Beyond the call of duty

During winters, the Gurez brigade sector on the LoC with Pakistan, which I had the honour to command during Operation Parakaram (2001-03), is just like the Siachen Glacier. It comprises very high rugged mountains, covered with thousands of tonnes of snow, that fall sharply into the narrow Kishanganga river valley. Avalanches are commonplace and invariably cause extensive damage.

Late one winter afternoon, the brigade ammunition dump in the Tilel Valley was struck by a massive avalanche. The ammunition dump should never have been established there in the first place as that stretch of the narrow valley was highly avalanche prone. It had been sited there because the steep mountain ahead of it made it almost completely immune to Pakistani artillery fire. After my first visit, I had recommended that it should be moved out, but that is another story.

Hundreds of tonnes of snow had come down in a flash on the ammunition dump and it was covered with a white sheet. There was no sign of any of the storage bunkers. What caused even more anxiety was that, for a while, there was no sign of about 10 soldiers, about half the number of those who were on guard duty. However, we were lucky.

The blessings of Peer Baba of Razdan Pass, through which the road from Srinagar enters the Gurez Valley, were with us. Gradually, the missing personnel were dug out alive by their comrades. A dozen soldiers had been severely injured. Despite the late hour, pilots from the Srinagar Army Aviation Squadron did an outstanding job evacuating the most serious casualties to the Base Hospital at Badami Bagh Cantt, Srinagar. Normally, no flying was permitted in the Gurez Valley after mid-day due to excessive air turbulence.

Capt Simple Gupta, the brigade’s young medical officer, and a rescue party rushed to the accident spot with an ambulance, despite the risk that another avalanche may strike their vehicles somewhere en route. Simple comforted the soldiers, gave them first aid, attended to their injuries, stitched up the wounds and assisted in the evacuation of the serious casualties by helicopter. She then brought back the remaining casualties to the Advanced Dressing Station at the brigade HQ.

Meanwhile, our young dental surgeon, Capt Mohit Sharma, had got the operation theatre ready. Simple and Mohit immediately got to work and continued to operate till well beyond dinner time without even a break for tea. Some of the wounds were very serious and, though neither of them was a specialist surgeon, they did a thoroughly professional job. Mercifully, we did not lose a single man.

The next morning, a few more casualties were evacuated by helicopter. Shortly after that, a senior staff officer from the Corps HQ and the Commandant, Base Hospital, rang up to convey the Corps Commander’s compliments to the doctors. It was a classic case of professional competence with complete disregard for personal safety and comfort, well beyond the call of duty.

P.S.: We managed to salvage the ammunition as well. And, the ammunition dump was moved to another place soon thereafter.