SajanSpeaks

Thoughts that originate deep within

Archive for the month “February, 2016”

Siachen Experience#3: The Day I Attended My Own Funeral

That Smart Phone in your hand, or the TV you watch could be Weapons of Mass Destruction! Yes I repeat WMD. In the connected world of rapid instantaneous communication today, do we realize one wrong message can spread destruction, the way it did with morphed photos and fake videos that got circulated during the recent JNU episode. It divided the people right in the middle. Can we forget the recent episode where Lance Naik Hanumanthappa was declared dead by everyone, up the chain, but was found alive later. I really thank God communications were not as good about 20 years back.

While being on “Top” of the Siachen Glacier, my last few days were eventful. My relief had started climbing and I was all eager to go back to civilization. But few were not as lucky. We had a fearless Artillery OP Officer at a forward Post.  He too was due for relief. Few days before his relief was to take place, he was retaliating Paki fire by bringing down accurate fire on enemy posts. All of a sudden an enemy shell landed near him, he was injured badly. We radioed immediately for Casualty Evacuation. The Brave Army Aviation pilots, fought through the poor weather, brought in their helicopters for evacuation, but were forced to wait in a helipad enroute because the shelling was still going on. To our surprise the shelling stopped. Immediately the choppers went up and retrieved the injured officer. As they were taking off, another enemy artillery shell landed close to the helipad. To our good luck, the helicopter survived. Unluckily a soldier who was helping load the injured officer in to the helicopter got hit. This, we realized then, was a new technique the enemy resorted to target our helicopters, by waiting for the helicopter to land before they fire again.

The helicopter rushed to save the Officer. However, they could not return to carry the injured soldier since the weather packed up by then. It took another three days before the soldier was evacuated once the weather cleared up. He survived, due to sheer grit and the will to live. Unfortunately my friend could not survive despite being given immediate treatment.2b932cb6b48d487bc8995788dd47cdf961da7ceb

I reached base camp shortly thereafter. To assuage my emotions of having been kept on “Top” for more than my tenure, my annual leave was sanctioned immediately and I was packed off on priority to Thoise to board my flight back to the World of Happiness. I reached Thoise airfield Transit Camp where we had to await our turn to board the Air Force flight. I was happy to be on my way back to civilization, but my happiness was short-lived. I was given the onerous responsibility of escorting my friend’s mortal remains to Chandigarh. With a heavy heart I stepped into the IL76. My eyes sat glued to the coffin. Recounting the chirpy young boy who stayed in my Fibre Glass Hut on his way up, and how so very young the light has been put out. The journey to Chandigarh was uneventful, except for my moist eyes.

The IL76 Gajraj plane, landed smoothly. The rear of the aircraft opened, and I stepped down to oversee the handing over of fallen hero’s remains to the people detailed to receive the same. The Airforce had made arrangements to transport it further to Delhi, immediately in another aircraft. I saluted my departed friend one last time and turned to leave.16army1

To my utter surprise I saw the men of my unit lined up at the tarmac to receive me. For a moment I thought maybe this is the way they receive those who return from the Glacier, may be a protocol that, I wasn’t aware of. I soon noticed surprised faces to see me walk up to them, they all stared at me. I noticed strange glances, and this, confused me. Weren’t they happy to receive me? After all the formalities were over, I went to the Transit Camp. At the Transit Camp, during my conversation with the boys who came to receive me, I realized the big folly that had just taken place.

Long distance calls through Army exchanges back then were as feeble as it could get. The message sent from Leh through phone was – “Capt Saab arriving at Chandigarh escorting the body. Send vehicle for pick up”. The message as understood by my unit guys was that – Capt Saab’s body is coming in the aircraft. And so they all hurriedly reached the tarmac along with a 1Ton truck to receive my coffin. So when I stepped out, they were extremely surprised to see me – the Ghost who walked. That is the story of how I got the opportunity to attend my own funeral arrangements. A rare privilege indeed.

The magnanimity of that error did not strike me then, I dismissed it as a mere miscommunication. But today I am wondering, if the communications to our folks back home were as good as it is now, what would have been their experience, especially with parents and aging grandparents, I shudder to think.

