By Zenobia Panthaki
When I read ‘This is how USA treats Indian Military Veterans’ by Lt Gen Vijay Oberoi in the May 2017 issue of “Fauji India”, I could not help but write about the experiences of my husband and I over the last 20+ years.
It was the 28th of May, 2008. We were on a flight from Washington DC bound for Austin, Texas, to visit our niece. Considering the large number of military bases in that part of the country, there were many passengers in camouflage overalls; service personnel returning from Iraq and Afghanistan for the holiday weekend. After gaining height the PA system crackled and the Captain announced, “My crew and I feel privileged today to fly our military personnel. We honour your sacrifice and thank you for your service to the nation.” The aircraft burst into spontaneous and seemingly endless applause, with passengers standing and turning to the soldiers, hands on their hearts, to acknowledge their service.
The next day we were at a Theme Park. Before the show commenced there was an announcement requesting all those who had served in the armed forces of any country to stand along with their spouses. After some initial hesitation, we complied. The announcement rang out loud and clear, “To all of you who’ve served your countries, we honour you and thank you for your service. We thank your spouses for sharing you with the nation, for keeping the home fires burning and for playing Mom and Dad to your children while you were deployed. We salute your sacrifices and the sleepless nights you endured to keep us safe.” The 2000 strong audience broke into applause. We were humbled. Was this happening to us on foreign soil? Why had this never happened in India – in the country that my husband served for 30 years, with 18 years of separation, sans cellphones? The only lifeline we had was snail-mail that took upward of 10 days to arrive and gave limited comfort. Why could this happen in the US but not back home?
Last year, I was at ‘White and Black’ a garment store. A prominently displayed placard announced a 40% discount for service personnel. At the check-out, I joked with the sales representative and asked if I was eligible for the discount since I was a service wife. “Sure,” was her very serious response. Taken aback, I confessed that my husband had served in the Indian, not the US Army. “Well, the promotion does not specify which army, it simply says service personnel,” she replied. I had no way to prove it – I was not carrying my ID Card. “I don’t need proof, I believe you,” said the sale rep as she took 40% off my bill!
It made me ponder. What ails us, Indians? Is the sacrifice of an Indian soldier or his family any less, or is the apathy of Indian officialdom, the media and the Indian public more?
Over the years we’ve noticed that in the US, on all state occasions, the first group of people who are acknowledged are ‘our brave men and women who have put themselves in harm’s way’. When Barak Obama was President, within a couple of weeks of deployment to a war zone, Michelle would visit the Base to meet the spouses and families of officers and soldiers alike. This was not a ‘red carpet’ event. The first lady would go to their homes, put the kettle on the stove, helped brew the coffee and sit at the kitchen table indulging in small talk while making mental notes. When she returns to the White House her husband had his work cut out for him.
Back in India, apart from politicians, bureaucrats and TRP-chasing media, the callous remarks of non-discerning civilians can be hurtful. The most callous statement lays the onus at our door for exercising an option of choice, ‘you married a service officer, i.e. you opted for it’. The more poisonous barbs are those laced with jealousy, pointing to the great times we have when we are together. In their narrow, crass worldview, the risk of serving within range of enemy fire is well compensated for by bungalows, servants’ quarters, salubrious surroundings in cantonments, access to club life and canteen bargains! Amusingly, these are the very same civilians who track their spouses on the cell phone when they are returning from work in the city, a safe distance from the enemy’s bullet!
Well so be it since we cannot force a change of perception. We will be magnanimous and excuse their culpability with the prayer, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they say (sic)!”
(The author is wife of Behram Panthaki)