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Disabled Servicemen

Lt Cdr Uday Kumar Sondhi

In the past, a servicemen getting disabled in a war or a peacetime accident could look forward to an early retirement. Not any more, nowdays disabled servicemen are reaching the top ranks in all the services. However some still encounter the so called "Glass Ceiling", and more needs to be done to accomodate their needs.

Can a disabled military aviation pilot be promoted to the rank of commander? It's a question that's engaging the navy as the first pilot who flies without one leg comes up for promotion to a selection grade post. Lt Cdr Uday Kumar Sondhi is the only military pilot in India who actively flies despite a major disability. He lost his leg in a mishap in 1989, but that hasn't stopped Sondhi's steady climb in the ranks.

On April 15, 1989, Sondhi, then a young sub-lieutenant, was training to fly fighter jets for the navy. "He was undergoing training at IAF station Kalaikunda flying the Ajeet fighter jet as a prelude to flying Sea Harriers. His aircraft developed a serious handling snag,'' recalls a naval spokesperson. Sondhi's aircraft would have crashed over a populated village had he ejected; instead, he chose to fly the aircraft away from the village. The aircraft crashed over the ploughed fields, and Sondhi suffered 45 per cent burns.

Sondhi won a Shaurya Chakra for endangering his life and saving those of the villagers, but he paid his price. His left leg had to be amputated below the knee as gangrene had set in. For eight months, he lay in hospital, unable to believe that he would no longer be able to pursue his first love. But by December 8 that year, he was already walking with an artificial leg, pestering the navy to let him fly again.

A disabled soldier is fitted with an artificial leg

"He was put through a series of medical tests and went through a strict regimen of flying with test pilots. In June 1990, he was cleared to fly again. Though, not a fighter plane,'' sources say. Instead, Sondhi was permitted to fly Chetak helicopters. "The helicopters require the use of both legs for directional control. He did it, first as a co-pilot and then as the main pilot, but on land. Now, Sondhi has 261 deck landings to his credit. Landing on a ship is very difficult, since the seas are choppy and the ship and the helicopter keep moving,'' adds an official.

Sondhi kept earning promotions, but it seems he's now bumped his head on the glass ceiling in the navy: the rank of lieutenant commander(equivalent to an army major and IAF squadron leader). The navy is wondering whether Sondhi can be given his first selection grade appointment as a commander. The critera include physical fitness and mental robustness. "He(Sondhi) is a low medical category. The other candidates may not be. What needs to be seen is whether he can continue as a pilot and if or when promoted, will he stay employable,'' sources say.

In the army, there are cases of officers who have risen high despite severe physical disability. Vijay Oberoi, who lost his right leg in active combat as a captain, is today the Vice Chief of Army Staff. He has risen to become a lieutenant general. So has Pankaj Joshi, who lost both his legs in action. Today he is an army commander. Both competed against officers with no disability(A-1 Shape-1). Chief of the Naval Staff(CNS) Admiral Sushil Kumar is understood to be in favour of Sondhi getting his due. The fact that Sondhi won the Shaurya Chakra was lauded by the CNS when Sondhi came to New Delhi recently to receive the national award on the occasion of World Handicap Day.

In December 2000, Lt Cdr Uday Kumar Sondhi received the National Award for the Welfare of People with Disabilities. Social justice minister Maneka Gandhi presented him the award.

A disabled soldier shows some of the available legs

The Army's disability policy - allowing officers with certain categories of battle wounds to command operational formations - was formulated in 1977 during Gen TN Raina's tenure as Army chief. Attempts at formulating such a policy was, however, set in motion by Field Marshal SHFJ Maneckshaw in 1973, after the 1971 Indo-Pak war. "Yes. Give him a battalion and also other war wounded officers who are not taking shelter of their wounds,'' were the magic words that Raina wrote on the file recommending Lt Col(later Maj Gen) Ian Cardozo for command of a Gorkha battalion.

"Based on those notings, Lt Col(currently Lt Gen) Vijai Oberoi became the first disabled officer with an artificial leg to be given command of a battalion,'' recounts Cardozo, who lost his leg in the 1971 war and was given command shortly after Oberoi. Oberoi, who has one artificial leg was appointed Army vice-chief on September 30, 2000. On the same day, Lt Gen Pankaj Joshi became the first Army commander with two artificial legs. Until the 1977 ruling, officers with artificial limbs could only go up to the rank of brigadier, but were denied operational command. Raina, incidentally, was disabled himself. He lost his left eye in World War II. His disability, however, was not held against him since it did not affect his medical fitness.

Army sources say that there are currently 292 disabled infantry officers in the Army. Of these, 22 are commanding infantry battalions. There are also a few brigade commanders with disabilities. Explaining the policy, Army sources said that once approved for promotion, it is the military secretary's directorate which decides on whether or not a disabled officer is fit for operational command. "This is based on his medical report which is analysed by the MS branch'', said a source. "The criteria is well laid out,'' he said. Every officer is given a SHAPE grading. S stands for Psychological, H for hearing, A for appendages, P for physiological and E for eye conditions.

A disabled soldier tries out his new artificial leg

While no compromise can be made on the S and P categories, any of the remaining three categories up to a certain degree would not affect his grading for command. Thus an officer who had lost his leg above the knee could not be expected to get operational command, although an officer without an arm could get it. Partial loss of hearing or eye sight could again be overlooked, but not paraplegics or officers confined to wheelchairs.

A favourable policy is adopted towards officers who have suffered disabilities in combat. If found fit to command, such officers are given command of units located in peace stations. "This is not held against them when they are considered for the next rank,'' said a senior officer.