radio show. "I was moved to tears by their courage. I decided to try and visit so that I could measure these young men for a shirt as a gift to thank them for their sacrifice." Bespoke in the truest sense of the word, the finished products are often adapted to account for the soldiers' injuries, with details such as Velcro cuffs hidden by sewn-in enamel cufflinks.
What began as just shirts quickly evolved after Ms Willis realised how many of these men relied on walking sticks after their discharge from Headley Court. With a nod to the grand old military tradition of keeping up appearances, she designed a shiny black ebony cane with a buffalo horn handle and a silver band engraved with the owner's initials and regimental badge. "We've made hundreds of these now," she says. "They look more like a fashion accessory than a medical aid, and they show the world how these men sustained their injuries." And if gratitude is a measure of success, then Style For Soldiers has surely made a difference. Ms Willis' website keeps a catalogue of thank you letters received from soldiers, which is growing all the time. "The letters we receive are humbling: one even apologised for his bad writing due to having almost lost his eyesight. Of course, these young men are the ones to be thanked."
On 12 December, MR PORTER and Emma Willis co-hosted the Style For Soldiers Christmas party in London. In the run-up to this annual event, we spoke to six ex-servicemen who have benefitted from the charitable incentive's work. Click through the gallery, above, to see more.
Captain Garth Banks was a platoon commander in the 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards. In January 2010, while on patrol in Afghanistan, he stepped on an IED (improvised explosive device). He lost both of his legs above the knee.
"I don't come from a military background. I wanted to challenge myself and thought that this was the way to do it. I joined up in September 2007 and spent a year at Sandhurst Royal Military Academy, followed by training for Afghanistan and eventual deployment in September 2009.
"I was put into an induced coma after the blast. During those six days my mind must have subconsciously come to terms with what had happened, because by the time I woke up in hospital in Birmingham I'd already accepted the fact that I'd lost my legs and felt quite aware of the consequences for my future. I'm stoical about it, I suppose, but I think that's a natural human reaction. When something like this happens, you just have to get on with it.
"I've been in and out of Headley Court ever since my injury. During one stay, someone mentioned that a nice woman and her attractive assistant were coming to visit and that if anyone wanted a bespoke shirt she'd measure you up. I thought, you can't say no, can you? Emma's a firecracker, she's got so much energy. She just makes things happen. Style For Soldiers makes a real difference. These kind of injuries can affect the way you perceive yourself. You're not the same and you'll never be the same, but certain things haven't changed. You still want to look smart. It's still important - maybe even more so, and Emma has realised that.
"I leave the army in January, so that'll be the end of that period of my life, and I'm looking at what to do next. I like the idea of doing something in the Paralympics. There's a possibility that I might be able to play tennis, as I played a lot before, and I'm hoping to see a development coach in the next couple of weeks to see how viable this is."
Captain Stuart Croxford served in The Duke of Lancaster's Regiment as the Reconnaissance Platoon Commander. During his second tour of Afghanistan, his vehicle drove over an IED while serving with the Brigade Reconnaissance Force in Helmand Province. The blast caused severe damage to both feet.
"I went to Manchester University to train as an architect. At the time, I didn't want to be in the army. My father was - still is, in fact. I wasn't railing against it as such, I just wanted to do something else. It was only later, during my part two work placement, that I changed my mind and decided to give the whole thing a go while I was still young, before it was too late. I ended up stationed in Catterick Garrison in the north east, 20 minutes from my parents' place. Typical - you join up to travel the world, and you get sent back to where you grew up.
"Getting injured was an eye-opener. Sat there in a hospital bed and going from being a Reconnaissance Platoon Commander in Afghanistan to being unable to manage anything for myself was a big shock. I'm a very independent person, and having that snatched away so quickly was hard to take.
