Captain Sandeep Bhagat was inspired by his grandfather
Capt Sandeep Bhagat was deployed in Afghanistan earlier this year and has worked at the medical facility in Tarin Kowt, treating military and non-military personnel and even Afghans.
Talking about his two-month stint there, Capt Bhagat said bullets and bombs didn't discriminate. "Soldiers, locals, children - anyone can get injured, and we get the opportunity to treat them all. Home-made bombs and mines cause the most injuries, which can range from a broken bone to the whole body being blown off. Being an MBBS from Amritsar, I had not seen anything like this in civil life. I had seen road accident injuries, but not serious blast injuries."
Painting a picture of what it's like to serve in Afghanistan, Capt Bhagat said: "If there is a multiple car crash in Melbourne, then you can easily provide treatment soon after you reach the scene and secure the area. But if the same thing were to happen there, you have no idea where the next rocket or missile can come from."
But what prompted him to leave the comfort of suburban Melbourne and join the army? He responds: "Yes, there is always great danger if you go into a war zone. We take a decision by doing a risk balance in our life and our will to serve our country. The history of Punjab suggests that whosoever has served the country has done so after taking great risk. I am very proud that I got this opportunity to serve my adopted country, and my family has supported me all the way."
And it didn't take him long to prove his mettle at the military camp. "While training at the Royal Military College, I used to lead in the obstacle course, and soon earned the nickname, 'Pocket Rocket', from my fellow soldiers," says Capt Bhagat.
Not a very tall man himself, he adds, "There were a lot of 7-ft-tall guys at the military college, but I think the childhood training at Sainik School, Kapurthala, was put to great use and helped me win many medals! So, even though the body is small, I don't think I lack in anything."
Capt Bhagat says the Australian army has made him feel welcome, even though he was the only north Indian to be deployed in Afghanistan earlier this year. "I've experienced great camaraderie from other soldiers in the Australian army."
About the debate on the presence of international soldiers in Afghanistan, Capt Bhagat says: "If we can improve the condition of even one village or one state there, then we must do it.
If I get an opportunity to go and work there as a doctor on behalf of an aid agency or the Red Cross, I would do it to fulfil my duty as a human being."
Capt Bhagat thinks that maybe destiny played a big part in all this. "Perhaps those people were destined to be treated by me. Maybe that is why I came to Melbourne from Punjab and then went to Afghanistan. And I can tell you that those people have a lot of respect for Punjabis."
Capt Bhagat's Punjabi heritage and knowledge of Urdu have helped him speak freely to many locals. "Even though I don't speak Dari or Pashto, I understand many common words that they say. For example, they say jigar for liver, gurda for kidney, chhaati for chest, dard for pain and sardi for cold. So, it wasn't too hard for me to understand what they were trying to say."
Asked if he would serve again in Afghanistan, Capt Bhagat said "yes" without any hesitation. "While working in Tarin Kowt and looking at the locals, I wondered what the future has in store for women and children living in those villages. Then I thought if I can make a change for people who cannot change anything for themselves, then why shouldn't I do it?"