Vignettes from the Uniform

Foot Soldiers: “For Your Tomorrow, We Gave Our Today”
  1. The recent incidents in J&K and the subsequent actions have brought to fore many issues. Many of my friends, who have not donned the uniform, have oft asked me very pointed questions. Some of them even went ahead and suggested what the response of the uniformed forces should be; from the dubious to the incredulous. Some of you are privy to these through the social media. That our nation does not have conscription army, coupled with complete lack of ground situation, prodded me to share some real-life vignettes to understand ground realities.
  2. My ‘infantry’ battalion; Infantry are the foot soldiers you witness operating in Saragarhi, Mumbai during 26/11 or Kargil in the chilly heights of Tiger Hill/ Tololing.

Fail Fast

3. In my first field posting, we were deployed in the North Eastern frontiers. Of the 4,057 kms of border that we share with China, 1,126 kms is in Arunachal Pradesh. If you see the map, you will notice River Ngi Chu, emanating from the Tibet Autonomous Region enters India and becomes River Lohit. It is a major tributary to the mighty Bramhaputra. River Dong flowing from East to West joins River Lohit. From this junction if you look due East approximately 28 kms (as the crow flies) is the tri junction of the Indo -China – Myanmaar border. A man-made marker is present to identify the location.

4. The mission of our ‘Long-Range Patrol’ was to go along River Dong to the marker.  Time 15 days. 10 men self-contained for the entire duration. Thus, each of us carrying anything from 30 to 35 kgs on our back. We were carrying a Radio Set to give an “all Okay” report each evening and our location. There were no track or trail to follow. Our plan was simple. A four/ five -kilometre march each day. Reach our location and prepare one hot meal and settle down for the night which descended at 4 pm!

5. The first four days were uneventful. That is, if you don’t account for the leeches!! They manage to enter  through the shoe eyelet, crawl up and keep sucking blood. Once huge, they just drop off leaving behind huge blood clots. To counter the leeches, we walked with a salt pouch at the end of the stick and keep dabbing around us. Phew!

6. We would set off after having our hot cup of tea early morning and reach our destination by around 12 – 1 pm. The walk was gruelling and tough. We would often have breaks to catch our breath and have some ‘shakarparas’ (Indian snack, rich in carbs). It tested us for physical fitness, mental robustness, determination and grit. On reaching our destination for the day we would settle down, contact our base and report location and prepare one hot meal and rest. We explored a variety of flora and fauna. My troops being from the North East helped as we would invariably have some fresh catch to keep us going, thanks to the booby traps they would lay.

7. Disaster struck on the fourth day when the heavens opened up. The heavy rains drenched us to our bones. It rained for two full days. We were forced to cancel our walk. Cold and shivering we were forced to take shelter under the canopy of the trees. We commenced on our mission the sixth day without our hot cuppa and, we kept walking till 2 pm. I was aiming to catch up the two days that we missed. Dinner was a challenge as we could not find any dry log| trees to light fire. We slept on half empty stomachs. By now we were running low on our rations and were hoping to complete our mission. But by the ninth day, it seemed like mission impossible.

8. We came up with a brilliant idea. Shed all our weight| heavy bags and proceed with bare essentials. Complete our task and on our way back, pick up our stuff. This sounded very logical. And the next morning, we set off, so much the lighter. That day we walked and walked. By around 12 noon we reached our marker and unfurled the Indian Tricolour and planned to stay there for the night. Without the packs, we had no extra clothing. A bonfire was lit, my boys managed a nice game, and we celebrated with a barbeque. The night was cold. Shivering through the night, we curled up against each other to keep us warm, we all got up at 4 am to return.

9. Things were fine, till we reached the place, where we thought we kept our belongings. Zilch!! We searched and searched and came up with nothing! We decided to spend the night there. With no warm clothing, cold and shivering and this was when the rain gods decided to test our resilience and mental stamina. Wet, cold and hungry, we all huddled and tried to catch a wink. The rains didn’t relent. The radio set was defunct by now, as our batteries had run out. Totally lost in wilderness, with not a soul aware of our location.

