12th August 2001
Sports| Mirror Magazine
By Hiranthi FernandoYoung men in full camouflage battle dress, loaded with backpacks and weapons, are on an obstacle course. They cross a ramp, taking care to go down flat, their weapons at the ready. Then they negotiate a ladder, using their hands to clamber from rung to rung. Creeping through concrete tunnels, emerging, watchful, ready to fire, clambering over a wall, balancing on a bar, they swing through the air, Tarzan-like on a rope.
It's endurance training time for the Army's future infantrymen.
Field Marshal Montgomery described the infantry as "the least spectacular arm, yet without them you cannot win a battle, indeed without them you can do nothing, nothing at all". Said Field Marshal Lord Wavell, "All battles and all wars are won in the end by the infantryman. The infantryman always bears the brunt. His casualties are heavier, he suffers extremes of discomfort and fatigue than the other arms."
The infantry is thus the essential combat arm in all wars and this is true of the Sri Lankan Army's infantry too.
The Army's main infantry training establishment, the Infantry Training Centre (ITC) at Minneriya was set up as a regular training school in August 1984 with Lt. Gen. Gerry de Silva (then Colonel) as its first Commandant. "Infantry is the pivotal arm of the army, which has to fight face to face, hand to hand. The infantry soldier requires the ability to hold ground without support. He needs to be highly adaptable, operating in any situation or condition. Foot soldiers can go where aircraft or armoured tanks cannot go. The infantryman is also vulnerable and the training given is geared to bring him up to the high standards required," said Col. Bahar Morseth, current Commandant of the ITC.
Sprawling over some hundred acres, the ITC provides a pleasant and stimulating environment for the recruit to go through his paces. Awakening to a bugle call, the infantry recruit has a full schedule ahead of him for 16 weeks.
His day begins at dawn with 45 minutes physical training from 6.30 a.m. "For the first two weeks the recruits get acclimatised to the military system with a programme that is not too strenuous," explained Maj. Ajith Pallawela, Chief Instructor. P.T. is followed by breakfast, after which is an hour of squad drill on the parade grounds. The young men have to be spick and span in their uniforms, boots well polished for inspection at the muster parade. Next come classroom lectures followed by weapons training.
After lunch, they go through more weapons training on the field until 4 p.m. Then comes recreation time, which includes games such as cricket, volleyball, physical training exercises, running, jogging. As night falls, the recruits relax, watching videos. It's lights out by ten unless they have a study period.
Nineteen-year-old Prasanna Kumara, from Mirigama joined the Army secretly, against the wishes of his parents because he did not have a permanent job. "My parents came here to take me back but I refused," he said. "I find that we are getting a good training and we have better facilities than I have at home. I feel the officers care for our welfare and for the country."
Occasionally, night training is on the agenda. "We conduct weapons training and night movements. We also have jungle training both during the day and night. This includes navigational training, with compass marches. Jungle training covers all types of tactics," Maj. Pallawela said.
A jungle course is conducted approximately every two weeks, starting with 24 hours, increasing to almost six days. All they have learned in survival, navigation, moving and hiding noiselessly and detecting the enemy are put into practice. One drawback here is the lack of adequate jungle since this has been restricted by the wildlife authorities. The small patch of jungle is used by several military schools in the area and there is the danger of crossfire as well.
Training in unarmed combat, endurance training and overcoming various obstacles in a march, all bolster their confidence. They are also taken on speed marches where they have to cover a certain distance in a given time carrying a weight of 20 pounds on their backs, Major Pallawela said.
"The Army is a good place for anyone to develop," says Upul Shantha, 18. "Even those with low intelligence levels are treated with patience. We live and work here as brothers. I hope to serve my country when I pass out in September".
M.T. Pieris, 20 years, joined the Army and deserted after two months. "I am married and I had personal problems at home," he said. "However, now I have explained everything to my family and I came back to rejoin." Pieris also passes out in September."
Recruits also get the opportunity to handle and fire all platoon weapons such as rifle, machine- guns, mortars, RPGs and grenades, Col. Morseth said. Two firing ranges are available for practice, with dummies made for dry practice. Live firing is conducted as the training progresses and a live grenade throwing bay gives them practice in hurling grenades at a target.
Begun as an infantry training centre for recruits, the ITC now also runs advanced courses and refresher courses. When the recruits pass out, they join their mother units in one of the five Infantry Regiments, but after some time in service, those selected for promotion as Lance Corporals and Corporals, come back for advanced Section Commanders' courses.
Courses are also conducted for young officers. Captain Kurukulasuriya has served 11 years in the Army of which eight years have been on the battlefield. "I have followed many courses," Capt. Kurukulasuriya said. "I feel this course I am now following on Battalion Support Weapons is the best I have done."
Female officers and NCOs in operation areas follow special courses on weapons and tactics.
An entire battalion of about 700 can also undergo training on weapons and tactics on a Battalion Training course. In addition, the ITC conducts weapons courses for Navy personnel on ground duty as well as the Police.
Field training aside, technical lectures are given, the topic on the day of our visit being 81 mm mortars. "With the advancement of technology, we have to introduce them to new systems," Maj. Pallawela said. In the auditorium, the engineering aspects of explosives and demolitions were being explained to platoon sergeants as well as recruits, who were shown different types of mines and how to detect them. During the last few years, many soldiers have been injured accidentally by not handling mines and explosives correctly. Special emphasis is therefore paid to this aspect.
Humanitarian Law is included in all training courses, the lecturers being ICRC representatives. Military and civil law are also covered. Recruits are also advised about insurance schemes, welfare benefits, opening of bank accounts and savings accounts. Commandant Col. Morseth, Commanding Officer Lt. Priyanga Jayawardene and Chief Instructor Maj. Pallawela conduct weekly interviews with the men to maintain a good rapport with them and ensure their needs. If for instance, a recruit lacks stamina, diet supplements and vitamins are provided
Little known is the fact that the ITC maintains a close dialogue with archaeology officials at Polonnaruwa who teach them about the historical assets of the country. Outings are arranged for the recruits to Minneriya, Polonnaruwa and Sigiriya.
"Our main aim is to develop the infantry," Col. Morseth said. "The infantryman has a big test at the front. Training is the means by which the Army's quality soldiers and leaders develop their fighting proficiency. Training prepares soldiers, leaders and units to fight and win in war, the Army's basic mission. As leaders, our responsibility is to ensure that no soldier ever dies in combat because he was not properly trained."
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