Right man to lead

Col DS Cheema (Retd)

ON May 22, 1986, the very first day of my command of a battalion in a high-altitude area, two mechanics of my recovery company died while recovering a vehicle from a deep gorge. The site of the accident was over a 100 km from Leh, and so I was busy the whole day.

It was a major blow to my morale as a Commanding Officer. Early next morning, I received a call from the ADC to meet the GOC in his office. I had not been formally interviewed by the GOC and was worried about the first impression I would leave on him. I prepared a detailed briefing and what I intended to do to check such accidents in future. When I reached the office of the GOC, I saw two staff officers sitting with him, which confirmed my worst fears that I was bound to be admonished with a stern warning. In a few minutes, I was left alone with the GOC. For more than half an hour, he talked to me about many things without once mentioning the accident. He asked me to brief him the next day. It left me tense with more anxiety. The staff officers informed me that the GOC had purposely not wanted the issue to be discussed for some time.

After a couple of days, when he had finished a meeting of Brigade Commanders and COs, he asked me to stay back. In his usual soft and graceful manner, he explained to me how he got many bad reports from all across the division and how he had learnt to react to them in a purely professional manner. I was advised to take all necessary action for effective functioning without getting bogged down with the past. The advice was far more effective than any warning.

One thing everyone wanted to know was why the GOC wore only a sleeve-rolled-up shirt without any pullover or jacket even in extreme winter.

The GOC once asked me to accompany him to a forward post at about 19,000 ft. When we landed at the post, the ADC, who was also his nephew, tried to hand him a jacket. He gave the ADC a cold stare and mildly rapped his hand with the regimental cane he always carried. When he noticed that the pilot and I had noticed the act, he just smiled.

A couple of years later, when the same man was posted at Delhi on promotion, I had the opportunity to meet him in his office in the last week of November. In addition to two heaters in the room, he was dressed as if to combat severe cold. I asked him the question which I could not earlier.

I learnt that he was part of 13 Kumaon during the Chinese attack at Rezangla and he witnessed the supreme sacrifice of many soldiers of a particular company in action. Unfortunately, the men did not have any high-altitude clothing and were equipped with .303 rifles, which were ineffective at that altitude. It was then that he took a vow to never don woollen uniform while being with the men.

I am proud to have served with a hard-core professional General who loved his officers and men.

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