Capt Urooj Jamal recounts her journey to becoming a Lady Officer of Pakistan Army
Looked at from above, Gilgit-Baltistan appears to be surrounded by an angel’s white wings, because of the snow covering the mountains of the Western Himalayas, the Hindu Kush in the west, and the Pamir Ranges in the north – an untamed and unspoiled beauty with a mystical charm of crystal clear, pristine lakes. It has great historical significance as well for being poised at the crossroads of three great civilizations – Indian, Central Asian and Chinese, a place of convergence of South, Central and East Asia. In the Karakoram range of Gilgit-Baltistan, in a narrow valley along the Gilgit River is located the small city of Gilgit; my story begins there.
When I was younger, I was a very ambitious child who loved to read. The stories of remarkable women from history, who were determined to leave a lasting legacy and refused to be forgotten in the shadows of obscurity, have had a profound impact on me. I am from a generation of the Pakistani youth who grew up listening to the news of vicious terrorist attacks on military and civilian installations, killing hundreds of innocent Pakistanis. I still remember hearing the devastating news about innocent children killed in Army Public School (APS) Peshawar’s exam rooms while sitting in APS Gilgit. With the support and unity of the nation, the Armed Forces of Pakistan launched a deliberate response across the country to eliminate terrorists and ensure the security of the motherland. I was a school-going student then but I felt a strong desire to join the ranks of our uniformed defenders so I, too, could one day serve my country.
Something about the camouflage uniform of Pakistan Army with hues of greens and browns attracted me. Still, I did not, even in my dreams, ever think that I would be wearing it one day. But fate smiled upon me and about 11 months ago, I was selected to join Pakistan Army after going through a series of exhaustive tests. I was thrilled and anxious. Coming from a purely civilian background, entry into the Pakistan Military Academy (PMA) seemed to me as an entry into an entirely different universe. I did not know anything about the military way of life, its customs and traditions. I was fascinated by everything: the drill, PT, flawless coordination of different facets of the training regime, purposefulness of every small bit of instruction, and even the rigor of mental trials that the PMA makes one pass through.
At PMA, we learned to not only become skilled soldiers, but also how to cultivate qualities of camaraderie and humanity. The GC Honor Code clearly underlines the cardinal principles that make the foundation of Pakistan Army: “A cadet does not cheat, steal or tell a lie, nor allows others to do so.” We were trained to portray high moral courage and accept one’s mistakes gracefully. Esprit de corps, healthy comradeship, was inculcated deeply into our minds as a manifestation of, “One for all and all for one.” And I saw many profound practical examples of it in PMA that changed my way of thinking and perspectives in many ways. However, as I look back at a pre-PMA version of me, I feel there is a major change in my mindset. In particular, I believe that the possibilities and our capacities are endless because every time I thought that I had reached my limit, PMA would dismiss it as just another myth, and I would come to realize that I was capable of more.
There were 16 Lady Cadets from all parts of Pakistan in our course. Most of us did not know one another before coming to PMA. However, the six months that we spent there, going through the best and the worst times together, transformed that variegated coterie of people into a formidable bond of companionship. We lived away from the family, but with a new family. We cherished all our moments together, even the ones that seemed terrible at the time. One of such moment was the Academy Night when we had to stay outside for the whole night, running from one place to the other within the vast premises of PMA. Every course must have been through it, but what made it special for us was the way we clung together like a cluster of grapes to save one another from the harsh cold.
I still remember the sound of the green alarm clock echoing in the company lines at 4 o’clock in the morning, and all of us rushing to the corridor outside our rooms for the morning fall-in. Our second fall-in would be with the drill staff where we would do the drill like remote-controlled dancing zombies. However, this zombie dance would seem pleasant in comparison to what happened once we got to the PT ground. “Double up karein madam,” was the forever trauma for almost the entire course. Yet, the presence of a step-by-step and systematic mechanism of transforming a delicate lady into an epitome of physical fitness and emotional strength seemed enchanting.
