Dead soldiers go home in coffins wrapped in national glory. Those fortunate to escape unscathed are welcomed by the Diwali-like glow on the faces of their kids and wife. But the deeds of soldiers who are wounded get diffused in the twilight of public consciousness.
There was no greater story of blood and guts than that of Dalip Singh of the Grenadiers Regiment, who fought the Kargil War in June 1999. Dalip had taken four bullets, including one through the left eye and another through the teeth that got wedged in the neck, but survived 28 hours before he got to 92 Base Hospital at Srinagar.
Through his evacuation from the Tololing battlefield at 15,000 feet, the indomitable Dalip had kept insisting to his mates that he would not surrender to intolerable pain. His spirit just did not let the kisses of death's soft lips relieve him of his physical inferno.
And, like all such unsung glories, that bloodshed on the Kargil snows lies buried deep by 15 winters. My first impression of Kargil as a war correspondent was of the wounded trickling down like a brook releasing from the mountain thaws. In the second week of May 1999, I reached 56 Mountain Brigade HQs at Drass commanded then by the redoubtable AN Aul. The Brigade's Deputy Commander gave me my first media briefing when he took me to the helicopter strip. I saw two boys of the 1 Naga brought down from Tololing. One soldier's leg was swathed in blood-soaked bandages while the other had a bullet through his temple. Thickish blood oozed from the temple gauzes just like jelly pudding. The blood's odd colour and texture never ever left me. It haunted me when I visited Kargil town and savoured its famous blood-red apricots, or whenever my wife or late mother would prepare jelly and custard for dessert at our Chandigarh home.
Dalip was hit by machine-gun fire at 4.30 am in the second week of that June junoon on the Tololing heights. Dalip refused to let his mates evacuate him till 8 pm because Pakistani fire made lifting a head a game much worse than Russian roulette. With support from his mates, Dalip walked down the mountain to reach the battalion's doctor after three hours. Dalip was given pain-killers and put on a stretcher for the journey down to Drass. Pakistanis sniped merrily at the moonlit, silvery shadows of the evacuation party. Dalip made it to Drass and then Srinagar but lost his left eye and arm.
Some bravehearts battled on as their injuries were not "major" ones. Naik Tara Singh's foot was wounded by an artillery splinter while Grenadier Daljit Singh's arm was hit on June 7. Both refused evacuation as they were manning the LMG and automatic grenade launcher. They fought on for six days with basic medical help. Mahinder Singh's thigh and wrist were shot through by an artillery burst but he waited quietly till five wounded mates were treated. When doctors removed his clothes, they realised Mahinder should have been the first to get their attention. Tololing Top fell on June 13.
Rows of steely-eyed soldiers on hospital beds, parallel runs of smouldering pyres and stoic graves; all these lay behind that first breakthrough of Kargil War. Remember, the Tololing win had once electrified India and swept its morale to a champagne high.