Dedication and determination to the fore :Disability no bar to serving country | Sunday Observer

Dedication and determination to the fore :Disability no bar to serving country

In 2009, when Sri Lanka’s three-decade-long armed conflict ended over 21 000 military and police personnel had lost their lives in the country’s quest for peace while almost 41 000 were left with life-changing disabilities. Though many became severely disabled requiring constant care and treatment, a remarkably large number of soldiers and officers with varying degrees of disabilities have continued to serve in the armed forces, particularly within the Sri Lanka Army.

The disabled serviceman coming under the Directorate of Rehabilitation headed by Brigadier W.S Rajakaruna who himself suffered horrific injuries during the war, are often placed to serve in battalions which consist of disabled soldiers at regimental headquarters across the country. These men have valiantly continued to serve the Army and country while battling numerous difficulties and limitations brought on by the injuries suffered during the battle.

Major Predeep Kodikara of the Gemunu Regiment and Major Aruna Kumara Herath of the Gajaba Regiment had both joined the Army in 2001. Within the next few years, both would suffer severe injuries at the war front leaving them disabled. Nevertheless, they both continue to serve in the Army today.

Focus since childhood

From a young age, Major Predeep Kodikara had envisioned a career in the military. Hailing from a military family in the central hill town of Kandy, Kodikara says joining the Army had been his only focus since childhood. “I realised early on I was not suited for a desk job ,” he said. According to Kodikara, the dire situation in the country along with his family background eventually led him to the Sri Lanka Army when he was just 20 years old. In the army, he eventually became an elite member in one of the Special Infiltrations Units (SIU) formed during the height of the war. “I would be tasked with infiltrating enemy lines and attacking them” he recalled. Resting for a day during the battle, the next day Kodikara and his team would once again make way into LTTE areas to engage in battle with the terrorists.

On a fateful day in December 2008, in an area between Nedunkerny and Pudukuduirippu in Mullaitivu, a team led by Kodikara was tasked with retrieving a team of soldiers, both alive and dead who had come under LTTE attack. According to him, nearly 18 Army personnel had died and 36 were reported injured. The ensuing events are like a Hollywood movie script. As Kodikara and his team managed to retrieve some of their fallen colleagues unbeknown to them, a team of enemy combatants were waiting for the team merely meteres away. “Suddenly a team of LTTE militants appeared just 30 meteres away from us,” he said.

Coming under heavy firing around 11.00 am Kodikara was shot five times in his legs. Firing from an LTTE machine gun aimed at him delivered even more serious injuries shattering his leg. “It was twisted and part of my leg was entangled in a tree nearby,” he recalled. Though several attempts to rescue him were made, the Army soldiers had to retreat each time due to LTTE firing. Till 5.00 p m Kodikara had lain there severely injured. Remarkably, he had been conscious throughout the ordeal despite the serious nature of his injuries. Receiving medical attention only around 7.00 pm that night he had finally drifted into unconsciousness.

Waking up at the Anuradhapura General Hospital the next day, Kodikara had only one concern. “The very first thing I checked was if my leg had been amputated,” he said. Despite the Doctors insisting on it Kodikara had refused to allow his now severely injured leg to be amputated. But for him eventually, it would be a long journey to recovery.

Yet another Officer who continues to serve in the Army despite his disabilities is Major Aruna Kumara Herath from Rambukkana who had a different upbringing from Major Kodikara.. The only child in his family and knowing his parents would oppose him joining the Army, he had enlisted in secret with the help of his Uncle. “It was only during the training period my parents found out” he recalled. Having been a cadet in school the military uniform and the forces had always appealed to him.

In June 2006 caught in an anti-personnel mine explosion, Herath escaped with his life but not without life-changing injuries. Serving in the Kokuthudai, Mullaitivu forward defence line, Herath and his team were engaged in clearing the route to support the advancement of soldiers. Returning from their mission, the group was caught in a claymore mine blast. “They had set four claymore mines and as it went off I was caught in an anti-personnel mine,” he said. Eight others in his group lost their lives on that day. Herath, lucky to be alive suffered horrific injuries, the most serious being the loss of the heel of his left leg. “It was blown right off,” he said. According to him, medical practitioners examining him set his percentage of disability at 60 per cent.

For both officers, requiring years of treatment, the journey since has not been an easy one. While Major Kodikara was bedridden for nearly two years, Herath has had to undergo numerous plastic surgeries. “I tried my best to get my legs back to normal” Kodikara said. Nevertheless, both had been determined to rejoin the service despite their disabilities and injuries.

“Despite our disabilities, we carry out our duties similarly to able soldiers” Herath noted. According to the officer while admitting they have physical limitations they are determined to fulfil their duties to the best of their capabilities. “We may not be able to take part in parades and other physical exercises but this does not affect our capability to carry out other duties,” Kodikara said. However, life has not been without struggle as their injuries continue to torment them physically. “If I walk a long distance my leg begins to hurt” Kodikara admits adding that often severe fatigue after travelling is a constant issue he has had to face. Requiring further treatment for his injuries, he has now requested a transfer closer to his hometown.

Herath also suffers from continuous infections. “The heel has never recovered fully so it gets infected often,” he said, adding that he has to attend regular clinic sessions.

But it is not only officers such as Kodikara and Herath who continues to serve in the Army despite being disabled. Other rankers such as Sergeant Major Thilakaratne of the Ceylon Light Infantry Regiment too had returned to service after suffering severe injuries. Joining the Army in 1997, just two years afterwards Thilakaratne was seriously injured in a mortar attack leaving him with head injuries. The mortar attack has also left him unable to use the fingers in his left hand. But that did not stop him from going to war once again. “Even with my disabilities during 2008 I returned to the battlefield as the Army needed reinforcements to hold areas recovered from the LTTE,” he said.

Never an option

Remarkably what ties the three servicemen is their dedication and determination to continue serving in the Army in spite of their trials and tribulations. “As soldiers, there is ingrained morale so when there are soldiers who are far more disabled than us how can we stop serving?” Herath questions. Adding that the Army has always supported them, Herath claims he still has the yearning to don the military uniform. “Leaving the Army was never an option,” he said.

Kodikara is apprehensive of people labelling him as a disabled person. “If I had left the Army I feel people would have looked at me differently,” he said. “For example, when I took treatment for years I felt people were condescending towards me and would question if I had left the Army” he revealed.

With the support and opportunities given by the Army Kodikara says he will remain in the service as long as he is physically fit to carry out his duties. Though some Army personnel turn to crime after leaving the force, Kodikara says the chances of that happening while one continues to serve in the Army is slim. “We are made professionals and given other life skills through the Army,” he said.

Though his retirement looms close after serving nearly 22 years in the Army Sergeant Major Thilakaratne says given the chance he would continue to serve. “I did not join the Army because I had no job,” he said adding that even now he is keen to continue serving his country as a soldier.