In the age of SMS and WhatsApp, I wrote letters to my parents while I was at PMA. I cannot forget the joy that filled my heart when we first got the incentive of writing letters to our families. My mother told me after I passed-out that she kept on crying for hours after reading my first letter.
All of us in our course thought that we were intelligent enough to outsmart our instructors. We thought we could dodge when we were given punishment. And, interestingly, they would intentionally overlook our dodging to some extent. Once, our platoon commander gave us the punishment of carrying our big packs (rucksacks) and stand in the corridor the whole night because had been noisy during the morning fall-in. So, what we did was that we collected the junk food that we had smuggled in, turned off all the lights in the corridor, took our pillows and blankets, and lied down thinking that the platoon commander was now unable to see us on CCTV because of the dark. It was just a few days before passing out that the same platoon commander revealed to us that the CCTV cameras had night vision capability too. Of course, the embarrassment that we felt was real.
Outdoor military exercises were the most fun part of the training for me; I was living one of my fantasies. They were not easy by any means. Experiencing the thrill of holding and firing a gun for the first time during the Yalghar exercise was a unique and exhilarating experience. Looking out for galaxies in the clear, starry nights of Abbottabad during the astronavigation exercise, marching across the hilly terrain while it rained cats and dogs, carrying out sentry duties on the Shimla hill in a cold that froze the dew on leaves, fire-power demos that lit the night sky of Mandroch – all formed indelible experiences for me.
The most significant of these outdoor exercises was Qayadat, which, as the name suggests, aimed to teach cadets various aspects of battlefield leadership skills. There, in the lush and fertile land of Lawrencepur, Attock, we had the opportunity to experience the life of a soldier living on the border. I served as the platoon commander in that area, so I regularly conducted rounds to ensure the strength of our established defenses and the attentiveness of the soldiers on guard. We would spend the entire day in the field, embracing the soil of the beloved land that we have pledged to serve with devotion and integrity. This integrity once became so profound that it made us lose all the potato chips and chocolates (that we had especially smuggled into PMA to be carried for Qayadat) in the secret pockets of our big packs. After the field days were over, we were asked to sit in a circle under a tree and bring all our snacks, including the secret stash. We thought that the platoon commander wanted us to celebrate our last day in Lawrencepur. Excited, all of us rushed to our big packs and brought back our snacks. One of our coursemates went a step further and sought permission to bring the pack of chips that she had left in her tent. When asked about the quantity, she replied with big, innocent eyes, “Ma’am, it is a big one.” To our surprise, it was not a party, instead, we were made to crush all our snacks. Of course, that innocent coursemate of ours especially regretted her decision.
With all the soldierly seriousness and responsibility comes the fun factor too because of the unusual circumstances of the exercise. During the simulation, Ambush, I was part of the covering party, which was responsible for securing the extreme ends. I had traveled around 6-7 kilometers distance on a rough terrain while carrying an LMG weighing 10 kilograms on my shoulder. We had to crawl for about 500 meters as we approached the site of the ambush. I was extremely tired by the time I reached my designated position. The soil was warm and soft as it had been freshly ploughed. So, I mounted my LMG on a bipod and slept for the next hour that the rest of my platoon-mates were to take to reach their designated positions. Since it was only a simulation, I thought that I should make use of the time and rest my eyes a little. I woke up to the sounds of an explosion and our term commander yelling at us that our cover was blown and that we should gather around in order to march back. It never ends up well for the rabbit!
As I look back now, it seems like half of my memories belong to PMA. A smile appears on my face every time I think about my time there. I am deeply grateful to the Almighty for guiding me along the path that He has chosen for me. I am also thankful to my parents for their unwavering support in every decision I have made. It is not easy for girls coming from remote areas like GB, KP or Balochistan to make it on their own, they need their families to support them fully. Wearing the green and white flag on my uniform instills a profound sense of duty and devotion to my country that is unparalleled. I am honored to serve as an officer in the Pakistan Army; if I can do it, so can any girl from anywhere in Pakistan. HH
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