And herein lies a message for all of us. Do not be too trigger happy to forward anything that comes into your mobile phone. Haste is waste. Don’t be the one to show off that you have some new information however smart it may sound. Wait, analyse the consequences and send only if you feel it will add value to people. Any message or opinion that fuels suspicion, fuels divisiveness, fuels hatred, spreads sadness – Do you think you should be a part of that gang? Let us avoid being party to these Weapons of Mass Destruction!

I close with few words of popular Malayalam Actor Mohanlal from his Voice Blog, expressing pain at the recent happenings at JNU– “All thoughts are good, if only they would guide the nation in the path of progress, All agitations are good if only they would add one more brick to the growth of our nation, all debates are good if only they would ensure the freedom that has been achieved through sacrifices of martyrs, remains intact,…… rest everything is not only just a waste of time and effort, but an abuse to the motherland. I do not remember who wrote this, “When India is alive, How can we die, …… when India is Dying, What is the use of us being alive?”

Jai Hind!

Siachen Experience#2: When I turned Infantarian

At a time when our country is being divided over being Rightist or Leftist regarding events at JNU and with the reservation based caste fault lines opening up in Haryana, I am reminded of a Life’s Lesson I learnt early on. The best Lessons are learnt faster through experience. No amount of courses that you attend prepares you for what you would face later in life, and if you are a fast learner, you come out successful. This is true for every walk of life and more so for us faujis.

Way back in 1994, I went up the Siachen Glacier to be the officer responsible for the Northern Glacier’s Air Defence. I was responsible for the troops and the Air Defence Systems deployed at various places to protect our troops from any misadventure from air. I had the good fortune of walking up with the then Second in Command of a very highly decorated Infantry Battalion. This person was a brilliant Officer who later became a Lt Gen and commanded Delhi Area and was seen few years back, during Republic Day, leading the parade.

After the Battalion completed its tenure of duty, it de-inducted, but I was left behind awaiting my relief who was nowhere to be seen. Another wonderful Battalion replaced the previous one. A fantastic officer Col VG, commanded it. When Battalions move into glacier, they beef up their own officer strength by getting officers posted in from their sister battalions. This unit too had its share of officers posted in from all units. Despite that, when they had to send an officer to all posts, they ran short, partly because of medical casualties that kept occurring.

Soon the only person left behind in the Battalion HQ, a Young officer who was the Adjutant, was required to move ahead to a post. The CO required help to run the HQ. He looked around and found me twiddling my thumbs. He asked me to perform the duties of the Adjutant of the Infantry battalion. Now, I was confused. I was an Air Defence guy, and why would I do someone else’s duty, and that too become an infantry battalion’s Adjutant, sitting atop the highest Battalion HQ in the World? After all, I had my responsibility to look after my own boys.

So I took refuge by saying that I needed my AD Commanding officer’s permission. He was sitting miles away at Leh. I knew communication would be near impossible to get through. But the Infantry CO was smarter than me. He conveyed it to the Siachen Brigade Commander, who was a terror from the Parachute Regiment. The Brigadier must have given a piece of his mind to my CO. In the evening I got a call, in a feeble voice that crackled and was barely audible, from Leh, where I understood that I needed to take on additional responsibility and help the Infantry Unit. Having failed in my attempt, to refuse my CO, I decided that I will NOT do the work as far as possible. After all seniority in the Glacier is decided on the number of days you stayed on top. I was by far the longest serving guy at that moment in Northern Glacier. No CO could bulldoze me around. –with three stars on my shoulder and all of 25 years of age, I was confident of taking on these scheming CO’s.

Next morning, I ambled into the Battalion HQ at my own time, thinking the CO would have figured out a way to sort out his problem of shortage of officers. There was no one in the Fibre Glass Hut except Col VG. He was handling 4 telephones all at the same time and trying to get the strength in each of the patrols, induction/ de-induction parties and other movement details. He looked up, did not utter a word and continued to do the work. This flustered me. I expected him to scold me for not coming on time to take up the assigned role, instead he just respected my decision not to support him, and just asked if I would have a cup of tea. It shamed me to no extent. I just could not see a CO work while I sat around. I walked up to him, and without uttering a word, grabbed the phones from him and started to do the work. I had observed the previous adjutants do their work and I was well versed with the procedure and knew all the people who tele-reported every morning and evening to the Adjt in each Camp – up and down the glacier. As I sat down and expertly did the job, Col VG observed me for some time and then remarked, “You are better than what I thought”. He left me alone thereafter to do my job.