"I met Emma at Headley Court quite early on, while I was still in a wheelchair. In a room full of people, all her focus would be on you. We spoke about a few things while I was being measured up, and she emailed me back the next day mentioning specific details of our conversation, recommending people that I could talk to for work experience and mentoring. Multiply this by the 30, 40 guys that she must have measured that day alone, and the level of attention and care is incredible. It brings out the best in the guys who are lacking in confidence.
"I've got a medical discharge out of the army in January 2015, and I'm waiting on further operations next year. The aim is to get me walking pain free, and I'd be happy with that. I was always a keen sportsman. I loved rugby and I used to do triathlons, and that's probably out of the question now, but getting back into skiing is a massive goal for me - there's a MOD initiative called Battle Back that focuses on adaptive sport, it's a great opportunity to refocus your aspirations and try new sports."
Captain Alex Horsfall was a Platoon Commander in the 2nd Battalion The Rifles. He lost his left leg and half of his left hand in a bomb blast in Sangin, Helmand in June 2010 on what was the bloodiest day of the Afghan conflict for British troops.
"I grew up on Salisbury Plain. Stonehenge area. I suppose that's where I first developed an intrigue into the army, living next to this enormous military training estate. Planes flying overhead, artillery going off: we had a dog who'd spend most of its life under a table. Sometimes we'd go up onto the plain on a quad bike and pick up the old bits of debris that the army had left behind.
"I spent four months in Sangin, Helmand province. It's a very claustrophobic town, full of narrow alleyways and big, high walls. IED heaven. Everything was going rather well, but all you really need is five minutes when things aren't going to plan. We ended up in a blast that killed five of the soldiers in my platoon and injured six or seven others.
"I woke up six days later in a hospital bed in Birmingham a little bit baffled, but then I was high on ketamine, and God knows what else. I'd lost my leg there and then, but because of phantom feelings, I'd wake up and still be able to feel it. I can still feel it now. So when they told me that I'd lost it, I just assumed it was some sort of administrative error. As far as I was aware, I just had a hole in my mattress and the leg was dangling through. It took a while for it all to sink in. Even two weeks later, I still hadn't realised that I was no longer in command. In the hospital in the middle of the night I'd dream that I was still in Afghanistan and nobody could hear me barking orders.
"Pride is hardly something that the military lack, but it can take a dent in these circumstances. What really helps you to get it back is when you return to civilian life and encounter support and compassion from the general public. This is something that has quite drastically improved in the past 10 years, and what Emma does with Style For Soldiers is a great example. There is a definite correlation between how smartly you're dressed and the pride with which you carry yourself."
Reserve Trooper Adam Cocks was an investment consultant in the City of London when he joined the Territorial Army as part of the Honourable Artillery Company. He received serious leg injuries in a double IED blast in Afghanistan in January 2008.
"My first day in the City was 11 September 2001. I was doing work experience, and I still remember the chaos. A few years later in 2005, on the day that London was attacked, I was in a hotel right next to Aldgate East, near one of the tube stops that was hit. When you see these things they do have an impact, and I guess I felt compelled to do something. Queen and country all the way, I'm afraid. It might be a bit old fashioned, but that's the way it affects me.
"It was 20 January 2008 - we were blown up twice within 20 minutes. We'd driven our vehicles into cover during the night in advance of a foot patrol. It was cold overnight and the ground was frozen. What we didn't realise was that we'd driven into a minefield. Come morning, the ground had thawed and the vehicles' wheels had sunk lower. I was driving when the first blast went off. I took some shrapnel to the nose, and I remember being covered in curry. We had our rations on the bonnet and they went everywhere. The second blast blew me out of the vehicle.
"I'd fractured my knee in various places as well as other multiple injuries. To make things worse, in July 2008 I was travelling from my medals parade in North Yorkshire to a hospital in Frimley, Surrey when I was involved in a road traffic accident that caused further damage to the injured leg. I've now got a metal hip, thigh and knee. They say things come in threes - well, that's mine.
