The lines of religious and communal differences blur when the motherland calls; Col SK Tressler is championed by his Muslim countrymen for his services during the Indo-Pak war of 1971.
Pakistan is a nation of followers of various religions living peacefully together. This mutual respect and tolerance is reflected from majestic ‘Sadhu Bella’ standing tall in the center of River Indus in Sindh to the mystic ‘Hinglaj’ on the twists and turns of River Hingole in Balochistan. As a manifestation of this religious harmony and mutual respect for each other, I will like to narrate a story of a Christian officer of Pakistan Army who was loved, revered and followed by his Muslim and Christian colleagues alike. This story truly reflects who we are as a nation and what values we uphold — the values of tolerance, mutual respect, harmony and above all, patriotism.
It was a routine Friday in 1971. A newly posted CO (Commanding Officer) had just taken over the command of newly raised Infantry Battalion, 42 Punjab, in Rawalpindi. “SM (Subedar Major) sab, where do troops offer their Jumma prayers?” asked the tall, fair CO in a firm voice. “Sir, they go to the Military Police Detachment located nearby,” came the prompt reply from the SM. On hearing this, the CO instructed the SM to start the construction of the mosque in their unit area so his officers and men could offer their prayers with convenience. The CO was none other than Lt Col SK Tressler, a Christian officer who had just been posted from Infantry School Quetta to take command of 42 Punjab. In the upcoming Troops Week, a lecture on Jihad was planned, which Lt Col Tressler decided to deliver himself. Naturally, all officers and troops were wondering what a Christian CO would say on a topic like Jihad. For them Jihad brought the thoughts of Salah-ud-Ayubi, Richard the Lionheart and the Crusades. On the day, when the lecture commenced, Lt Col Tressler included all the aspects of Jihad that he needed his troops to understand for preparation of the war that loomed on the horizon. He said, “Preparing for the war is Jihad, be it in form of keeping good health, physical fitness, cleaning your weapons or carrying out your training regularly.” He summed up his lecture in such a way as to inculcate a sense of patriotism, stirring nationalism and sense of duty and sacrifice amongst his men who sat there mesmerized by every word of the orator.
When the war finally started, Lt Col SK Tressler led his men from the front and his men followed him putting their complete trust in his command. On one occasion, he was accompanying the forward company and enemy artillery guns opened up with absolute ferocity. The heavy dose of enemy artillery fire was shaking the ground, with its splinters piercing through the icy, winter air making shrilling sounds. Amidst the dust and smoke, some of the soldiers immediately ducked down for safety. “Is this the Jihad you talk about?” echoed the roaring voice of the CO. Ducking troops looked up and found their Christian CO still standing tall and firm on his feet amidst the artillery pounding. This gave them a surge of motivation, charging up the troops with profound energy; after all, what could be more motivating than to hear about Jihad from a Christian CO.
It goes without saying that behind such upright and brave men is the support of equally brave and patriotic women. Incontrovertibly, Mrs. Lt Col SK Tressler proved to be that woman in Lt Col Tressler’s life. As it happened, during an attack on the enemy positions, a young soldier got shell-shocked and lost his calm; the sight of slicing machine gun fire and artillery splinters piercing through the bodies of his comrades was too much for him. So he turned and started running back from the battlefield. So intense was the impact of the gore on the battlefield that he ran all the way from Chhamb Sector to the Rear Headquarters of the battalion in Rawalpindi. When inquired, he detailed the horrors of the battlefield to the men at the Rear. As a result of his account, a rumor spread that the battalion had been wiped off by the brutal enemy artillery and machine gun fires. When this rumor made its way to Mrs. Tressler, she made a phone call to the Adjutant and inquired about her husband. The young Adjutant told her that Lt Col Tressler was fine and had gone for the recce of forward locations. Mrs. Tressler, thinking that her husband was probably among the dead, said very calmly and firmly, “Captain, you can tell me, I can take it.” The Adjutant, who is now a retired Colonel in his seventies, even after decades still recalls vividly the calm in Mrs. Tressler’s voice as it is hard to forget when a woman who had been informed that all in the battalion including her husband had died, displays unflinching composure that is not only astounding but also inspiring. Undoubtedly, this firm support from the mothers, sisters and wives of this brave nation encourages its men to prevail in the face of odds.
I personally met Mrs. and Col Tressler in Dec 2011 on my visit to Rawalpindi. Her home was a reflection of a typical military officer’s house having artifacts and souvenirs from every corner of the country where they had been, depicting all colours of Pakistan. During our interaction, Mrs. Tressler showed me the glass containers in which she had collected the soil of the fronts where her husband had fought. She revealed to me that on every Independence Day, she called her children and showed them these jars containing the sacred soil. “Many young men have given their lives for this soil and perished in oblivion as unknown soldiers. They paid the cost of our freedom with their blood,” said Mrs. Tressler while looking at one of the jars. She told me that she had been carrying out this practice with her children so that her children could understand the cost of the freedom and take pride in being citizens of a free country. I was thoroughly impressed by her empowering personality which was a beautiful blend of patriotism, courage and composure. While I was still mired in this patriotic experience, Col SK Tressler walked in — a fair tall graceful man in his late seventies with neatly combed hair and a thick silver mustache. I noticed a beautiful golden cross hanging on the front pocket of his royal blue coat. I could not resist appreciating the beautiful cross, upon which Col Tressler handed it to me so I could take a closer look. “It is made of pure gold,” said Col Tressler while taking a seat beside his wife. Meanwhile, a servant entered the room with hot coffee and some homemade cookies. While taking a sip, Col Tressler started narrating the story of his cross.
“It was Dec 1971. I was walking with my two forward companies, which were to launch an attack on Indian positions. While walking with the forward companies we came across a minefield around 300 meters in depth. It was indeed a chilling moment for me, as I knew the amount of devastation this minefield could cause to my assaulting companies. Walking through the minefield without a proper plan meant a lot of causalities even before the launch of the actual attack. So, I sat on my hunches and did what any one of us would have done in the hour of dire need: pray. I closed my eyes and prayed to God. The moment I opened my eyes, I saw a dog coming out of the bushes a few meters ahead of us. I noticed that the dog was limping with one of its legs badly injured. I thought that it had probably stepped on a mine. The dog limped closer and sat beside me. I patted the dog and whispered in its ear. After a brief moment, the dog stood up and started walking towards the minefield but on reaching the edge, it stopped and looked back at me as I sat on the rock near where I had prayed. I stood up and started walking towards the dog, which was still standing on the brim of the minefield staring straight at me. When the dog saw me reach behind it, it turned back towards the minefield and started leading me through. I followed the injured dog, placing my feet precisely where dog was placing its paws because I knew that it was aware that any wrong step could blow him into pieces. After walking a few meters, I looked back and told my men to strictly follow my footprints. In this way, I led my men out of the minefield unscathed.
“After the termination of the war, one of the soldiers who had witnessed this minefield crossing went to his village and narrated to his family about how his Christian CO had led them out of the minefield without any loss of life. The soldier’s brother who was a goldsmith, to show his respect and gratitude, made a gold cross for me and presented it to me saying that he was really inspired by the courage, leadership and faith that he believed I showed (very generous of him, I think). Since then I have always kept this cross with me,” said Col Tressler with a smile on his face. At the end of this heart touching narration, I could not resist picking up the cross that laid on the table in front of me. I held it in my hand once again, but this time not only to appreciate the craftsmanship of its maker but to appreciate the ascribed spirit of respecting each other’s faith and religion. The cross not only reflected the story of unflinching patriotism and interfaith harmony but also gives a lesson that patriotism transcends the boundaries of race, colour and creed. HH
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