Army veteran recovers from trauma and wins at RHS Chelsea

Rachel as WO2 in mess dress 

Rachel Willis, former Warrant Officer in the Intelligence Corps describes her battles with severe back trauma, mental health issues and pregnancy. After serving over two decades in the army, with help from the army’s transition therapy into civilian life as well as veteran charity Waterloo Uncovered, Rachel not only found emotional strength and pleasure through gardening, but became part of an award-winning team at RHS Chelsea.

'I joined the army in 1997, just shy of my 23rd birthday as a private soldier into the Intelligence Corps, during my time I was posted and deployed to numerous locations, including Serbia, Albania, Northern Ireland, Macedonia, the Gulf, Kosovo and Germany.

I rose through the ranks reaching WO2. During my time I encountered many different events and experiences, some amazing, some not quite so. I also injured my back quite badly during basic training which after a period of seven years and multiple painful episodes, many arduous physio sessions, acupuncture, heat/cold treatment and traction finally resulted in back surgery in 2004. 

In 2003 I met my now husband also a serving soldier. We married in 2005 and started trying for a baby a year later, unfortunately with no success. We then went through the emotional rollercoaster that is IVF, a miscarriage, successful pregnancy (my son is now 8) and three further failed attempts. This all added to the tricky work/life balance.

During the preceeding 20 odd years I’d managed to collect and carry on collecting worries, anxieties, poor health, depressive thoughts, unstable emotions, fatigue, pain, until I could no longer cope and sought the courage to ask for help.

Volunteering at Heale Gardens 

I was signed off work and after a period of time diagnosed with complex PTSD, on top of chronic back pain, symptoms of Fibromyalgia and hearing loss (I now wear hearing aids) resulting in medical discharge. I was not longer fit for service. I had served 21yrs, 1yr short of my 22yrs.

Although a massive shock (one I still sometimes find hard to accept), I engaged in the Army’s recovery/transition process, attended courses and got involved in a gardening club and even starting volunteering at a local historic gardens, (Heale Gardens, Wiltshire). 

At RHS Chelsea 

Gardening really helped me escape from everything, leaving me to focus on the task in hand which was a blessed relief from my head and body. I started studying at Sparsholt College and gained my RHS Level 2 qualifications and was lucky enough to be part of a Gold winning team comprised of Sparsholt students and H4H veterans at RHS Chelsea in 2018, a wonderful experience which has helped me tremendously on my recovery journey.

What has also helped is my involvement with a fantastic charity called Waterloo Uncovered, I was a participant on the 2017 dig at Hougoumont Farm, Battle of Waterloo. My experience with the charity was a ‘game changer’ and an integral part of my continued recovery. It gave me the confidence to study, go to RHS Chelsea and also become a self-employed horticulturalist.

Albania '99

I’m now a volunteer for the charity (as well as Wessex Archeology) and for the past two years have organised an event which is held half way through the two week dig with The Taxi Charity for Military Veterans. I will never be cured of PTSD, my back, Fibromyalgia and hearing will probably get worse but the outlook is positive. With treatment, emotional support and my own ‘tool kit’ it should keep me going for the foreseeable future, which in my eyes is green and close to the earth.'

If you would like to help support other army veterans like Rachel, please go to Waterloo Uncovered to find out more.