By Lt Gen Vijay Oberoi
Disability is of the mind, never of limb or organ. One needs to open one’s mind to opportunities that are available, instead of brooding over those that are not.
A soldier’s story
In August 1965, Pakistan launched a covert attack in Jammu and Kashmir. My battalion, the First Battalion of the famous Maratha Light Infantry, the ‘Jangi Paltan’, was moved into the area. As adjutant, my task was of coordination and mustering task forces, but I was chaffing at the bit for some action. Thus, when another task was planned for August 27, I volunteered.
As we entered a forest, infiltrators ambushed our column. The first bullet fired hit my right thigh. The action lasted only a few minutes, and there were two casualties—Lt Raut and myself, both wounded. There was only one stretcher, so our comrades carried Raut and me in turn.
By the time we reached the hospital at Srinagar, Raut had succumbed to his wounds and the doctor did not have much hope of my longevity either. Quick work by the doctor kept me going till emergency surgery could be performed. My femoral artery, which supplies blood to foot and toes, had been severed. The lower leg soon developed gangrene. I was shifted to the military hospital at Delhi.
Ten days later, my right leg was amputated a little below the knee. Two follow-up operations were performed at the military hospital in Pune and six months later, all wounds having healed, the process of fitting an artificial limb started at the Artificial Limb Centre (ALC), Pune. Another couple of months getting the first limb; a spot of sick leave, during which I visited the Battalion in Srinagar; back to ALC for a second limb; and finally, the long hospitalisation was over.
I am often asked as to how often the limb requires to be changed. It varies from user to user. Those who are physically more active need replacements frequently, while those who have a sedentary lifestyle carry on with a limb for years. I have changed limbs frequently for another reason—I am particular that my gait is as near normal as possible. Most people cannot make out that I have an artificial leg.
Zest for life
During the ten months I spent in hospital, there was plenty of time for reflection, but at no stage, from the moment the bullet hit me, was I in despair. Perhaps it was the four-year-long military training and my four years of service that strengthened me to be able to take this mishap in my stride; or the self-confidence I had in my abilities; or maybe my habit of looking ‘at the sunshine and not at the shadows’. The other reason was the girl with whom I had fallen in love while in hospital at Pune (later our older daughter would call it ‘romance on crutches’!).
My fiancée was the daughter of the first Indian commanding officer of my battalion, late Major General D.A. Surve. He named her Daulat (wealth), and that is what she has been to me. This, as well as the support I received from family, friends and the Paltan made me decide not to give up on life, or my army career, merely because I had lost a leg.
In the hospital at Pune, there were others in a similar situation as me, and their views varied from a ‘calamity’ to a benign acceptance of ‘fate’. A few accepted the situation as an occupational hazard, and felt the need to move on. I have managed to retain this view through the vicissitudes of life.
One of my early resolutions was to stay physically fit. I played squash and swam, to which I added cycling and golf. I continued playing squash for a couple of years after losing my leg, but had to stop after elbow surgery. Swimming is another favourite, and now I am teaching my grandchildren to swim. I have enjoyed cycling since school days, but took it up as a means of keeping fit after losing my leg. There were some humorous moments when during my cycling sprees in cantonments, jawans would look askance at their General trundling away on a cycle instead of a shiny staff car! I still cycle 10 km in about 34 minutes, five times a week.
As I came out of hospital, I was given three options. First, I could be boarded out of the army with appropriate benefits. Second, I could opt for a ‘softer’ job; and third, I could continue to serve in my existing Arms. I consciously chose the third, knowing I would be competing with my peers and there would be no concessions for my loss of limb. Diligence and commitment were inherent in this decision, and I stuck to them during my entire service.
After two years at the Army Headquarters, I requested for a posting to my battalion, so that I could do what my course mates were doing—command a company. It took some convincing to get the posting, as the prevailing view was that disabled officers would not be able to function in the field. I convinced everyone that I did not consider my lack of a limb as a disability, and proved this with my actions.
There were impediments initially, till I commanded an infantry battalion ten years later, which convinced all doubting Thomases. I also cleared the competitive examination for the Defence Services Staff College (DSSC) with flying colours, and served with distinction on both high-grade staff appointments and in command of troops.
As the first officer with an artificial leg to command an infantry battalion, I was awarded the Vishisht Sewa Medal (VSM). Within a year of relinquishing command of the battalion, I was selected as defence adviser at the Indian High Commission at Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia). In 1986, I played a prominent role in writing, planning and conducting the biggest ever Army operational exercise—Exercise Brass Tacks. For this, I was awarded the Ati Vishisht Sewa Medal (AVSM). I commanded an infantry brigade from 1986 to 1988, and thereafter attended the prestigious US Army War College, USA.
Commanding an armoured division was a rare honour for an infantry officer. Only two infantry officers have so far commanded armoured divisions, Gen. Sundarji and myself. Later, as General Officer Commanding-in-Chief, I first commanded the Training Command and then the prestigious Western Army. In September 2001, I retired as Vice Chief of Army Staff after a service of over 40 years. I had come a long way from the rank of captain, which is what I was when I lost my leg in 1965!
In August 2003, I was part of a goodwill delegation to Pakistan to promote peace. Soldiers are votaries for peace, for they have experienced the horrors of war first-hand. At another level, the axiom that ‘the aim of war is peace’ perhaps adds to our understanding of war.
I am involved with the newly founded War Wounded Foundation as its president. This organisation aims to enable war wounded personnel to live a respectable and useful life, and also contribute to society. The Foundation encourages corporate houses to provide retail agencies to the war wounded in or close to their villages. This will not only help the soldiers, but will possibly contribute to nation building by opening up rural markets, albeit at modest levels.
The motivation for the Foundation came from the fact that while showering adulation on those brave soldiers who have lost their lives in battle, we have largely ignored the sacrifices of the war disabled. The Foundation hopes to bring into its ambit all those war wounded personnel who are willing to become ‘soldier entrepreneurs’.
I have always maintained that disability is always in the mind, never in a limb or organ. One is as disabled as one feels. Hence, the first requirement is to open one’s mind to opportunities that are available, instead of brooding over those that are not. In our country, unfortunately, we still use the word ‘disability’ and not ‘challenge’, and the Hindi word viklang is even more negative in its connotations. As a nation, we are not sensitive to the needs of the ‘challenged’ and do not empower them enough. They need to be absorbed in the mainstream by providing avenues for progression in which they can compete with others.
The human body and mind are so resilient that they can be moulded in any way we want. What helps is dedication, discipline and self-confidence, hard work, sincerity, and a positive attitude. In short, character of a high order. Equally important are a supportive environment; empowerment and trust; and a shoulder to lean on during those times when momentarily, an infusion of confidence is needed.
Looking back at the last four decades of my life spent without a leg, I see many achievements, but when I look at the future, I see many more challenges, many more bridges to be crossed. I am reminded of those haunting lines: “…and miles to go before I sleep.”
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