Poppies and Poetry
How One Ex-Soldier Combats PTSD
In time for this year’s Remembrance Day, Mark Stibbe interviewed ex-British Army helicopter pilot Karl Tearney about learning to manage post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) through writing poetry.
How long did you serve in the army?
I had always wanted to be a pilot when I was little, but I had a very difficult childhood and I left school without qualifications. In 1983, I joined the Army Air Corps at sixteen. I had to spend eight years as a soldier before training to be a pilot. I passed the pilot’s course in early 1993 and was a helicopter pilot for 24 years. I was really pleased to be a soldier and if I had my time all over, I would do the same again. Who doesn’t want to do the job they enjoy?
Yet you suffer from PTSD. What caused that?
My trauma developed over time. It stemmed back to my experiences in Bosnia; what I saw there was appalling. What made it far worse was that I couldn’t shoot or intervene when I saw atrocities taking place. At least in Northern Ireland, you could intervene to protect life. In Bosnia, there were no rules of engagement, except if you were directly fired upon. To be there in a helicopter looking through a thermal camera and seeing what was going on, things I couldn’t stop, really affected me.
When I came back from Bosnia, I didn’t feel well, I felt guilty about being back, I felt guilty about being so powerless. I found myself getting angry hearing couples arguing about which brand of bread to buy in the supermarket, when the week before I had seen mass graves in Bosnia. So, I went to the army medical team. They didn’t handle things very well; they said, ‘It’s nothing to do with Bosnia. It’s your childhood.’ Had I been dealt with properly in 1996, I don’t think I would be as ill as I am today.
When did things come to a head?
It began in 2014 when I was working as an instructor at the home of the Army Air Corps at Middle Wallop. Because of shortages I was doing three people’s work. The stress of that began to get to me although I didn’t realise it. I started crying at night and I had no idea why. I approached my CO [Commanding Officer] about my workload as well as the poor relationship with a work colleague, and he said he felt sure I could cope with it. But I couldn’t. I saw the doctor and she recommended to my CO that he reduce my workload. Sadly, it all came to a head when one day I picked up the phone and I couldn’t say anything. I just burst into tears. I don’t mean crying; I mean childish sobbing. I was fortunate in that it was one of my friends on the other end of the line. ‘Stay where you are’, he said. ‘I’m coming to get you.’ After that, I ended up in a mental hospital in Basingstoke. That was my last time in uniform.
How and when did you discover poetry?
In January 2017, I went for a six-week course to do with combat stress in Leatherhead. This involved one-to-one counselling and group sessions. During those first few days, it dawned on me that everyone’s PTSD was different and that mine felt worse than most. I had anhedonia, which is characterised by a complete loss of happiness and pleasure. The others on the course were talking about what they were enjoying, and I couldn’t do that; I had to force myself to feel. Consequently, the organisers said, ‘Karl, you are treatment-intolerant.’ I left the course early, having expected it to be the miracle cure, and endured a week of absolute despair.
Then, one day, I said to myself, ‘Karl, you’ve got to get out of this house, or you might do something silly to yourself!’ I went for a walk and sat under a willow tree to hide from the park-goers. While I was there, I thought, ‘This tree is just like me. All sad and forlorn on the outside but inside, there’s this strong trunk as well as a sense of being in the arms of a giant caring hug.’ That prompted me to start writing a poem on my phone. After that, I felt calmer and more connected with the world.
Did poetry become a key part of your therapy?
Yes, I started writing a poem every day from that day on. In fact, the very next day, I had to do some shopping in Tesco, and it was bedlam. There were two young children shouting and screaming at their mum. I thought to myself, ‘You’ve got to get out of the shop.’ Once outside, I started asking myself, ‘What can I do to calm down?’ The day before I’d written a poem and felt better. So, I wrote a poem about my experience of Tesco. ‘I feel all right now,’ I thought. Then I went back inside and did my shopping. I have since written 700 poems. During an exhibition of Veterans Art (Art in the Aftermath), which included my poetry in London last year, a woman from the British Poetry Society explained, ‘Karl, you’ve written more poems in two and a half years than Tennyson did in his entire life.’
I’ve just published my first book of poetry, called Second Life. The first section contains poems about mental health, the second about love, the third about moments – like the willow tree. That’s the last poem in the book because it’s a random moment in my life, albeit a very inspiring and fundamental one.
How much of your output is war poetry?
I would say one third of my poems is based on war memories, my time in the army etc. I wrote a poem about D-Day, even though I wasn’t there, as I could imagine how it felt because I had spent so much time with soldiers. I have also written a colossal amount of First World War poetry. The next third of my output is what I see in the present. The last third is an exploration of past emotions. For example, one night I said to myself, ‘I’m going to write a love poem.’ I thought about when I last felt love. I remembered lying in bed just looking at my girlfriend in the moonlight while she was asleep and so I wrote a poem about that.
What opportunities has this opened for you?
Many. I was invited to St James’s church in Piccadilly by the Josephine Hart Foundation in coordination with Style for Soldiers where I read out one of my war poems. Different celebrities read poems from the Great War at the event. I then read my poem, War, not War, and I do admit I became a little upset. That led to me being approached by BBC Radio 3. ‘We’d like you to read your poem to finish the week of war poetry readings for Remembrance week in November.’
Then Channel 4 as well as my local BBC news team interviewed me, and things started to snowball. During the Art in the Aftermath exhibition in La Galleria, Pall Mall, in November 2018, my ‘The Writing’s on the Wall’ collection of poems received so many requests for a book that I decided to publish.
Today, I have so many opportunities for exhibiting and reading my poems. It’s opened the door to meeting some amazing people.
Are you a person of faith?
All my life, I have worn my little crucifix, except for one whole year, two years ago, when I didn’t wear it at all. I didn’t understand God although I have a tattoo of Christ on the cross on my right arm. I guess after feeling the way I felt – let down by the army – and because I hadn’t dedicated my life to God (although I had dedicated my life to doing good for people), I felt out of sorts suddenly. I had lashed out at everything when I first was diagnosed with PTSD. Now I can manage it, and I feel like God is back in my life. I suppose it’s true that I have a conflicted relationship with God. I have written quite a few poems that include my myriad of questions for Him.
What would you say to men who read Sorted and who have PTSD?
The best person to talk to is someone else with PTSD; if you don’t know someone like that, find someone you can trust. You’d be amazed how kind people can be and a problem shared is a problem halved.
I was surfing in Cornwall two years ago when a man came up to me and said, ‘You look like you were in the army. I was in Bosnia.’ I gave him a copy of War, not War.
He read it and burst into tears. I told him I was sorry, but he responded, ‘Don’t be, these aren’t tears of sadness, these are tears of happiness. I felt like I was the only person who felt like this after Bosnia. Now I know I’m not alone.’