When Sergeant Gayle Davies of the 157 Royal Logistic Corps packed her bags and headed off to Iraq in May last year, she allowed herself the luxury of a small penny-whistle. For the next six months it was to be a reminder of her "normal" life back in Wales, where she teaches music at a cluster of schools in Carmarthenshire. A member of the Territorial Army since she was at college, Sergeant Davies is part of a reserve force of around 40,000 volunteers from all walks of life, around 10,000 of whom have seen active service in the Gulf in the past two years.
"I wanted a hobby that was a bit different," she says. Teaching seven-year-olds to play "London's Burning" on the recorder one month and driving a 16-tonne armoured truck through the streets of Basra the next? That's different. "When I joined up I swore allegiance to the Queen, but I never actually thought I'd go to war for my country."
Technically speaking, Sergeant Davies didn't go to war; but she did end up in a war-zone. Arriving in Basra not long after the official end of hostilities, she drove trucks across the desert, delivering kit and equipment, a far cry from threading her hatchback between schools in rural Wales. The Iraqi resistance was targeting troops on the move, so it was a particularly vulnerable job. "We came under fire, and there was always the possibility of ambush," she says. "Sometimes in Basra I'd drive with one hand holding a gun out of the window, just to make it clear that we were armed and ready." Matters were complicated by the trucks being in "battle condition" (they kept breaking down).
It wasn't only trucks that struggled to cope with the conditions. "The temperature was 50C minimum every day," she recalls. "Any wind was hot desert wind. And you're driving around in a big metal box, wearing flak jackets and a helmet. I drank at least 10 litres of water a day. But the refrigeration units couldn't cope, so it was hot water. Which, having been in the truck all day, was incredibly hot. Cold water became the greatest luxury."
And where had she prepared for this blistering desert heat? Aldershot. "But then there's nowhere on Earth that could have prepared us for it." It became a question of balancing risks: drive with the windows down and flak jackets off, and risk a bullet, or wind up the windows and roast?
While Sergeant Davies was overseeing logistics in Iraq, her local education authority had its own logistical problem covering her timetable. Because she teaches in 12 schools, primary and secondary, Carmarthenshire music service was able to share out the work between other staff. But for full-time teachers in a single school, a call-up inevitably means major disruption. Although TA members have to tell their employers they are reservists, they get only three weeks' notice of mobilisation. So schools have to act quickly. Once a reservist has been mobilised, they are employed and paid by the Army. Schools can then use the money they save on his or her salary to pay for supply cover.
But replacing a specialist in a shortage subject can be a headache, especially if exams are looming. Employer or reservist can apply for exemption or deferral but, whatever their commitments to their classes, teachers are treated like any other volunteer. Some schools have appealed against the call-up without success. "It's about balancing the needs of the employer and the military," says Tim Corry, campaign director of Sabre, the Ministry of Defence organisation that supports reservists and their employers. "But if no one else can be found to do the specific job the Army requires, the needs of the military come first."
Mike Dew, a 33-year-old design and technology teacher at Bay House comprehensive in Gosport, Hampshire, and a private in the Princess of Wales Royal Regiment, was called up for service in Iraq last year. He wanted to go. But, worried about replacing him adequately at short notice, his headteacher, Ian Potter, applied for an exemption, which was granted. Not surprisingly, it caused some friction. Private Dew even considered handing in his notice. "I wasn't happy. But I fully understood the school's reasons. I teach a shortage subject. In the school's position, I'd have done the same."
Having grown up wanting to join the Army, Private Dew almost signed up in his early twenties. "So joining the TA was an obvious thing to do," he says. "I get the best of both worlds: a stable home life and the soldier stuff for fun at the weekends." For fun? "Well, at 3am, in a ditch of fetid water, you do wonder. But, like all these things, the sense of achievement afterwards is incredible."
He's proud that he was given the job of manning a 24lb, 7.6mm machine gun, as it's a job that requires a bit of intelligence. "You don't just point it and pull the trigger; you have to input data and co-ordinates." He's even prouder of being the smallest machine-gunner in the unit. "It's usually a job for big blokes, because it's physically demanding. I'm only 5ft 71Z2in, but I've put on two stone since I joined the TA. And it's the right kind of weight."
He signed up three years ago, so is still at the rank of private. "It's a shock having to take orders without question when most of the time, in the classroom, I'm the person with authority. But it's nice not having so much responsibility for a change."
Private Dew suspects that forthcoming orders might include another call-up, in which case it will be back to square one. His heart will want him to go, his headteacher won't. "We'd probably appeal again," says Mr Potter. "After that it's out of our hands. You can't hold anything against a teacher for being in the TA; it's something they do in their own time. It's not as if Mike joined up actually hoping to go to war. Anyone who does that should join the regulars."
