Stories serve as a way for service members and veterans to make sense of what they have experienced.
I distinctly recall that in 1961, whilst we were in Ajmer, the family of my uncle in Army was in total gloom as the telegram from Army HQs read, “MAJOR PS MEHTA MISSING ON BORDER STOP EVERY EFFORT TO TRACE HIM IS ON STOP TRUST US STOP”. The late Lt Col Pratap Singh Mehta, we share same name, was my uncle. He served Indian Army for over 25 years and saw active action in 1962 (Indo-China conflict), 1965 (Indo-Pak conflict) and 1971 (Indo-Pak war).
Much later my uncle recalled,
“During Chinese aggression in 1961, whilst I was posted on Indo-China border in then NEFA (now Arunachal Pradesh), I went missing. Oh shit, this caused anxiety and fear of the worst among the family members. Somehow, I managed to escape from the Chinese camp and walked back incessantly for 11 days, without any food, shelter or communications, to the base HQs in Tawang. Being a bloody vegetarian, I survived only on water and wild ginger. At that time your Kaki, my wife Saroj, was expecting our third child at the Military Hospital in Calcutta and went into labour without knowing whether I was alive or not. However, within hours of the child delivery, news was received that I have safely reached the base camp”.
The full story was heard by the family nearly after a year. The war was over, and the country continued with business as usual. The trauma of that tragic incident remained only with the family.
We’ve all heard it. It’s a constant across pretty much all three services. It usually centres on one person, someone whose delivery is just right, who can nail the timing and who always has a good topic. And it invariably starts out this way: “Oh shit, there I was…” It is the essence of beginning a good military story. Because, at the heart of it, all military members are story tellers. This comes from three factors that being in the military pretty much guarantees you’ll acquire: a mission, a story, and time.
We all have a mission — whether it is the reason we joined, why we stay in, who we’re serving for — it doesn’t matter. Every service member carries with them a mission; otherwise, they wouldn’t be serving.
The second is the story. Good stories come from many sources — training exercises, deployments, drunk nights in the barracks, our own backgrounds. From one friend we all have, who does some incredibly stupid things and is somehow still alive, or from our pets and our families.
Which brings me to the last element: time. We’ve all heard the old maxim, “Hurry up and wait.” There’s a lot of truth to this, as in twenty-five years of my Navy experience, the constant has been waiting in lines, or waiting for meetings, or waiting before an exercise, or waiting before a convoy…well, you get the idea.
Although the military is by nature a very active organization, we find ourselves in all sorts of situations with time to kill. Which is where the storytellers emerge. It might be as mundane as waiting in line for medical examinations, or it could be waiting for pilot at sea, for ship to enter the port. My own most vivid memories of Navy storytelling come from one of the dearest batch mates Commanders Anil Sharma and Pradeep Kumar, who could narrate story after story in wardroom, on the road and or during post retirement voyages and reunions.
They all have one thing in common: They are easily relatable to others and are usually incredibly funny. Some people just excel at military storytelling. Every ship, squadron or battalion has at least one storyteller, the one person who can be found with a small crowd huddled around them, deeply engaged in listening. If they are a really good storyteller, you’ll find the Second in Command, Company Commander or Warrant Officer surreptitiously standing off to the side to listen.
Beyond the immediate need to pass time, storytelling meets a vital human need: to relate our cultural and personal experiences to a group, bring them into the story in an intimate setting, and reveal a shared identity. Stories can turn strangers into friends, in just a few minutes. Vice Admiral MP Awati recently shared with me from the hospital bed at INHS Asvini,
“Pratap, in the military, we share a common identity and purpose, one that is extremely profound: to protect and defend the constitution and serve the people of India. The respect for any constitutional arm is to be earned through performance otherwise criticism is unsparing”.
As service members, we feel the need to share our experiences — both good and bad — to be able to add a human dimension to our larger purpose.
Stories serve to bridge the gap between services, the branches within services, and above all, the civilian-military divide. Even after veterans’ transition, many still see the need to tell their stories, through memoirs, books, blogs, and poetry. Commodore Dilip Mohapatra, author-poet and a dear friend says,
“It is a way of finding closure and healing unseen wounds brought about by war”.
Given that war, in its essence, is a series of unnatural actions carried out by humans, stories serve as a way for veterans to make sense of what they have experienced and translate that experience to those who have not lived it.
Let me recount the days of December 1971, after Indo-Pak war ended. We had passed out as Cadets from INS Krishna in mid-December and were granted leave for 20 days and report back to Mumbai on promotion to the rank of Midshipman. With no reservation, travelling in naval uniform, boarded Frontier Mail from Bombay Central for Delhi. We were warmly welcomed at the station with garlands and food packets, offered berth in sleeper, despite of no reservation. At every station that train stopped enroute, the fauzies were cheered, garlanded and served with hot meals. After 20 days, when we returned, again there was no reservation in Frontier Mail as the leave was unplanned. But there was no one to offer berth or sitting place, we managed with home and station food enroute, as before. I am not blaming anyone. Imagine how short is the memory of our nation? Common man was neither devasted nor suffered any war causality in their family.
Veterans in most countries are remembered and respect paid to all the men and women who died serving their country in a war, and the soldiers who are still alive and served in the forces at any time, during peace or war. However, the fact of the matter is that India has not been devastated nor faced any major war, besides 1962 Indo-China conflict and 1971 Indo-Pak war, since Independence or say, since beginning of 20th century.
Roshan Abbas, the co-founder of Kommune, a platform that nurtures and discovers a new breed of Spoken Artists, adds,
“The compassion, respect and empathy that armed forces in other countries earn is through performance in war, devastation and national suffering due war and the state constantly being cognizant of their sacrifices and service. In India we quote our armed forces as an example of duty and selflessness, of doing things for our nation. Yet when the same servicemen and women don civilian clothes, we change our opinion and do not show them the respect they deserve. I am hoping we can create a social movement to change this soon.”
The storytelling is also an art, which describes the social and cultural activity of a community, sometimes with improvisation, theatrics or embellishment. Our armed forces too have their own stories or narratives, which can be shared as means of entertainment, culture preservation or instilling moral values. Time has come to formalise and prepare veterans to come forward to share their experiences in a formalised way, which later can be shared with public at large on a formal platform.
In the rat race of life, we forget to pause and tell our stories well. And our stories deserve to be told well by us. Looking for another veteran, service member, or military spouse who is…?
Give me a chance to end this piece with a poem by a US Army Veteran, Charles M Province, properly committed to safeguard the compassion, respect and empathy for the military personnel, both serving and veterans:
It Is The Soldier
by Charles M. Province, U.S. Army • November 1, 2004
It is the Soldier, not the minister
Who has given us freedom of religion.
It is the Soldier, not the reporter
Who has given us freedom of the press.
It is the Soldier, not the poet
Who has given us freedom of speech.
It is the Soldier, not the campus organizer
Who has given us freedom to protest.
It is the Soldier, not the lawyer
Who has given us the right to a fair trial.
It is the Soldier, not the politician
Who has given us the right to vote.
It is the Soldier who salutes the flag,
Who serves beneath the flag,
And whose coffin is draped by the flag,
Who allows the protester to burn the flag.
Most importantly the veterans must acknowledge that they will never again be a serving body and thus there must be a decrease, if not end of the advantages and benefits they had appreciated before. The sooner it sinks in, the better would be for our personal satisfaction and true serenity. We should have desires; obviously, however these must be proportionate with our new status throughout in our everyday life.
Cdr Pratap Singh Mehta
Speaker | Author | Behavioural Coach | Veteran Indian Navy
Email id: firstname.lastname@example.org