The Mail on Sunday
Emma Parry remembers exactly what went through her mind as she sat at the end of the hospital bed. She hoped the shock she felt on seeing the soldier’s battle wounds didn’t show on her face. She wondered what the future could possibly hold for him, or the wife sitting quietly by his side. He had lost both legs, his neck was in a brace and he could barely speak. He was no older than her own son. In that moment, Emma knew that she had to ‘do something’.
Two months before her son Tom enrolled at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, Emma was visiting Selly Oak Hospital in Birmingham, where servicemen injured in Iraq and Afghanistan are treated.
Given her family background, Emma can’t quite believe how sheltered her life had been until then.
Her grandfather, Francis Maynard, was a brigadier general, her father, Myles Ponsonby, had served as a captain before entering the diplomatic corps, her brother John was an air vice-marshal and her husband Bryn, who went with her to Selly Oak that day, was a captain with the Royal Green Jackets. His late father had risen to the rank of Army colonel.
Notions of duty, service and sacrifice had been the backdrop to her entire life. As a Forces wife and daughter, she had always thought she knew what that meant. But it was as a mother of three children that the reality hit her.
Today Emma, 52, points to her visit to Selly Oak in August 2007 as the catalyst for something extraordinary. It was the day that Help For Heroes (H4H) was born. In less than three years, Emma and Bryn, also 52, have taken the fund from zero to more than £45million.
According to the Charity Commissioner, they have ‘changed the Armed Forces charity landscape’. They have given a profile to men who were otherwise rendered invisible and are now establishing Regional Recovery Houses across the country.
Emma recalls: ‘I remember driving away that day and turning to Bryn and saying, “We have to do something.”
‘What we had witnessed was profoundly shocking. Bryn had served in Northern Ireland in the 1980s. They were dangerous days but I don’t think even he had seen anything on that scale.’
Their son Tom was 22 at the time and joining The Rifles at Sandhurst that October. ‘All that summer we had been hearing reports of what was happening with The Rifles in Afghanistan,’ says Emma. ‘It struck me that for every death reported there were probably four or five wounded. ‘I felt very strongly that we had to raise funds to help these guys. And if we were to do that, we had to know what was going on, what the injuries were and what they meant. So we visited Selly Oak and, later, Headley Court Defence Rehabilitation Centre.
‘Politically, Iraq and Afghanistan are difficult but suddenly that didn’t seem the point. These young men were getting wounded and then effectively disappearing. I felt the time had come to stand up and help them. We thought it would be in a very small way.’
In October 2007, after much brainstorming with friends in their local Pizza Hut and round the kitchen table in the couple’s Wiltshire cottage, H4H was launched. Neither Emma, Bryn nor their friend turned chief executive, Mark Elliott, had any fund-raising experience or particular business nous. In fact until then, Emma had never had much ambition of any sort. As a young woman, she smiles, she ‘not very fashionably’ wanted to be a wife and mother.
Born in Sussex, her own childhood had been one of frequent upheaval, separation and boarding schools.
Her father had left the Army before she was born, but his life as a diplomat meant postings all over the world.
Emma would have been born in Jakarta had her mother not insisted on returning to Britain for the birth. When she was 13, her father was made British Ambassador to Mongolia.
‘Even though Bryn was in the Army I very much wanted to put down roots,’ she admits. ‘ A year after we married we bought a tiny cottage near Winchester. A few years later it meant we could buy the home we still live in today.’
Emma would have happily spent her entire life as an Army wife and mother to Sophie, 26, Tom, 24, and Louisa, 22. But, much to her late father’s dismay, Bryn resigned his commission in 1985 to pursue a career as a cartoonist. Emma learned frame-making and helped run the business.
That was her life when H4H was launched. They hoped to raise £10,000 towards the £8million cost of a swimming pool and gym at Headley Court. It seemed wildly ambitious. But within weeks they had raised £1.4million. This year they plan to raise £30million and the Headley Court pool is nearing completion – funded entirely by H4H.
Thanks to a shoestring budget – HQ is a tin hut in Tidworth, Hampshire – and clever merchandising such as wrist-bands, bumper stickers and Hero teddies created by Bryn, they are donating huge sums to help the wounded.