Army leadership trainingMay 24, 2011, 6:43 pm
by Rohan N. Fernando
In the late 1970s, one September evening, I along with another twenty four scoolboy Senior Cadets from Prince of Wales' College, Moratuwa marched along the Galle Road, from College main gate up to the Moratuwa Railway Station to board the train bound to the Colombo Fort Railway Station. We were enlisted to the Sri Lanka Cedet corps 3CC Battalion, bound for Diyatalawa Army Training Centre (ATC), for two week's training and interschool platoon competitions.. Along the way we were afforded a rousing send off with firecrackers and all, by fellow college mates who had come on their push cycles and a few girls from our sister school, Princess of Wales' College, who very conveniently happened to be on the road at that particular time. All of us Cadets were sporting number nought haircuts (Crew Cut) and dressed in white longs and long sleeved shirts and the Army Boots which were fetched from the Boossa camp a few weeks ago. For most of us it was a first stay away from home without the family. My Parents and siblings had made it a point to come to the Holy Cross junction to see me off and from the look of my mother's face, I myself thought that I might not come back and some serious danger was awaiting all of us in a distant Army camp. My father, a former Royal Navy man (RN), who had given me the initials RN, was taking all this in his stride.
Upon reaching the Colombo Fort Railway station at about 7 p m, all of us had to wend out way through office workers and my biggest concern was whether we could find a seat in the Badulla bound Night Mail train. There were similar platoons from 24 more schools bound to Diyatalawa. When we reached the Platform, we were given the first lesson in the Army. Everything had to be done to a prior plan. There would not be any pushing and shoving to board the train. In fact the Army had arranged a special train for all the 25 participating platoons. Two platoons for each train compartment. The length of the train from the engine to the other end had been measured by CCMP regulars and on the platform they had marked with white chalk the name of each school with a Large X mark. We were asked to fall in and assemble at the X mark and finally when the train arrived, it had to glide slowly and stop at the very extreme chalk mark and in front of each school platoon there was a door. Everything was meticulously planned.
The train left the Fort Station as scheduled and there were a few Army officers and CCMP men on duty to see to it that discipline was maintained along the journey. Most of us never slept as we wanted to savour every minute of the ride. There was singing and merrymaking and after an all night trip, we arrived at the Diyatalawa station at day break. There again we were asked to fall in line at the Diyatalawa Station and a head count was taken. Thereafter to the tune of the Army band we marched up to the ATC . The Marching tune adopted was "Sasara Wasana Thuru" by Pandit Amaradeva, which was a favourite of Madam Sirimavo Bandaranaike, then Prime Minister.
Upon arrival at the ATC we were asked to line up at the Parade Grounds for a pep talk by an army officer and later, we were billetted where four platoons were comfortably ensconced in each hut with jungle khaki green roofs and bunker beds.
Everything was done at an appointed time schedule. At 5.00am the siren would sound and a duty officer would do the rounds to ensure compliance. As we were used to the easy civilian life at home, getting up in the Diyatalawa cold at 5.00 am was a daunting task. Of course team spirit at the foremost, every boy willingly complied as we had to be at the Parade Ground at 6.00 am sharp. After 'bed tea’ served at the mess room all had to line up in blue shorts, white shirts and white canvas shoes for Physical Training (PT). It was a very interesting exercise to engage in a sort of drill display for the music of the Army band and commanded by the Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM), which is the highest rank afforded to a Cadet.
