She's missed potty training, birthdays – and risks leaving her daughters orphans. No wonder Zoe admits… it hurts so much to leave my girls and go to war
22:09 GMT, 10 October 2012
Sergeant Zoe Savage can still remember the reunion with her two-year-old daughter after spending six months away from her, serving in Iraq.
‘When Sian came downstairs and realised I was there she was so overwhelmed she burst into tears. She was gasping for breath, trying to say “Mummy”,’ she recalls. ‘It was wonderful and lovely and heart-rending and agonising all at the same time.’
As both a soldier and a mum, that rather sums up the maelstrom of emotions Zoe, 30, has to battle much of the time. Both roles make her fiercely proud, but they also require tough, sometimes stomach-churning choices: Zoe was posted to Iraq when her daughter was just 18 months old, and now, with her two children aged ten and five, faces the prospect of active service in Afghanistan next year.
Military mum: Sergeant Zoe Savage with her daughters Sian, left, and Abigail
In between there have been countless other long absences for the training exercises that are required for her job in the Royal Artillery, and at which she can spend many weeks testing weaponry out in the field. It is less dangerous but equally emotionally gruelling.
All the way through, she confesses, Zoe, asks herself whether it is worth it, whether she is doing the right thing.
‘I do miss out on things. I haven’t been to a parents’ evening for Sian for two years and there are countless small milestones for both girls I’m not there for — birthday parties, school plays, the sponsored walks and cake bakes that form the backdrop to a child’s life.
‘Recently, Sian came third in a school talent contest which made her so proud, but all she can do is tell me about it over the phone.
‘It’s hard, but I see how they’re thriving and that tells me I’m doing the right thing. If they asked me to leave I would, but I love Army life. It’s a completely different life, like one big family, with this immense trust you don’t get anywhere else.’
'It's like being split in two, with the
part of you that's a soldier feeling one thing and the part of you
that's a mum feeling another'
As the daughter of a Royal Marine who had fought in the Falklands, Zoe grew up hero-worshipping her father and was determined to follow in his footsteps. She joined the Army straight from school aged 16, assigned to the Royal Artillery.
At the time, motherhood was a distant prospect. But, at 20, Zoe unexpectedly became pregnant by her then boyfriend — a fledgling relationship that ended soon after Sian was born.
‘I didn’t intend to be a young mum and I did consider leaving the Army then, because I wondered how I would possibly cope with a baby. I’d already done a six-month tour of Bosnia, so I knew what was expected of me,’ she recalls.
‘When Sian was born, I remember looking down at her and feeling this enormous surge of love and knowing I would do everything to protect her. Yet at the same time, deep down, I knew I still wanted my career, and that I didn’t want to just shuffle papers behind a desk for ever.’
Under Army procedure, Zoe was put on desk duty from the moment she announced her pregnancy until just before the birth; she returned to her job when Sian was three months old, leaving her in nursery.
‘You have about six months grace to get your fitness back so you’re excused some of the more extreme training, but I was still expected to go away on exercises for many days at a time, even when Sian was tiny,’ says Zoe.
‘It was incredibly hard physically, as pregnancy had changed my body so much, but also emotionally because even though my parents stepped in, Sian was still so little. Sometimes I needed windscreen wipers for my eyelids when I had to leave her behind for a week or more.’
Army lives: Zoe with husband Leigh on their wedding day. He is also a soldier and fully supports his wife's career
Those periods away were the shape of things to come. When Sian was 18 months old, Zoe was told her regiment was going to Iraq to help restore order following the fall of Saddam Hussein.
‘I knew it was coming but when they told me my stomach lurched,’ says Zoe. ‘At the same time, I was excited as well — as a young soldier it’s what you sign up for. Ultimately, what you’re doing is of national importance, you’re trying to save people’s lives or make them better and as a patriot I take immense pride in that.
‘But it’s like being split in two, with the part of you that’s a soldier feeling one thing and the part of you that’s a mum feeling another.
‘My priority was to make sure Sian was properly looked after. Luckily my mum, dad and step-mum said they would take care of her, so I knew she would be in the best hands.’
Many working parents have to spend time away with their job, but not many of them have to face up to the prospect that they may not come back.
‘You have to accept the fact that there is danger involved with what I do,’ says Zoe. ‘I haven’t seen anyone die but our regiment has lost soldiers, including two in Afghanistan three years ago, and it hits you hard. I wrote my will as soon as I was posted to Iraq, and made sure all my affairs were in order before I left.