At Mark Rutherford school in Bedford, head of geography Abi Edwards, 31, was called up towards the end of the summer term 2003. Her school chose not to appeal: the holidays accounted for a chunk of her mobilisation and gave the school time to find cover. Stationed in the south of Iraq, Captain Edwards found herself among regulars, who were "amazed" to find she was a teacher.
Her role, as part of the 158 Transport Regiment, was to deploy other reservists where they could make the greatest contribution: most reservists do an army job unconnected to their civilian life, but some bring skills that can be put to good use. Sergeant Davies, for example, learned to speak Arabic, teaching in Kuwait. "Enough to say 'Go Away!' or 'You're in danger'. It all came in handy dealing with Iraqi people, or trying to read car numberplates."
Reservists train one evening a week, and around two weekends in four.
There's also a fortnight's annual camp, often held overseas; Private Dew recently went to Kazakhstan. They learn general army skills, such as first-aid, survival and weapons-handling, as well as specialist work relevant to their unit. The training is tough, with little allowance made for part-time volunteers. "We don't get an easy time of it," says Private Dew. "We do exactly the same things a regular soldier does. But there's perhaps a more respectful approach from officers. They know we can vote with our feet. As volunteers we're entitled to quit on the spot - and some do."
With a call-up for active service, training steps up a gear. "There's a month of intensive preparation. That's when it comes home that it's for real," says Captain Edwards. "Being taught how to reach someone who's been injured in a minefield, you realise it's not a nice place you're going to."
Learning to dodge mines may not be obviously linked to teaching music, geography or DT, yet all three reservists believe their TA skills - organisation, confidence and, above all, teamwork - have made them better teachers. But it can be difficult to shake off the military manner. "I occasionally find myself teaching with army-style delivery and body language," says Private Dew. "I think, 'Hold on, is this really how I want to communicate?'"
And they all value the camaraderie of the the "Terries". All are single, and the TA plays a big part in their life outside school. "It's a wider social mix than any staffroom," explains Private Dew. "And it's good to have friends in the unit who are 17 or 18, the same age as some of my students."
For Sergeant Davies, returning from Iraq was like leaving a surrogate family. "You depend on each other absolutely for six months, then it's all taken away. That's hard. You feel empty for a while."
Settling back into civilian life isn't always easy; marking piles of exercise books doesn't have the adrenalin rush of night-time manoeuvres in the desert. And returning soldiers attract plenty of attention, not all of it welcome when you're trying to slip back into routine.
"I was unlucky," says Captain Edwards. "The first week back in school was when newspapers carried pictures of abused Iraqi prisoners. I had children asking me, 'How many did you torture, Miss?' They thought they were being funny, but it got wearisome. I haven't spoken about my experiences much with my classes. I don't feel ready yet."
In fact, settling back into school proved easier for her than returning to weekly army training after active service and a month's leave. "The TA had always been part of my working life, so I'd never known any different. But after a break I've started to resent losing weekends and having to turn out after school on Wednesday nights. It gets harder to see how to get everything done at work and still find time."
Which might explain why TA numbers have fallen in the past three to four years. "People's lives are getting busier," admits Tim Corry. "They just don't have spare time for voluntary activities." He admits, too, that a growing realisation that reservists can be called up for active service may have put off the faint hearts and free-riders.
Captain Edwards recommends the TA to anyone. So does she regret not having considered the Army as a career? "Absolutely not. It would drive me up the wall. As a hobby it's fine, but as a way of life? I don't see the attraction. I can't begin to explain how good it felt to be back in the classroom doing my real job again."
IN THE RESERVES
There are around 40,000 reservists in the TA, making up a quarter of the overall Army, as well as a few hundred in the Royal Naval Reserve, the Royal Marines Reserve and the Reserve Air Force.
Compulsory mobilisation usually takes place only in times of "national danger" or "warlike operations". But reservists can volunteer to be mobilised at any time, if their employer agrees.
Reservists are usually used no more than once in any three-year period.
Call-ups can last between three months and one year, but are typically six to nine months.
If an employee is compulsorily mobilised, the employer is legally bound to re-employ the person afterwards.
Reservists are paid an hourly rate for the time they spend training, as well as an annual tax-free "bounty" of up to pound;1,380 a year. Mobilised reservists receive army pay according to their rank for the period of their call-up. But the Army may top this up if the reservist would be earning more in his or her civilian job. Employers receive pound;2,400 towards the costs of finding and training a replacement, and there are grants for any retraining a reservist might need on returning to work.