With that started our fine relationship. He trusted me like his own unit officer. I did the job well, sometimes even exceeding my own expectations. I befriended each and every Company Commander who confided in me their problems. I tried solving them. One day one Company Commander told me that their boys were not getting letters from home as quickly as they would like it. The letters travelled from the base camp through people who came up, once in a while, and it was wet or torn or mis-routed by the time it reached the various posts, and of course received very very late. Not every post had the luxury of a helicopter landing with the mail bag. I thought about the eagerness of the company commanders and their men, who must be expecting the letters from their loved ones. Especially of that Company Commander who was newly married.

I hit upon an idea. I had my course mate back in base camp from Army Service Corps who was responsible for supply air drops. I told him I shall organise the Load Manifest Officer of the Unit to deliver packages containing letters sorted out for each post to him at the Base camp. My friend’s duty would be to pack it well and enclose it safely with the supply para drops that would be done by Mi 17 choppers nearer to the post. However there was every possibility of a para drop falling into a crevasse. The Company Commander agreed to this new mode of delivery of letters and said that recovery from crevasses would be his headache if it ever happened. The first drop took place, it was a neat drop. The men of that company were extremely elated to get letters so quickly. So all companies requested me to implement this for their locations as well. And probably for the first time, men in Northern Glacier got their letters on the same or next day as it reached Siachen Base Camp. You can imagine their morale rising higher than the mountains.mi17-2

Once we were told that all our radio transmissions were being monitored from across the border and that any operation of ours or planned artillery firing was known to them well in advance. One of the Company Commanders in a forward post happened to know Tamil. Therefore for any further operations, we used to speak in Tamil and convey the orders. That way we foxed the Pakis and achieved good results.

My tenure as the AD Gunner Adjutant of an Infantry Battalion came to a close in a month from then, when my relief walked in. I started getting desperate requests from the company commanders to volunteer to stay more and help them. I couldn’t agree to it as I had already stayed 30% more than my share and any further stay would seriously impact my health. We bid good bye with great camaraderie.

Col VG taught me great leadership lessons with his cool mind, calm demeanour and sharp intellect. Through his actions, he taught me that once in uniform, we rise above the petty regimental issues and work as one. He had no issues in accepting me as one of their own. His magnanimity raised the bar. He was able to motivate me to work more than any other person. That is True Leadership that I learnt from experience.

Many many years later, because of this experience, when I was posted in J&K in a counter insurgency outfit, I never asked anyone about their lanyard or parent unit, I just trusted individuals based on their capabilities,  as people who would rise above their uniforms / lanyards and serve as one.

And herein lies a message to my countrymen. How wonderful would it be for us to – Rise above ideologies, above parochialism, above sectarianism, above politics of caste, creed, region and religion, and live and love as one- Just One – Indians!

This is my tribute and a Toast to that great Battalion, Col VG, wonderful Officers and men who accepted me as their own. Here is how they would greet you, and I would like to greet you all similarly before I close…….! Jai Badri Vishal!

Jai Hind.

Siachen Experience#1 : The Will to Fight Death

Lance Naik Hanumanthappa of 19 Madras raised the entire country’s conscience to understand life in a snow filled, crevasse ridden, avalanche prone, icy northern heights that is a bone of contention between two hostile neighbors. His sheer WILLPOWER defied death in those icy heights but alas, sadly he could not survive. We salute this brave hero who battled all odds. And that opened some of my forgotten memories.

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Year 1995. Young and barely 25, I was full of energy posted to the Siachen area. The tenure on those icy mountain “Top” for jawans are 60 days and for officers it was 90 days. This does not include the month long training at Siachen Battle School at the Base Camp and the climb up and climb down which would involve about 10-12 days including the acclimatization of 4 days at 14000 feet, or the stay in the Siachen Base which can go anywhere up to a year or two . Men are compulsorily relieved at the end of the fixed tenure on “Top”, because medical experts have ruled that prolonged stay in such areas cause immense harm to the body due to the rarefied atmosphere and less oxygen. I know it is true, because I did suffer from memory loss later.

My tenure on “Top” was interesting. Towards the end of my tenure , I was eagerly expecting my relief around the 85th day, but alas, I was told my relief developed some medical issues and another person was being detailed. Hence my relief would be delayed. That meant another month more than what I bargained for. I became the oldest serving guy in the Northern Glacier, and I gave up expecting the relief. I saw the turnover of an Infantry Battalion, made loads of friends that I met when they moved up or down enroute the place where I was, which was indeed comparatively better than the posts ahead. To spend my time, I learnt skiing, I visited my boys in other posts and often led the patrols to open up lost beaten tracks due to heavy snow. In short, I kept myself busy. Finally the day arrived.

