Interview - Col Muhammad Omer Khan

Colonel Omer is serving in Pakistan Army since 1986. He suffered from spinal injury due to an accident in 1994, when he was a Captain. It rendered him paraplegic (chest down paralysis) with a major disability. But despite being wheelchair ridden since that day, his life moves on whereby he drives his car, travels frequently, discharges his social and religious obligations. He volunteered to remain in uniform after the disability and still serves with pride to the best of his abilities. With the support of his family and Pak Army, he even aims higher and wants to do much for Pakistan. He got married after this accident, has three children and is leading a happy life.

Q. How do you recall your childhood days? Please tell us about your family and days of your early service in Army.

omer2 copyAnswer: I was born on 6 December 1968 in Rawalpindi. I belong to Barki tribe of Pathans and we are settled in Lahore. My early education was subjected to my father's postings who is a retired army officer, Lieutenant Colonel (Retd) Zaheer-ud-Din Khan from Remount Veterinary & Farms Corps (RVFC). I am second youngest in a family of four brothers and two sisters. Being son of an officer from RVFC, I remember being brought up among the thumps of horses. I began to crave for horses and became a good rider at a small age. Riding was and has remained my passion. I have been a national level Polo player.

My passion for army dates back to 1980 when I went to witness 23 March Parade in Jhelum Cantt. It was first time that I witnessed tanks in motion. The only difference, it made then was change in my taste and passion from riding a horse to riding a tank. In the similar pursuit, I applied for commission in Pak Army after Matric and was selected for Junior Cadets Battalion (JCB) in 1986. I later joined Pakistan Military Academy (PMA) in 1988. Being a natural sportsman and a rider, routine in PMA suited me and I was very comfortable in tough life of the Academy. I was commissioned in April 1990 with 81 PMA Long Course and joined 26 Cavalry Regiment. I think Allah was very kind to me to grant me the armour regiment where I had all the time to work with tanks.

My second passion in those days was mountains. I was lucky to be assigned as a liaison officer with Japanese and Korean mountaineer expeditions in 1992. With them I went as high as Camp 4 which is 7400 metre high. I was later posted at Line of Control in Neelum Sector which gave me a chance to experience live action before returning to my unit, 26 Cavalry.

Q. You passed through a traumatic experience in your prime youth that resulted in a lifelong disability. Please tell about that fateful day and the events later.

Answer: It was 28 May 1994 and I was a Captain (I remember 28 May on two accounts: my accident and Pakistan going nuclear in 1998 omer3on similar date). I was part of a military convoy when my vehicle met a serious road accident near Kala Shah Kaku. I was immediately evacuated to Combined Military Hospital (CMH) Lahore. It was a shock for me to know that my spine had been broken. In addition, Discs T5, 6 and 7 had also been affected. I was

stabilized at the hospital but spinal surgery wasn't a common practice then due to lack of facilities and doctors. The medical authorities at CMH then placed me under supervision of Dr Omer Sawar Khan in Sheikh Zaid Hospital Lahore who was then the most experienced spine surgeon in Pakistan. My initial treatment was completed but rehabilitation of spinal injury was still not possible in Pakistan. Situation was getting worrisome for me and my family. I was disabled to an extent that in hospital, while my brother was sleeping at the next bed, I felt thirsty and wanted to take a glass of water at my own without bothering my brother. To my horror, I could not pick up the glass two inches away from my hands. It was then that I realised fully about my disability but also made it a point to strive my way back to normal life.

Q. After having confronted a serious crisis we today find you as a successful person in competition with all other citizens. From ICU bed to routine life and a successful professional life with routine promotions; what have been the highlights of your life all along?

Answer: Since there was no rehabilitation centre for spinal injury in Pakistan, I was advised by doctors to move to USA for advance treatment. I had full support of my family and my institution, Pak Army, who all backed me to travel abroad for the treatment. I remained admitted in Metro Health Centre Cleveland, Ohio for one year and underwent massive rehabilitation training. During that time, I learnt how to drive, swim, use the washroom; in short how to live the life without being hostage to any disability. Army also provided financial assistance for this treatment. After rehabilitation, I returned back to Pakistan and was ready to enter into a much challenging practical life.

omer4Upon return, I was asked to undergo medical board to ascertain my disability and fitness level for service in army during 1995. The medical board initially declared me unfit to serve in Army due to major disability and recommended my discharge with full benefits as per policy. However, I requested the authorities to let me serve as I volunteered to remain in uniform. Army then decided to improve my qualifications in technical subjects and assigned me desk jobs due to wheel chair. I was detailed to undergo “Electronic Data Processing Course” at Military College of Signals (MCS) for 3 months. It was a challenge for me to concentrate on study due to my health and more so, computers were a rare phenomenon in Pakistan during 1990s. Studies, especially the computers, were least I could think of in my life before. But I worked extremely hard and I was able to earn the best possible grade. Those results gave me confidence to fight back with my disability in more befitting way. If I analyse it now, I am confident in stating that it was, and it indeed is, my Khaki uniform that drives me to face any challenge in life successfully.

