Metamorphosis of a Black Sheep
“Delta calling Sheep... Delta calling Sheep... “ the wireless message neared our snow-tent. I took my eyes off the improvised chessboard and sat tight.
‘Sheep’, or the doctor of army generally doesn’t receive a message unless there’s medical problem. A message at ten of night, that too in Sia-La peak of Siachen Glacier, must be an emergency. In our snow-tent I was having a game of chess with affable Brig. Nutiyal sitting on my bed after whatever little dinner we were able to consume at 20000 feet above MSL and in one fourth that of normal atmospheric pressure. Maj. Nair, an avid reader, was on his bed with some book. A pressurised paraffin lamp provided enough light. A kerosene-run bukhari-heater with a chimney outlet burnt steadily at the centre keeping the minus 48°C at bay.
The signal-boy handed over the receiver to me. It was from Subedar Dashrath Sahu, the in-charge of an artillery platoon placed at P2, half-a-kilometre from Sia-La. The gist was simple. A gunner boy had gone breathless and was frothing from mouth.
“Damn it, it’s HAPO!” I shouted in desperation over the set. “Prop him up and start oxygen at 6 lit/m. I’m reaching as fast as I can.” I got up and called out my nursing assistant, Hav. Kartar Singh.
“It looks serious, Doc. Mind if I accompany you?” The brigadier had a wry smile on his face.
It was magnanimous of him. Brig. Nutiyal was a mountain warfare specialist and was in overall charge of the entire Op. Meghdoot at the glacier. It was January of 1986; three years after I joined as a rookie Captain. He could’ve avoided walking all way to see an insignificant sepoy suffering, but he was a different material altogether. He considered all the soldiers his family. A glimpse of it was seen when he refused to stay in the separate tent on his routine visit to our peak, and insisted on garaging himself with me and Maj. Nair, the company commander of B-Company of 5 Bihar Regt. deployed here. The brigadier got stuck indefinitely due to inordinate snowfall and bouts of blizzard.
It made quite a team to P2 with my two senior officers as company along with a few others.
Everyone in the glacier was acquainted with HAPO (high altitude pulmonary oedema), the cruel killer. Only chance of survival was moving the patient to a lower altitude by a copter, the chance of which looked bleak at this point.
Hailing from a civilian background, I was yet to come to terms with the essence of army despite my tough years hitherto. But at this point I started getting into the groove.
Only a person having gone through it can realise how tough it is to cover the small distance at that altitude in knee-deep snow, braving the blizzard at night. We made the half kilometre in record 45 minutes, and reached the designated tent with snowflakes smeared over our snow-gears.
The gunner boy was in his early twenties. He lay on a makeshift bed supported by a wooden plank serving as backrest, and was panting and puffing heavily. A pair of pressurised lanterns illuminated the tent adequately. The boy was surrounded by four of his anxious colleagues.
Gurjeet, the boy, made a vain attempt to get up and salute the top-brass guests as froth drooled down the corner his mouth. Brig. Nutiyal kept his large, fatherly hand over Gurjeet's shoulder. "Relax, son," he said in his mellow voice.
All Gurjeet could utter within his troubled breaths was,"I didn't give up, sir."
Gurjeet's fingers had a bluish tinge and his lungs were full of wheeze as I examined him. He was losing the battle for life; gradually, but surely. But his heroics didn’t elude my ears as his mates elaborated the same.
The cliff had run into an acute shortage of kerosene, the lifeline in Siachen. Kerosene jerricans were air-dropped around the peak and they often got buried in snow dunes at variable distance. Incessant poor weather prevented them to venture to the dunes and excavate the kerosene containers. Gurjeet dared the snowfall to fetch a jerrican from one such dune. While halfway through, enemy shelling started. He had to run all the way to safety. He carried the jerrican on his back, escaped the shells, but couldnt escape the wrath of altitude. I gave my best under the circumstances with all sorts of injections, suction, manoeuvres and oxygen. Yet I knew it was in a losing cause.
"Sir, can we arrange for a chopper?" I looked frantically at the brigadier. I hated to lose this one. Brigadier looked glum,"Not in this weather, I’m afraid, Capt. Mukherjee. I dearly wish I could."
Gurjeet breathed his last in an hour or so. I, Brig. Nutiyal, Maj. Nair, and all of us lost the battle as well - with Siachen; that literally means 'the land of roses' in local dialect.
"It's time to return his salute," Brig Nutiyal broke the prevailing silence. Gurjeet lay lifeless.
We all saluted in unison solemnly. Our eyes went moist. We soldiers don't cry. Yet, it was an emotional tribute to one more of the brave-hearts that have withered at their primes to save their motherland. That night I felt for first time that I really belonged to the gallant family of soldiers; years after donning uniform. I also had despised the sobriquet of ‘sheep’ thus far. I was proud to be a Sheep henceforth.
Now, having crossed my sixty-second birthday, I still feel honoured that I was a Siachen Sheep once.