My relief stepped in. I was eager to get back to base. A day prior a weary looking Captain had stepped into my Fibre Glass Hut (which actually looks like an big Igloo). He was weak, and had lost weight. I could not recognize him even though I had met him on his way up. That was because he was forced to stay in a mountain post double the time than authorised (Officers on remote mountain top posts are rotated after 45 days). He was not relieved in time and had grown very weak. He had stayed in the same post where Hanumanthappa was trapped in ice. We decided to walk down together to Base Camp.

So on the destined day, both of us, happy to be relieved, started our journey back. It was a 4 day walk. At the end of each day’s walk, we rested in a Camp. The idea each day, was to reach that camp before it got difficult due to darkness or bad weather. Day 1 went fine till about 12 noon. Weather wasn’t too good. Camp 3 was still nowhere in sight. Capt SS sat down to rest. Sitting down in the open, means loss of body heat, and in no time we would freeze. I requested him to continue. He said, “Sir I can’t walk any more. Just leave me here. At least you guys save yourself.” I couldn’t believe what I heard. I said, “I am weak, I can’t carry you, but I just can’t leave you here”. I tied his belt with a rope and lugged him. I told him many things to get his spirits up. I dragged him. In no time, I got tired, but in small bursts, with rests in between, we both made it to Camp 3 by about 4 pm. There on being given water and warm food we recovered. I told him that we could call for the helicopter for evacuation and he could avoid the foot trek. He had grown a bit stronger. He felt going back in a helicopter would be a shame when his men were walking. He felt he could make it by foot.

The next day, he showed a lot of courage and we made our way through the snow. Around noon, again his body gave up. He pleaded that he be left there to fend for himself to die or be evacuated. That was something that we never do in the forces. We never leave our comrades behind. There is no way some one can find him in the icy wilderness, and with no helipad nearby there was going to be no evacuation either. This time, others in the group also pitched in, again we tied the rope and inched our way to Camp 2. It took us far more time and we barely managed to reach camp 2 before it became dark. Again the warm food rejuvenated us and lifted our spirits. Again the talk of helicopter ride was rubbished.

The third day, we set off again this time for Camp 1. Snow was lesser, but our energies were getting lower. Capt SS stopped earlier than usual. He again asked to be left behind. The same talk, motivation that we have completed half the distance and that in two days we would be back in civilization egged us on. My energy was getting depleted. Realising this, Capt SS stretched himself even more. We made it to Camp 1 that day, and I was hell bent on ensuring that he leaves by the helicopter. But looking at his eyes, I realized his death defying spirit. I gave up. I thought to myself, just one more day if we survive, it would be something remarkable. A gift of Life.

So the fourth day started. This was our home run. By evening we would be back in Base camp. The route was getting easier but we were completely drained. Pulling, pushing, motivating each other we trudged along. Many a times, when I gave up, Capt SS motivated me, when he gave up I pulled him up…and towards early evening, we could see the faint spots of Base Camp at the far distance at the end of the icy stretch. That raised our hopes. Another 2 hours and we could see figures approaching us. Officers and men from his unit had come to receive their Hero who did more than what he was supposed to. I was extremely happy to hand him over to them and ensure that I got back to Base camp in one piece.

I admire Capt SS. He never gave up hope. He was ready to sacrifice himself so that others could get back alive. Every day he refused being evacuated by air, because he wouldn’t want the men to think that the leader is weak. He refused to die, by his sheer will. He gave us a hope to live to fight another day.

Capt SS and I had the opportunity to be together Ten years later doing the same Staff Course at Wellington. We met each other recently while he was doing his Higher Defence Management Course. Now a proud Colonel, I am sure with his courage and strong Will, SS will rise higher to do greater service to the officers and men he commands and to the country.

Such are the stories every person who has survived there has experienced. I am lucky to be alive to write one.And this is dedicated to unsung brave warriors of Siachen.

Next time you meet a guy of the Forces, show him a little more respect than he deserves, for not many will tell you what they suffered. That is the least we country men could do for them.

Jai Hind!

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