After PT and a wash it was breakfast at the army mess. Each platoon representative had to collect his group’s meal allotment and lay it on before arrival of others. This was done according to a roster and was much looked forward to as those who handled food had the lion’s share! After breakfast it was marching in full army uniforms which was a serious event often attended by Regular Army top brass. One day we were lined up at the Fox Hill, where the insignia of the Cadet Corps is marked with white stones on a hill and could be seen from a distance, even from a moving train. The Army Commander at that time Maj. Gen. Dennis Perera was in attendance, in full military regalia to deliver a speech. Suddenly, the sky darkened, clouds gathered and with a clap of thunder, it was imminent that an up-country down pour was in the offing. All of us having been used in civilian life to run back to class rooms in such eventualities, waited for the command. Alas that never came! All of us, the commander, officers and cadets got drenched in the shower. We felt the ice cold rain water dripping through the uniforms and trickling down the spine. The session continued as scheduled and the sun began to peep through the rainy sky at late. That was a memorable lesson; nothing can interfere in a soldier's schedule!
We were allowed to interact with boys from different communities, which was not there in our school life. Every activity, whether it was marching, sports, or house-keeping was directed at building team spirit with the motto, ONE FOR ALL AND ALL FOR ONE. In college life studying and passing examinations was quite different as it was every one against the other or every man for himself.
After lunch we had lectures in First Aid, conflict resolution, how to dismantle and assemble a rifle, fire drills, etiquette and social graces, table manners and personal hygiene. We were also lectured on how to be a valuable citizen to our motherland and also to live our adult lives without being a nuisance to others.
During the last few days there were sports meets and only the cross country race was an individual event. In all the other events collective marks obtained by the platoon was taken into account. One day we got up at two in the morning and polished our shoes and belt buckles to prepare for a parade. The smell of shoe polish and ‘Brasso’ added to our team spirit. Then there was hut inspection which was full of events. All the boys in a platoon would clean, sweep and polish the furniture, beds, floor and get a through training about housekeeping and aim to get the highest marks. On the appointed day a high ranking officer would come to inspect the hut and true to his training would find a speck of dust or a cobweb under a bed. No one was allowed to go for the full marks and what a lesson we learnt never to argue and always obey the rules.
There were some army officers who were real terrors who used to pull up the cadets even for minor offences. But later we found out, it was part of the conflict resolution and how to respond to harassment in society. Some officers who were firm turned extremely friendly towards the final stage of our stay. They even gave us character certificates later in life, when we applied for jobs. Some of them who come to my memory are Majors Pakshaweera and Thisera, Capt Rodrigo and Sergeant Sarlis Appuhamy.
On the penultimate day was the dreaded endurance march. Starting from ATC Diyatalawa at 6.00 am, we had to travel through the forest by reading maps and compass, passing Haputale, Bandarawela etc and reach Diyatalawa. We were not supposed to use public roads unless for crossing them and getting to the other side. Along the way Regular Army sentries were posted out of sight on trees and hills to ensure SAFETY FIRST. By dusk all the cadets returned to the camp and nobody suffered serious injuries or death.
On the last day it was such a sad event to depart but we had to bid a tearful farewell to officers and other ranks as well as fellow cadets. We made it a point to organise a hat collection to reward the cooks and labourers.
Upon returning home we were a complete different set of boys, excelling in our studies and extracurricular activities. What a leadership training it was! Nothing was impossible, we were trained to think. Discipline, punctuality, respecting rules all was built into that training. Later after leaving school this training stood us in good stead, especially those who joined the security services.
Currently, there is a debate on the relevance of the leadership training course for the university entrants, conducted by the Ministry of Higher Education in collaboration with the Defence Ministry. Some even call it a military training! But one thing is for sure. They will never be given a chance to handle fire arms. One mother laments that they are from a conservative family and her daughter has never engaged in sports. This is true of almost all the students as in this competitive education system; one cannot engage in anything but studying in order to gain university entrance. Some others express concern that female students may avoid university education for the fear of army training! But all these innocent students fall easy prey to street demonstrations where they face water cannon, rubber bullets and even baton charge by the law enforcement officers. How many innocent students were killed and seriously injured due to ragging or street fights. But surely no one will sustain such injuries in the leadership training being conducted in army camps as nowhere else all the facilities could be found. Dear Parents, let your precious children be away from home for three weeks to find themselves.
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