It was a new life to me. A student again, but on a wheelchair. This new phase in life brought more challenges as during the course I faced a lot of problems; my father at the age of 72 years used to pick and drop me every day from Islamabad to Rawalpindi, a job he never did before since my childhood. Washroom and stairs were rather a bigger issue as maximum bathrooms had less wide doors, unfit for wheelchair, and almost each path leading to the class and other places had stairs. But when there is a will there is way, and here I am, in front of you. It was the same time that I decided to become self-sufficient in the routine matters in maximum possible things. I decided to import a car with hand-controls for disable people. After bit of effort and allocation of quota, I managed to get a special car in 1997. After my course I was posted to then Army Computer System (ACS) Directorate (later C4I Directorate). People were little sympathetic towards me due to disability and avoided to task me much. But I requested everyone to treat me at par with other officers as I wanted to learn and work hard; for my pride and to remain useful to the system and my country. I think my hard work has been well recognised by this great institution and I have been rewarded accordingly.

In February 1997, I was part of team that devised “Election Monitoring Software” which became quite a big success. It was followed by census in 1998 and, again my work was appreciated and I was awarded COAS Commendation Card for my work. Later, I was sent to National Accountability Bureau (NAB) upon its raising in PM Secretariat Islamabad in 1999, where I served till 2006. I was later posted to Military Secretary (MS) Branch in 2007 where I continue to serve till date. I was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in 2007 and to the rank of Colonel in 2012.

Q. What has been the source of inspiration for you during your life?

Answer: My inspiration is a sum of people including my father, my brothers and my course-mates who never let me despair and always supported me without thinking me as a disabled man. But the ultimate inspiration in my life has been my wife. A lady who chose me as her life partner despite knowing about my disability. She was doing her House Job as a Medical Officer when she decided to marry me against social pressures for tying knot with a person who had 80% disability. She was my cousin, an educated and a pretty lady who belonged to a well-to-do family. She could have the best of man for her marriage and a life partner, but I still owe her respect for choosing me and staying with me as a wonderful companion.

Q. Tell us about your family and how do you spend time with them?

Answer: Alhamdulillah I am very thankful to Allah Almighty that He bestowed upon me his greatest blessings. I was blessed with twin daughters (Hafsa and Haleema) in year 2002 and a son in 2004 whom I named Ibrahim. I performed Umra last year with my family and I also say my prayers in gratitude for His countless blessings. Today I am so happy with my family; I play Cricket, Badminton with them, do shopping and travel all around the country and the world. I love talking to my father and mother as it gives me internal peace and spiritual solace.

Q. How does rehabilitation system of Pak Army works to cater for the soldiers with disabilities?

Answer: Army never leave its sons unattended, especially during problem or hardship. Due to ongoing War on Terrorism, the cases of limb injuries and disabilities have increased in the Army. However, from the first aid to the complete rehabilitation, all affected people are being looked-after. Establishment of Armed Forces Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine (AFIRM) in Rawalpindi by the Army is a very commendable step. The under treatment soldiers are not only taken care of clinically, but psychological aspect of their personality is also been catered for. These soldiers are being taught different skills and are also participating in competitive sports activities.

Q. We see that your wheelchair does not have the handles? Any specific reason? And what advice do you render to the people with disabilities?

Answer: The answer to all these questions is very simple. I think the best way to cope up with such phenomenon is to accept the reality, as it is, and as soon as possible. You have to decide in clear terms that life has to go on and you have to move on with it. The self respect never allowed me to be excusive. I removed handles from my wheelchair as I never wanted somebody to be pushing me when my hands are with me.

Q. What is your message to the youth of Pakistan through the platform of Hilal?

Answer: Hilal is a very old magazine and I am sure that people seek inspiration through it. Through this forum, message to the youth and those who suffer any set back in life whether physical or mental, is to accept the reality as it is and to move on from there. I think it is a shame for any human being to beg for anything. Immediately after my accident, I remember not having the strength to pick up a glass of water placed few inches away from me. But I was confident of returning to the normal life and Allah helped me in doing so. My family supported me so did my institution. If you are willing to become a useful citizen, the environment around you would help you but if you surrender and hide from people, you will be a sorry figure everywhere. At the end, I would say: No struggle is short of triumph; and, if not, a valiant effort is worth the Man.

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