Sunday, 26 June 2011

'Blood of My Soldiers'

Blood of My Soldiers

I had the privilege of being part of an army which was instrumental in creating a new country. I am referring to the war fought between India and Pakistan in 1971 which resulted in creation of Bangladesh. Such instances do not happen often; and when they happen they are so momentous that most get swept away by the surging tides of events.
As a young rookie captain my view point of these history – changing events was confined to personal experiences.

I was part of an infantry battalion as the Regimental Medical Officer. From the urgency of the massive preparations we all could make out that something major was in the offing. Our anticipation turned correct when on the 26th November 1971 our battalion was ordered to cross into the then East Pakistan. It is difficult to narrate the tense atmosphere before the Battalion moved. All such are generally confined to the hours of darkness; and so was this move.

Suffice to say that by 2 AM we were about seven Km inside, at a location previously selected. The battalion started digging down frantically for we were expecting an attack from the enemy, at first light. And we were proved right. Three companies were deployed in a semicircular pattern with A company facing an open piece of ground in an area surrounded by banana trees and other crops. I was ordered to position myself somewhat near the center where I was to establish the Regiment Aid Post (RAP). To those who are not tuned to the army jargon, RAP is the place where the doctor and the medical personnel will be located during a war. It is one of the unwritten axioms that the RAP should be accorded the maximum possible protection from small arms and artillery fire. In common parlance this meant that the RAP should be located in an underground bunker with adequate overhead protection.

Unfortunately for me the time needed to construct a bunker was not there. Therefore I choose a small patch of land where the surface was not water–logged. It was not by any means an easy task in utter darkness to find this piece of real estate. My staff & I opened up the panniers containing essential drugs, fluids and equipment. By the time we finished this I could see the faint glimmer of the sun rising; which is called by the armed forces all over the world as ‘First Light’. Sure enough in about ten minutes time the shelling started. Initially the shells were landing at a fair distance away. But my experienced havildar (Sergeant Major) cautioned me that it is only a matter of time before the guns find the correct range to hit our position. We were all lying flat on the ground and trying to crawl into any many unfinished trenches if possible.

Being exposed to such life threatening situation for the first time, it took me some time to get my rationality back. And by that time we could hear the unmistakable clanking sounds of the tank tracks from across the area of clearance in front of A Company. Within minutes three tanks appeared out into the open area along with khaki clad infantry soldiers. They were advancing at a leisurely pace. The company facing this attack kept holding their fire till the time the attackers were near a hundred yards. Then all hell broke loose with artillery firing from both sides, manoeuvring of the tanks, the shouts and the battle cries of the attackers, the incessant pinging sounds of the bullets. All of these caused an utter mayhem.

This went on for about twenty minutes and then there was a deafening silence. My experienced havildar told me that the attack has been repulsed and this was the time the casualties will start being brought to the RAP. Initially a couple was brought but soon the numbers increased. Without any overhead cover and without any kind of facilities I had to deal with these injured. The real job of army doctors, which is to give life and limb-saving treatment to the wounded, is something extremely difficult. I am not implying the physical hardships or the danger to life. More than these, it is the choice that one has to make by which treatment is given to only those injured who have a reasonable chance of survival. You can call it either Hobson’s Choice or Sophie’s Choice depending upon your inclination. The army calls this ‘Triage’ and this principle has been adopted by all major hospitals across the world in their emergency rooms. But when one makes such choices it will haunt you over and over again. I can vouch for that!

By the time I could do whatever I was capable to the injured, another attack came in, along the same pattern as the previous one. And so it went on twice more. In other words four attacks were mounted in a span of approximately four hours by the enemy. All these were repulsed but at a heavy cost. Soon, I had more than eighty injured soldiers littered all over a small area. There was no scope for evacuating these wounded because one had to wait till the time it was considered safe to land helicopters and use ambulance cars.

The first ambulance car fetched up at about 1030 hours. Soon others followed. The task of sending these injured soldiers rearwards to the field hospitals is quite difficult indeed and my staff and I were totally engrossed in this when we heard the unmistakable clacketty – clack of helicopters. Two helicopters landed in a small clearing. My staff told me that the Corps Commander, a three star General, had landed. I was far too busy to even see where the General was. In about fifteen minutes, as I was kneeling down and adjusting the intravenous drip on a casualty, I felt some commotion behind my back. I turned and looked over my shoulders to see the General and his staff officer along with my commanding officer standing there. I immediately got up and wished him. There was no question of salute because I was not wearing a cap or a helmet. In a booming voice which seemed to come from somewhere inside that small body the General asked me “Son! How many casualties have you got?” “Sir I don’t have a count but I have send twenty-eight to the field hospital and there are about double the number still lying here.” “Where is your RAP?” was the next question. I looked around and said “You are standing in the RAP, Sir!” The General became quite agitated and started berating the commanding officer for not looking after the essential details of the RAP. “How many did you loose?” was the next question. “None Sir, so far”, But I can’t say about a few of them now”.

General walked around the casualties speaking a word of two with few of them. Suddenly he stopped and turned to me and said “That is a wonderful job you have done” and he extended his hand. On reflex I too did the same when suddenly I looked at my hand. It had the mud and blood caked in layers and was abominably filthy. I was horrified and pulled my hand back. “What happened son”? Was the question. “Too dirty Sir”! Was my instant reaction. “Show me!” With great trepidation I put my hand out. The grip was firm and vice-like. Looking straight into my eyes with the only one eye that he had, the General said, “What you have on your hand is the blood of my soldiers! It is my honor to shake your hand, Son!” Perhaps it was the acute mental stress that I was going through at that time, perhaps it was the severe physical tiredness which caught up with me at that time or perhaps it was the momentous nature of the occasion, I do not know. But my eyes welled up and a couple of the drops came out. I felt embarrassed. Yet the General did not leave my hand. Looking back at his staff officer he said, “Make sure this boy gets rewarded for this excellent work.” Then, coming a few inches closer to me he said, “Son! I’m proud of you!”

That I subsequently got decorated by the President of India for the services I rendered during this war fades into relative unimportance as I consider this statement by this great soldier as the best appreciation I ever received for performance of official duties all through the 24 years I wore the proud uniform of an Indian Army Special Forces Paratrooper. This general later on became the Chief of the Indian Army and so did the staff officer who was with him at that time.

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