‘Of course, I was scared, but I have to put it to the back of my mind and it was leaving Sian that was the hardest part. Boarding that plane was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.’ Once in Iraq, Zoe was permitted a 30-minute phone call home once a week.
'If soldier deaths come on the news and
the kids are there, I just change channels. Leigh and I agreed to try to
shelter them as much as we can, for as long as possible'
‘Dad would tell me what Sian was getting up to, which was bittersweet: I was so happy she was thriving, but also jealous because I felt I should have been there.
‘Sometimes she would come on the phone making her little baby noises and I yearned to hold her tight. On other occasions I would be able to hear her chattering or laughing in the background and all you want to do is be there.’
And, of course, she arrived home to find there had been huge changes in her daughter in her absence. ‘She’d turned two while I was away, she was potty trained and she didn’t have her dummy any more.
‘You feel: “I should have been there for that, I should have done that.” There was a lot of guilt.’ So much so that Zoe initially decided to leave the Army.
‘I thought: “I can’t do this.” I couldn’t bear to be away from her again.’
She resigned, but as she worked her year-long notice it was her family who urged her to reconsider. ‘My parents reminded me how much I love my work — that I had job security and could give Sian a wonderful life. So I re-evaluated and decided to stay.’
/10/10/article-2215898-13F167B0000005DC-839_634x452.jpg” width=”634″ height=”452″ alt=”Danger zone: Zoe faces the prospect of active service in Afghanistan next year (stock picture)” class=”blkBorder” />
Danger zone: Zoe faces the prospect of active service in Afghanistan next year (file photo)
‘Within months of having Abigail I had to leave my children behind,’ she recalls. For the past year Abigail has been living with Zoe’s mother-in-law in East Yorkshire, while Sian has been enrolled at boarding school.
‘I was based in Northern Ireland and was away so much, for such long periods, that it was becoming incredibly disruptive for the girls. I had to work out a way they could have a stable base. I got to see them most weekends, but sometimes quite a few weeks went by.
‘It was tough. I carry their photos with me wherever I go, and I’ve got little videos of them on my phone which I watch whenever I’m down. But I miss them, and I know they miss me — whenever I have to leave, they always get upset.
‘Sometimes Sian has said to me: “Mum, I wish you weren’t in the Army so we could spend more time together.” But she has never asked me to leave.’
There are around 18,000 women serving in the Army, making up 10 per cent of the force
Luckily their relationship has never suffered.
‘Whenever I’m back they run up and give me a kiss and a cuddle and we just slip back into normal family life. It’s what they know.’
The bigger picture is a topic she tries to avoid. ‘Abigail and Sian both know that Daddy is in Afghanistan, getting the bad guys. But they haven’t made the connection yet between Daddy and Mummy and the news reports of soldiers dying, and we will cross that bridge when we have to.
‘If soldier deaths come on the news and the kids are there, I just change channels. Leigh and I agreed to try to shelter them as much as we can, for as long as possible.’
Now, some of the toughest conversations Zoe has are not with her children, but some of the wives of her colleagues.
‘While most wives are friendly and understanding, some can be quite judgmental. They can’t understand what I do because they’re at home looking after their kids.
‘One of them accused me of palming my kids off. It hurts, but at the same time it’s frustrating that I have to explain myself — the men are leaving kids behind, too, but they’re not expected to justify it.’
Shortly before Christmas last year, Zoe considered quitting the Army once more when she was offered the option of leaving on half pension, having reached her half-way service mark. ‘I did seriously consider it. I’d been struggling with missing the girls and part of me thought, perhaps it’s time.’
Zoe's story features in this month's Easy Living magazine
But, again, she decided to stay, buoyed by the prospect of relocating to a barracks in Yorkshire in September, a move she has just made and which has enabled Abigail to return home full-time, and Sian at weekends.
Nonetheless, the prospect of a tour of Afghanistan next year looms.
‘Of course, it’s nerve-racking. But I know that if it ever got to a stage where I felt the children were really unhappy, then I would do whatever it took to change that.
‘But now, although we miss each other, we’re happy. It’s not conventional motherhood, but I hope that my life — and the decisions I’ve made — can inspire my girls to think that anything is possible.’
Easy Living The Conde Nast Publications Ltd.