September 26, 2020: A Lt Colonel who was the second-in-command of an artillery regiment in Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh, died in his sleep the day he was to go on 30-days’ leave to his hometown.

September 17: A Colonel attending the Higher Defence Management Course (HDMC) at College of Defence Management, Secunderabad, Telegana, suffered a sudden cardiac arrest while seated in the class room and died.

September 14: A Lt Colonel died in his sleep at his house in Zirakpur, Punjab. He had been on study leave for the past two years and died on the day that he was to join his new posting in an artillery brigade in Ambala.

At least six Army officers of the rank of Lt Colonel and Colonel have died in the month of September due to sudden cardiac arrest. All of these officers were in their early to mid-forties. While the deaths have brought into sharp focus the fitness standards of the Army and the quality of medical examinations they undergo regularly, it also highlights the unsaid phenomenon of the unusually high amount of stress that mid-level Army officers face while in service. All the six cases of sudden deaths which have come into notice are from varied stages of their careers. The Colonel who died while doing the HDMC course was an upcoming officer as the course is very highly rated and professionally sound officers with an upward curve of career profile are selected to attend it.

Work pressure
Serving officers say the pressures that entail keeping a high profile are very severe, given the tough competition in the Army to get promotions. Such is the focus on attaining good gradings in courses such as these, that some officers hire private tutors to help them get ahead. The second-in-command of the regiment who passed away would also have been in a high pressure job given the paucity of officers in each unit.

Shortage of officers
“Shortage of officers is also a big issue. We often see that a maximum of ten officers are posted in a unit against an authorisation almost twice that number. Out of the ten, take out the CO and two junior-most Lieutenants and the entire work load comes onto three or four officers as some may be away on leave and some on a course. But that does not mean the CO has no work pressure. Unnecessary correspondence, higher headquarter tasks coupled with zero error syndrome makes the CO’s life tough too,” said a serving officer requesting anonymity.

Poor fitness
However, a former Army Commander said poor fitness levels of individual officers were responsible for their state of health. “In my opinion the fitness standards of officers in the 10-12 years service bracket are highly suspect. There was a high rate of failure of officers in physical efficiency tests during my tenure and majority failures would pass after they were issued warnings. Physical standards need to be strictly enforced and physical tests should be organised properly,” he added.

A serving officer said that the spate of deaths due to heart-related conditions has brought the focus on excessive stress and strain of military service which is universally recognized but often brushed under the carpet in India.

Experts say that even regular life in the military puts additional stress on health. Giving an example, a senior serving officer points out that even officers of non-combat arms spend almost half of their service in field areas away from family and when they are posted in so-called “peace” conditions, life still remains unsettled.

“For example, on an average, there are three changes of accommodation in a two and a half year peace tenure, then there are unrealistic expectations in high pressure appointments. On top of this, due to the long hours in offices and duty, some officers are unable to follow a proper exercise regime,” the officer said.

The 2019 controversy on disability benefits

A controversy had erupted in 2019, when the Army’s top brass had cast aspersions on grant of disability benefits to serving personnel on account of what was termed “lifestyle diseases” and “fake disabilities”. The statement had come under sharp criticism from medical experts as well as veterans. A recently retired Lt Gen of the Army, on the condition of anonymity, said that a top officer had even written a demi-official letter to senior retired officers using “distasteful” language against disabled retirees and had alleged that there was a recent trend to claim disability benefits for such disabilities.

The author of the letter had also reproduced data to show increase in disability cases. The Lt Gen, however, added that though he was earlier convinced about the facts reproduced in the letter, it was after retiring that he discovered that disabilities such as hypertension, heart diseases and slipped discs were already covered under the rules for compensation and were listed as disabilities related to ‘stress and strain of military’ since the 1930s, and there was nothing wrong in releasing benefits to such cases.

He further said he had discovered that the data in the letter was in fact the same which was used by the defence accounts department in the 7th Pay Commission and which was shot down by the then Army chief and defence minister. The data was also skewed since the increase in disability benefits was due to a retrospective change in policies by the defence ministry to remove certain anomalies.

The General added that he was saddened that while in service, he could not see through the “factually incorrect and unethical tirade” against disabled personnel and that the percentage of disabled soldiers was actually much lower in India as compared to other armies.
An Army medical expert, when contacted, remarked that he expected that the causes of deaths are investigated and steps are taken to lower stress levels in serving personnel.