In wheelchair after being shot, officer chases ‘Ironman’ dream

ByRahul Singh, New Delhi
Feb 20, 2023 08:05 AM IST

Lieutenant Colonel Amardeep Singh Dehal has been using a wheelchair after he was shot in the head during a counterterror operation in Kashmir six years ago

Lieutenant Colonel Amardeep Singh Dehal has been using a wheelchair after he was shot in the head during a counterterror operation in Kashmir six years ago. But the 35-year-old combat engineer refuses to let go of his dream – taking part in a gruelling endurance race, the Ironman triathlon, in which supremely fit athletes from around the world test their limits with a 3.9-km swim, followed by a 180.2-km bike ride and then a 42.2-km run.

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HT Image

For a man who nearly died after a bullet from a Kalashnikov was buried deep in his brain in 2017, who was in coma for seven months, who reckoned with an uncertain future for years, and who is still fighting a tough battle to get back on his feet; Dehal, a third-generation army officer, believes he got what many people never get – a second chance at life. And he’s just getting started.

“Life just zipped past me, and I have a lot of catching up to do,” says Dehal.

“The triathlon is definitely the first thing I will attempt after this phase is over. I don’t know when it will happen, but it will. I had started preparing for the race long before my convoy was ambushed by terrorists near Shopian. I have to pick up where I left off.”

Dehal is unequivocal about it — he wants to get back on his feet, compete at the regular event, with no aid or help.

He is currently undergoing advanced treatment, including robotic-assisted walking and gait training, at Mumbai’s Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital (KDAH) – the latest in a series of medical treatment and procedures at different hospitals.

The officer, who was commissioned into the 38 Assault Engineer Regiment in 2008, was serving with the 44 Rashtriya Rifles when the attack – in which three soldiers were killed and another five, including Dehal, injured – took place . The 44 RR squad was returning to its base from a cordon and search operation.

The last six years have been tumultuous and complicated for Dehal, his wife Lieutenant Colonel Sheela Shrimali, and their families and loved ones.

The officer found light and hope in his wife during the darkest hours of his existence. “Sheela is the real hero. Without her unqualified support, I could have never dreamt of the recovery I have made. I am happy to say that I can now take a few steps, with some support. Adversities are temporary, what is permanent is the people around you, and their unending love and support,” Dehal says.

Dehal and Shrimali are accomplished shooters, and their friendship blossomed into love at the Army Marksmanship Unit in Mhow near Indore. They have been married for 11 years. “He’s an inspiration and a pillar of strength for us. Our families and the army have provided us with immense support. I have never had to go back home and cry on a pillow,” says Shrimali.

If he has set his mind on taking part in the triathlon, he will try for a podium finish, she says. “I know he will give it his all. He has been a fantastic swimmer, cyclist and runner from his National Defence Academy days. As for me, I am happy to see another sunrise with him, hold his hand and tell him that we are in this together,” she says.

Sheela says the journey so far wouldn’t have been possible without the support of the army, especially Lieutenant General HS Kahlon, General Officer Commanding, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Goa Area, the 38 Assault Engineer Regiment and the Jillo Irani and Silla BFJ Foundation, who have all been with the family every step of the way during his treatment in Mumbai.

When Dehal was brought to the 92 Base Hospital in Srinagar on February 23, 2017 with gunshot wounds to the head and abdomen, he showed no signs of life. It was only when he gasped just once, in what his wife describes as a “divine intervention,” did the doctors realise that the soldier was still alive and rushed him into surgery to perform the craniectomy procedure to remove a portion of his skull to relieve pressure on the brain, where the bullet was lodged.

Two days later, he was airlifted to the Army Hospital (Research and Referral) in Delhi where some of the army’s finest neurosurgeons operated on him and removed the bullet. One of them placed it in Sheela’s hand. “This is your trophy,” Sheela recalls him saying. Dehal, however, slipped into a coma, a state he was in for the next seven months.

After that, he started talking a little and recognising his family. It was the first time the family was hopeful that he would live.

He underwent several rounds of surgery at the hospital over a year, and was slowly weaned off life support, officials familiar with Dehal’s case say. “When he was finally discharged from the R&R hospital after 18 months, he didn’t move, his vision was affected and he couldn’t speak clearly,” says one of the officials.

After he was slightly stable, further treatment followed at Delhi’s Indian Spinal Injuries Centre from August 2018, and by December 2019 he was able to stand with support. But the Covid-19 pandemic brought another setback - his treatment was discontinued for the next two years.

He and his wife were posted to Chandimandir in January 2022, where Dehal resumed treatment two months later in March. “The progress Amardeep made till December 2019 was undone. It took another six months of treatment to return to the point where therapy was stopped. At this stage, he needed advanced treatment at KDAH in Mumbai,” says a second official.

He began his treatment at the Mumbai hospital last October and was there for a month. He returned to Mumbai again for a second round of treatment on February 14, and is expected to be at KDAH till early May.

What does Dehal plan to do after the triathlon?

“I want to see the world with Sheela. And then perhaps return to Kashmir for operations, if given a chance,” he adds, embodying hope, inspiration and strength. In a wheelchair.

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