Blood, sweat — and tears
India's braveheart jawans have rescued thousands in the Uttarakhand flash flood disaster. But the exposure to death and destruction often leaves many of them severely traumatised, says Sonia Sarkar
TRUE GRIT: Army and security forces personnel conduct rescue operations in Uttarakhand
Long after the last of the pilgrims has left the ruins of Kedarnath, an image of a soldier will remain etched in the minds of all those who have been watching the horrors of towns swept by ravaging floods. The jawan had an embarrassed half-smile on his face, as an old lady blessed him with her gnarled hands.
When he is back in his post, what is the picture that the soldier will carry with him? The grateful faces of those he rescued from cut-off, hilly lands, or the bodies of people who could not be saved?
For a numbed nation, the pictures of jawans saving thousands of lives — flashed on television and front-paged in the newspapers — are enduring images. Young men in uniform are carrying pilgrims on their shoulders. Some are slithering down from helicopters. Others are distributing food packets and water to thousands of people stranded in Uttarakhand.
"In the line of duty, jawans may appear to be men of steel," says a senior officer in the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) that has spearheaded the rescue operations along with the Indian Air Force and the Army. "But they have a heart too."
And often, the trauma haunts them for years.
A 40-year-old soldier of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) was part of a rescue mission when pilgrims to Amarnath were killed or injured in a road accident. He held a flashlight on the bodies of the dead to assist a photographer. And he could not forget the images ever.
After that incident, he started complaining of sleep disorders. He said when he closed his eyes, the images of the dead played on his mind. After a few months, he developed an obstructive compulsive disorder and started thinking that his colleagues were planning to kill him. He always kept a finger on the trigger of his rifle to be ready for an attack.
"It was a risk to put him on duty as we feared he would either harm himself or others. He was later asked to take voluntary retirement," a senior ITBP official in Delhi says.
Sources in the forces stress that after every relief and rescue operation, soldiers return to their posts or homes with images of death and destruction. They remember children crying in pain, elderly people separated from their families, and the stench of human bodies and animal carcasses.
Quite a few fall into depression. "Often, jawans who participate in such operations suffer from a post-traumatic stress disorder. Sometimes, it takes at least three to six months for them to recover from the shock," says a Border Security Force (BSF) official.
He cites the case of a 32-year-old BSF jawan who could not forget the dismembered body parts of his colleagues who died in an avalanche in Kashmir six years ago. After being treated in the BSF's Gwalior hospital for two months, he was sent on medical leave for another three months.
"Even though he rejoined work, he could not be sent to the border post anymore. He was too vulnerable. He was transferred to one of the base offices and will be there for the rest of his serving tenure," says the senior medical officer at the BSF Academy in Gwalior.
Like him, many soldiers find it difficult to resume work. "In some cases, the jawan is so traumatised that we are forced to send him for fresh training. We have to keep reminding them that there is no room for emotions in the forces," says the BSF officer.
Apart from depression and insomnia, common complaints are of breathlessness, restlessness and mood swings. Some lose their exuberance and withdraw into a shell.
"One of our jawans once participated in a rescue operation at a train accident site where he witnessed mutilated bodies. He started worrying about the fate of his own family and became fearful of accidents," says a Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) official. "After the incident, we saw serious behavioural changes in him. From a fearless and courageous boy, he became very docile."
An independent medical expert stresses that behavioural changes are only to be expected. "Jawans are not supposed to be compassionate — they are taught to treat people as objects. But this mindset works when they are dealing with enemies. When they are not, they can be badly affected," says Delhi-based psychiatrist Rajat Mitra, who has come across cases of depression among jawans.
Some soldiers also suffer from guilt because of the limitations of a rescue operation. "It is not always possible to save the lives of everyone in an emergency," says the NDRF officer. "But jawans find it difficult to accept failures as they have high expectations of themselves. This adds to their depression."
To top it, the entire country expects them to succeed in their rescue missions.
There is a growing feeling that only the disciplined units of soldiers can tackle extreme conditions and save civilians in distress.
And the teams — drawn from the Indian Armed Forces, Indian Air Force and paramilitary forces such as the ITBP, BSF and CRPF — have demonstrated this in the many rescue operations they have undertaken over the years. Some of the recent operations include missions to save lives during the super cyclone in Odisha in 1999, the Gujarat earthquake in 2001, the Kashmir earthquake in 2005, the Ladakh flash floods in 2010, the Sikkim earthquake in 2011 and flood relief operations in Assam in 2012.
When they return from these missions, curiously, there is not much that the forces can do to help them. The BSF, for example, has just one psychiatrist for its 2.4 lakh personnel; the CRPF has three for over 3 lakh people.
A senior CRPF officer admits that the jawans need more help. "The tendency is to keep their problems under wraps. Officers of higher ranks feel that a jawan should be emotionally equipped to deal with any degree of trauma," the officer says. "It is the officers who decide whether a jawan needs psychological help. The decision may not always be on time."
But senior officers do what they can to minimise the trauma. They try to ensure that a jawan is not part of a rescue mission for long. The ITBP is pulling out old teams and replacing them with new ones in the ongoing rescue mission.
"Our boys have been surrounded by bodies for so long. We plan to replace the old teams with fresh ones to ensure they don't get frustrated," says ITBP director general Ajay Chadha, who promises psychological help for those who need them.
De-briefing soldiers is one way of helping them de-stress, adds Air Commodore Rajesh Isser, who lost one of his pilots in the current operation when an IAF helicopter crashed near Gaurikund. "During these de-briefing sessions, jawans open up and share their traumatic experiences. It is the best possible way to unwind," says Isser, who is controlling the operation which involves 45 Air Force helicopters and 300 personnel.
But the biggest healer is the family. "After they come back, it is best to send the jawans home so that they can be with their families," he says.
Then, of course, there is time — considered the best healer of all. But even time cannot always wipe away memories. And those can stay on forever.