10. The fourteenth day, we resumed our walk, with no packs, drenched to the core, and to the pitter patter of the rains. Walking, in stupor, one boy lost his footing, and had a drop of nearly thirty feet. Dangling above the River Dong, which was flowing down below. Rescue was a major challenge, as we could get no footing in the slippery sides. Tying each other two men, lowered themselves and rescued him. He had a fractured ankle. He could definitely not walk anymore. We tied his ankle and decided to carry him. We crafted a stretcher from the logs and commenced our journey back. Night descended and were forced another halt for the night. The morning, saw heavier showers, and visibility restricted to 10 yards. By now two men had very high fever and were unable to walk. I had huge blisters in my foot.

11. We were to return to our base by the fifteenth day; and here we were stuck in an unknown location. Soaked to our bones, we decided to take change things. Hungry, I nominated two boys to hunt for some food. We had weapons to scare away wild animals. As the leader, I was carrying some ammunition. So, the two hunters go to fetch us some food. After some hours we hear a shot! Bingo! Darkness sets in and nothing; Kaput – neither the food nor soldiers. Some local leaves were boiled and we sustained for the night.

12. Just before dawn break, the two soldiers lumbered in. Bedraggled, dishevelled, tired with cuts and bruises all over their bodies as if mauled. On inquiry, we learnt that the hunters had bumped into a small bear and took a shot and missed; the mother hovering nearby charged at them. The two ran to save their lives and kept running for over three hours and both of them could finally meet up only around 2/3 pm. While they were finding their way towards the camp; they found a cave and took shelter for the night. To their horror, this was the mother bear’s abode. They found some remains of the pack that belonged to us, everything torn to pieces and in tatters. They slid out in silence and found their way back to our camp.

13. Twentieth day, the rain gods had mercy and the sun peeked from the mountain range to the East. It ushered a fresh ray of hope and cheer. We found the energy to commence our journey to our destination. We were already three days past expiry date (much later we learnt that rescue mission could not be launched due to the inclement weather). With one soldier on stretcher, we took turns to carry him and made a halt that evening. One of our traps, set on our way out had a catch! Another hot meal (just tandoori!) was enough to perk us up. The hot meal restored our spirits. On the twenty first day, we met a rescue patrol which had been dispatched to look for us. We were still two days from the SP. With the help of the patrol, we gained speed and found our destination.

Call for Action

  1. The whole is greater than the sum total of the parts. Our actions resulted in a string of successes. T.E.A.M. is the key to success. 
  2. As a leader, not only must your T.E.A.M. know your master plan but it is imperative to have their buy-in. Leadership is the imposition of your personality in execution of task. And when the task calls for unlimited liability, you better look into every aspect of their training and operation. And remember, the devil lies in the detail.
  3. Get your T.E.A.M. to buy in your vision, and once that is done, there is nothing they cannot achieve. Believe me when I say, NOTHING!!! And to get your T.E.A.M.s buy-in they need to see:

+ Your skin in the game; your commitment and your whole-hearted involvement. No ifs and no buts. They can see through sham.

+ They should believe that you put them before you, always and every time. I’m proud to share that YOUR army, the credo of the Chetwode, is drilled into every officer: “The safety honour and welfare of your country come first, always and every time. The honour, welfare and comfort of the men you command come next. Your own ease, comfort and safety, come last always and every time.”

+ Nishkaam Karma as a karam yodhha, do your task and BE in the present. The rewards will follow. If you are looking for rewards, concentrate on your service. Its ‘give’ and ‘take’. Remember, you’ll always get more than what you deserve.

+ And if there is one, just one QUALITY that’ll stand by you. That stood by me and stands by every soldier when he dons the uniform. The one differentiator is INTEGRITY. Which really means, that your MEN TRUST YOU to do the right thing. Each one of us comes to this cross road, and we have to make a choice … I urge you, it’s not necessary to make the correct choice BUT make the right choice. It may be a road less travelled. So be it. The journey will be beautiful.

Jai Hind!!!!