Veterans of Indian Army Special Forces, Para Commandos and the Naval Marine Commandos (MARCOS), also known as the ‘Gods of Combat’ have come together in an attempt to create the world’s first ‘Triple Elemental World Records’ encompassing the domains of land, air, and water, by people with disabilities.
The first world record attempts will involve scaling the world’s highest battlefield at Siachen Glacier, one of the harshest terrains on earth, in May this year with the largest contingent of 20 people with disabilities comprising ex-servicemen and civilians. The other two records to be attempted will involve accelerated free fall i.e., skydiving in Dubai for an air world record, and the third would be underwater scuba diving world record in the sea waters off Maldives.
The Special Forces veterans team has set up an organisation called ‘Conquer Land Air Water’ (CLAW) and launched ‘Operation Blue Freedom’ in 2019 to bring back people with disabilities into the mainstream by assisting them in recognising their capabilities and enabling them to contribute to society. It aims to shatter the common perception of pity, charity and inability associated with ‘disability to provide dignity and ability to earn livelihood and freedom.
CLAW works on skills such as skydiving, scuba diving, mountaineering, and all-terrain survival amongst others, to train and rehabilitate the disabled. These adventure sports and activities are therapeutic that make them fit enough to attempt unthinkable feats of creating world records in land, air, and water. People with disabilities are being trained hard in adaptive scuba diving, skydiving, and mountaineering programmes to set Triple Elemental World Records.
“There are a lot of war veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and amputations in the western world where it is a recognised therapy for them where they go for scuba diving. But this concept doesn’t exist in India. That is the reason why we started this initiative which is a good rehabilitation for battle casualties and war-wounded people. It is also about employment for the retiring Special Forces personnel,” informed Major Arun Prakash Ambathy, a former paratrooper from Parachute Regiment and the Co-Founder, CLAW.
Recounting the experience and journey about ‘Operation Blue Freedom’, the veteran said, “All through this journey, we saw the exponential potential of these therapeutic skill sets. There are numerous stories of the powerful impact on people with disabilities and tremendous transformative experiences after undergoing training. There are phenomenal physiological changes which we started observing in people with disabilities because this is very therapeutic for them.”
CLAW also provides employment opportunities since instructors, with disabilities, are employed for imparting the skills. There are also other job profiles of commercial diving which are developing into livelihood modules, the officer observed.
From Destruction to Humanity
The group led by Maj Vivek Jacob, a veteran of Indian Army’s Special Forces, who himself had suffered a spinal cord injury during a combat skydive in 2015, said a chance meeting with an IAF officer, paralysed from his waist down, inspired him to set up CLAW. The IAF officer asked him if he could help him, scuba dive, in spite of being paralysed. Maj Vivek made a promise to the officer; a promise that became the purpose of his life thereafter: help reskill and rehabilitate ‘persons with disabilities. The officer took voluntary retirement and embarked on a journey to realise the dream. Soon, others he had worked with, and those who shared his vision, also joined him.
“There are about 12 crore people with one or more disabilities. But we don’t see them often because they live within the challenges of our society. The idea is to give every disabled person the opportunity to do something that they want to do,” said Maj Jacob.
CLAW has now started a scuba training centre for people with disabilities in Pondicherry. “It has given tremendous hope and healing power to many who have come. The idea is to spread it further,” Major Jacob said, adding that the organisation has trained more than 100 people with disabilities in four cities. It is also in the process of formally tying up with the Paraplegic Rehabilitation Centre (PRC) of the Army in Pune and Chandigarh for institutionalised training.
Talking about the journey so far, the veteran said it was very difficult to sell the idea to people. “We started with no money; nothing practically. We didn’t take external funding. We were helped by our friends and families, who have helped us reach this far. Simultaneously, our concept was evolving. We realised, we can make a difference with peoples’ lives and this was just the beginning,” the veteran said.
The group aims to mainstream the mind-set that Special Forces and people with disabilities share too: Survive, Stabilise and Thrive in hostile environments. “When we were in the Special Forces – we’re the Gods of Combat! There was nothing beyond us. Wherever you sent us we would destroy anything, we could knock off every opposition. The entire mind-set and energy were focused on destruction. That destructive ability was to protect our nation. So, it was just a choice that we made and switched the application of our energy out from destruction and channelized it towards the humanitarian,” explained Maj Jacob.
His parting shot was: “The idea is to see ability in disability.”
By Ravi Shankar