I have met some interesting people in my travels. Here is a story about some of the bravest.
In the Army I met four soldiers here who were ethnically from Nepal. They come from a race of people who many historians consider the greatest soldiers in the world.
Nepal is a country in South Asia that is bordered to the north by China and to the south, east and west by the Republic of India. The mountainous north of Nepal has eight of the world’s ten highest mountains, including the highest, Sagarmatha, known in English as Mount Everest. It contains over 240 peaks more than 20,000 feet above sea level.
It is a poverty stricken country made famous by severe earthquakes and high mountain peaks.
Nepal is a country of highly diverse geography, culture and religions. The British failed to annex Nepal as part of the Empire in a war in 1814 but Army officers were impressed by the tenacity of the Gurkha soldiers and encouraged them to volunteer for service in the British Army.
They have served the British, and later, the Indian Army with distinction and bravery for almost 200 years. They have fought in every war the British have been in and earned more awards for valor than any other group of soldiers in England’s long military history.
Bugles and a Tiger
One of my heroes is a British Army Officer named John Masters. Masters was the fifth generation of his family, and also the last, to serve in India. His military career was notably colorful, but his lasting achievement was to preserve for history in a succession of books which became an elegy for Britain’s colonial experience in the subcontinent, and for the old Indian army- that was commanded by British Officers.
At the heart of his experience was his service with soldiers from Nepal whom he came to love and admire for their toughness as well as bravery.
Masters was born in Calcutta, India and joined the British Army as a 20 year old subaltern (cadet officer) in 1935, served on and off in the North-West Frontier (modern day Pakistan) until 1939, and commanded a brigade in the Chindit Operation against the Japanese in Burma (same operation as Merrill’s Marauders) all before he was 30.
His dark skin and love for his indigenous soldiers that served with him, gave rise to gossip among his enemies that he was not British at all but an Anglo-Indian and possessed of all the social embarrassments of the period, “a touch of the tar brush,” (Hastings, 2007).
Although his forefathers and Masters had served through some of British’s toughest times this was too much for a man of his proud attitude to bear. At 35, he moved to the United States and took up writing. His most last memorial is his loving, exuberant memoir of service with the Gurkha Rifles, “Bugles and a Tiger,”- 1955- which ranks among one of the finest of all warrior narratives. He wrote about them:
“As I write these last words, my thoughts return to you who were my comrades, the stubborn and indomitable peasants of Nepal. Once more I hear the laughter with which you greeted every hardship. Once more I see you in your bivouacs or about your fires, on forced march or in the trenches, now shivering with wet and cold, now scorched by a pitiless and burning sun. Uncomplaining you endure hunger and thirst and wounds; and at the last your unwavering lines disappear into the smoke and wrath of battle. Bravest of the brave, most generous of the generous, never had country more faithful friends than you,” (Masters, 1956).
Lieutenant Colonel Ashish Upadhyay
My own experience with the remarkable soldiers of Nepal was personified in LTC (then Captain) Ashish Upadhyay of the Nepalese Army. Ashish was in the Infantry Captain’s Career Course with me in 2002-2003. I started, as his sponsor in the course, became his friend and in the end, gained a brother.
Standing 5’9 he had a lanky, wiry frame with the mocha skin of South Asia and a smile that seemed to take up his whole face when he laughed. Ashish introduced himself to me in the first few days our class started.
I immediately noticed the up and down sing song, Hindi accent combined with his fondness for long words he was a joy to be around. Over the next five months I would take him with me all over the southeastern United States.
We partied in Atlanta, went to clubs in South Beach, did the tourist thing at Disney World and made it to Mardi Gras in the French Quarter of New Orleans.
During these long drives and weekends hanging out we talked about where we came from and our life experiences. Ashish looked and talked like an Indian but he was so much more. He was a Hindu of the Brahmin Class or caste in the Indian continent, generally considered to be the highest or priestly caste of the Varna Shastra or classification of the Hindu Society.
By becoming a soldier, he had broken a long standing family history of teachers and priests. He was a veteran of the savage civil war that had engulfed his country since the late 1990’s. He was chosen over 300 other officers to attend the Infantry Captain’s Career Course as an International Exchange Student at Fort Benning. He truly was the best his country had to offer in a culture and region famed for brave warriors.
Ashish worked as a peacekeeper when he was deployed in 2002 to southern Lebanon, where he worked as an operations officer with armies from Poland, Ghana, Nepal, Ireland and Fiji on a traditional peacekeeping mission which, as a predominately military operation, had little involvement with UN civilians or police. At the time, a ceasefire had recently been negotiated in one of the many clashes between armed groups in Lebanon and Israel.
In 2005, he commanded a contingent of Nepalese Army Special Forces on a mission in Africa for six months.
In 2003 we would talk about everything from girls, to religion to what made men follow a leader. In one conversation he said, “Dominic, when do you feel best about yourself?” I looked at him knowing it was a loaded question.
But as was our custom by now it would take us down a great road of discovery of ideas and thought. I quickly answered, “That’s easy bro. When someone you love tells you they love and cherish you.” He smiled and said, “That is a good answer. But what about when you do something for someone and you have nothing to gain but that person’s happiness?” I was blown away by the simplicity of his answer but also how much depth it had.
I replied, “That is pretty good amigo.” He smiled and said, “That my friend is God.” Such a great but to the point answer about the human condition were Ashish’s trademark. He made such an impact on me that when the course ended I cried as I took him to the airport.
Even now, 13 years later we still keep in-touch and his influence on me always brings to mind a saying he taught me in Nepali, “Jai Mahakali, Ayo Gorkhali” which literally translates to “Glory be to the Goddess of War, here come the Gurkhas!”
Robie, Razoo, and Kunal
Four years ago I was in the library at Camp Vance, Afghanistan and I ran into a young Soldier named Robie. He asked me if some he and his buddies could run with me in the morning. After the first session we got to talking to and I found out Robie’s dad was a retired Major in the 7th Duke of Edinburgh’s Own Gurkha Rifles.
We were joined by Razoo and Kunal two more Nepalese-American Soldiers whose fathers were retired Officers in the British Army. Over the last three months we hung out together we literally did hundreds of miles of running and rucking together, I got to know quite a lot about them.
Like Ashish, they are men of few words, preferring their actions to do their talking. When do they speak is usually to something profound or to ask me to speed up when we run together (this happens a lot). Both Robie and Razoo are Ranger and Special Forces Qualified today.
More than being great training partners they remind me of all the reasons I joined the army in the first place. Like Ashish with his quiet dignity and focused intensity I can see why John Masters held them in such high regard because they are “… the bravest of the brave, most generous of the generous,” Never has a man had more faithful friends.
Below is a picture of Ashish today:
Hastings, M. (2007). Warriors: Portraits from the Battle Field. New York : Vintage Publishing .
Masters, J. (1956). Bugles and a Tiger. New York City: Viking Press.