A widow at just 28 when her soldier husband was killed in action, Nikki Scott was blindsided by grief and loss. But she knew she had to carry on living for her baby daughter Brooke.
Charity founder Nikki Scott, 39, lives in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, with her second husband Joe, 33, a care worker, and her children Kai, 16, Brooke, 11, Tilly, five, and Dani, nine months.
On a summer’s afternoon in July 2009, I took Brooke, then seven months old, for a walk in her pram. Thousands of miles away, unbeknown to me, her father Lee lay dead in a military morgue in Afghanistan, killed in action by a roadside bomb.
Arriving home to find two men – one in a suit, one in Army fatigues – solemn-faced on my doorstep, I lifted Brooke into my trembling arms, tears already falling down my face.
Just six weeks before, Lee, who was 26 when he was killed, had placed Brooke in her cot, softly whispering he’d be home soon. It took me months to accept that wouldn’t happen, this little girl would never know her father.
Lee and I met in 2001 and a year later he joined the Army. I was sceptical; he had a cheeky personality and I wasn’t convinced he’d take to following orders. I was wrong. He loved it and thrived, so proud to be a soldier. We married in February 2008 with Kai, then four, our page-boy. Brooke was born in November that year.
At work Lee may have been a tough soldier but at home he was a doting dad. But when I was pregnant with Brooke, he learned he was being sent to Afghanistan for six months, due to set off when she would be six months old.
Looking back, I was so naive. I really didn’t appreciate how dangerous it was out there. I was upset at the thought of us spending so long apart, and anxious about coping on my own with two young children, but it never crossed my mind he wouldn’t come back.
He left our home in the early hours of a June morning and I fought back tears as he kissed me goodbye. I knew he was worried about what lay ahead and I wanted to be strong, but as I shut the front door, I sank to the floor and wept. Six months without him felt like an eternity. I had no idea it would be for ever.
Until a week before his death, he’d been able to Skype and call occasionally. I’d live for those moments, holding Brooke up to the camera so he could see how she was changing, Kai chatting away. However, after another soldier in his troop was killed, the Army shut down all communication. In the days before Lee died, I’d been very anxious, desperate to hear his voice. His colleague’s death was a shocking wake-up call to the dangers he was facing. I’d felt sorry for that soldier’s family, unaware I’d be living the same nightmare. I barely remember the rest of the year after Lee died, it’s a blur of darkness.
Today, when Brooke asks me questions about herself as a baby I often can’t answer. I don’t remember what foods she liked or her favourite toy. Physically, I was present, but my mum did much of the caring for her and Kai. Emotionally, I was lost in grief. Brooke would cry in her cot and I’d sit beside it weeping, unable to find the strength to comfort her.
I carry a lot of guilt about not being more present when she was little and I think I always will. Back then, I was more concerned about the impact of Lee’s death on Kai. He was just five and has learning difficulties. It was so hard to make him understand his dad was never coming home.
I believed because Brooke was so young she’d feel his loss less than Kai. After all, how could she miss someone she’d never known? However, that wasn’t the case, and together we’ve had to navigate some very emotional times as she has come to terms with not only Lee’s absence, but also how he died.
She craves knowledge about her dad, and loves to hear what he was like. I know, particularly as she gets older, she’s trying to anchor her own sense of identity to him and understand who she is and who she came from. It upsets her that she has no memories of Lee, and there have been times I’ve held her as she’s cried tears of frustration and sadness. ‘I just want five minutes with him, Mum,’ she says, and I would give anything to make that happen for her.
There was a time I worried my grief and detachment in Brooke’s early years would impact our mother-daughter relationship, but we have a very close bond.
With her help, I run the charity Scotty’s Little Soldiers, which I founded in 2010, supporting children and young people who have lost a forces parent. It’s a positive way for us both to feel connected to Lee, and Brooke has benefited from it personally, meeting children who can understand her emotions in a way her other friends can’t.
When Brooke was four, I remarried. Joe served with Lee but has left the Army as there’s no way I could live with the fear of losing him like I lost Lee. Joe and I have two daughters together but he loves all the children the same. He’s very comfortable being both a dad and a stepdad, and has never tried to take Lee’s place in Brooke’s heart. I’m glad she has a father figure in her life, and I know Lee would be happy it’s Joe.
There are times Brooke looks at me, or laughs, and it’s as if Lee is in the room. It takes my breath away how alike they are. There was a time when my emotions were so raw, I found her likeness to him painfully poignant.
Now, with the passing of time, I simply cherish those reminders and feel grateful he gave her to me before he left for ever.
Schoolgirl Brooke Scott, 11, helps her mum run the charity set up in memory of her dad Lee.
My most treasured possession is my memory box, filled with things that belonged to Dad. Over the years Mum has added to it, and today it contains his iPod – so I can listen to his favourite music – a jumper and bracelet he used to wear, and a drawing he sent me from his final tour.
The item I love most is a recording of him reading me a bedtime story, which he made before he left for Afghanistan. ‘Be good for Mummy,’ he says at the end. ‘I’ll be home soon to give you lots of cuddles.’
Mum gave it to me two years ago, and hearing Dad’s voice for the first time, and his love for me in it, was an unforgettable moment. I cried, but they were happy tears.
I can’t remember a time I didn’t know I was different to children at school. Not just because my dad was dead, but because he died in such a shocking way. He wasn’t ill, it wasn’t peaceful, and nobody got to say goodbye.
Mum was always honest about how he was killed and when I was old enough, I read about his death online, too. It was a lot to take in, and even now I don’t think I’ve come to terms with how his life ended so violently.
When I tell people I’d like to join the Army they’re often surprised. Partly, I want to honour my dad by following in his footsteps, but I’ve also grown up part of the wider military family and while it can be a dangerous career, it’s rewarding, too. Mum says let’s wait and see – I think she hopes I’ll change my mind – but it really is my greatest ambition.
As often as I can, I visit my dad’s grave. I feel at peace when I can sit and chat to him, telling him about my street-dancing, what I’ve been doing in school, and my work for Scotty’s Little Soldiers.
More than anything, I hope he’s as proud of me as I am of him.
Nikki and Brooke in four
Describe each other.
Nikki: Fun. Thoughtful. Smart.
Brooke: Brave. Kind. Supportive.
Their worst habit?
Nikki: Walking round the house with her earphones in.
Brooke: Not finishing her sentences.
When you’re together…
Nikki: We talk about anything and everything.
Brooke: I feel loved.
Your favourite memory of each other?
Nikki: Watching her sing on stage with a band after a rugby game when she was four. I couldn’t believe how brave and confident she was.
Brooke: Driving to Plymouth together singing Christmas songs at the top of our voices.
Scotty’s Little Soldiers is a charity dedicated to supporting bereaved British Forces children and young people; scottyslittlesoldiers.co.uk.
As told to Eimear O’Hagan.