"It's taken nearly three and a half years of rehabilitation, but from where I stand now, after being told in 2008 that I'd never bend my leg, I feel like I've come a long way. I can walk, and don't always use a stick - even though, thanks to Emma, I have a very nice one now. I can't run, but I can swim. I'm very fortunate. After being medically discharged and briefly returning to my job in the City, I was recently able to take on a new opportunity outside of the finance world. It's goodbye to the 12-hour days chained to a chair. I can appreciate life, take Dougal [his dog] for walks. Things are good."
Captain Edmund Addington, a farmer's son from Wiltshire, served in Iraq, Northern Ireland and Kosovo before being severely injured in a blast in Afghanistan in 2009.
"On 27 September 2009 on Route 611 in Sangin I should have been killed. I was in an open-top vehicle in the commander's seat, the passenger side. The explosion went off right underneath me and threw me from the vehicle. It was a 19-year-old female medic who left the scene and went out beyond our position - a very risky thing to do - and found me.
"I was slumped against a wall with a head injury, an eye injury, a shattered left arm, a collapsed left lung, a broken back L1 to 4, my right ankle was exposed, my left foot had been what they call 'degloved', and I had severe frag to my hip... suffice to say, that initial treatment didn't give the best of prognoses. Medical experience gained in the past six months in Afghanistan certainly saved my life; I have no doubt that it saved my limbs. I look at my injuries and I think how very lucky I've been. So many colleagues have not come back, so who am I to worry for one second?
"I spent three months in hospital followed by three years of intensive rehab at Headley Court. To date, I've had 20 operations. From tour to treatment to rehab, it has occasionally been hard to escape the bubble of being an injured soldier. You don't know what's going on outside, and I wasn't sure if the rest of the world understood or even knew what was happening in Afghanistan. When Emma arrived, it sent a message that there are people outside of your immediate environment who care about the sacrifices that you've made. That is hugely valuable when you're fighting a tough mental and physical battle.
"Physically, my goals were to be able to use public transport and go up steps. If you can do that, you have a lot of options open to you. I've been very fortunate to recover enough to be able to do that. Professionally, I work in consulting now and I want to take my military experience and military values and put them to good use in the commercial world."
Captain James Murly-Gotto studied at Eton and Oxford before joining the Scots Guards. In 2010, while taking part in Operation Moshtarak in Afghanistan, he was hit in both legs in a friendly fire incident. He nearly lost his right leg as a result of his injuries.
"Like a lot of people from army families, I suppose I was brought up on tales of my father's adventures - or misadventures, should I say. I joined the army because I thought it seemed like a good idea to go and have a few of my own.
"We'd been in Afghanistan for just under a month when I was hit. We'd managed to weather 10 days of ferocious fighting and had called the heli to take us back to base. It was dark, and we were marking the landing site. I remember realising that it was friendly fire when I saw the red laser range finder. 'The Taliban don't use one of those,' I thought. A round hit me in my right shinbone and tracked upwards, popping out of the knee - it cleaved off about a quarter of the leg.
"I'm obviously very lucky to still have the thing, but I'd be lying if I said that I wasn't without inhibition. I am conscious of my injury. I have quite a large scar which is susceptible to sunlight and burns easily, so I suppose I'm lucky to live here in London where we're not blessed with too much sunshine and I can get away with wearing trousers most of the year.
"Back in WWII, there was a hospital in Sussex set up to deal with downed RAF pilots who'd suffered horrendous facial burns. They called the guys The Guinea Pig Club, on account of the rather experimental plastic surgery they underwent. Some of the results weren't pretty, but they were encouraged to go out into society anyway. At the pub, the hospital staff would prep the locals to treat them like anyone else, and it helped to condition them back into the normal world.
"What Style For Soldiers does is similar, in a way. When Emma comes into Headley Court and measures you up, she doesn't judge because someone's missing an arm. She'll measure them up just the same as she would any of her customers on Jermyn Street. What she does is to help injured soldiers feel like normal people. And when ex-soldiers are entering back into civilian life, a good shirt that fits you perfectly can be just the suit of armour that you need."