Humble Tribute to a Courageous, Kind-hearted Gentleman

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My memory goes back to one of the most heart-rending and saddest moments in my life. I believe, it is my bounden duty to recall this horrific incident – the land mine explosion – on 10 June 1992 in Pooneryn which killed the Commanding Officer of the 4th Battalion Light Infantry, Lieutenant Colonel C.K.G. Punchihewa RSP and two officers (a Captain and an SLN Lieutenant), one Sergeant and causing severe injuries to two soldiers. 

On this fateful day, Naval Liaison Officer (NLO) who was attached to the Pooneryn camp in 1992, Lieutenant  Anjana Dissanayaka (posthumously promoted to the rank of Lt. Commander) visited my office a number of times for an appointment with the Commanding Officer 4 SLLI (CO), Lt. Col Chitra Punchihewa, to apprise him about the temporary pier which was constructed under his supervision at Kalmunai Point in the Pooneryn tongue; the pier was one of the alternative measures, to facilitate the troops’ movement and military supplies in the defensive zone in Pooneryn.

During this period, I functioned as an Adjutant – 4 SLLI. However, he could not meet the CO due to operational commitments at the time. Once again, he visited me around 9:30 a.m. and requested me to coordinate the meeting with him. This time around the meeting was duly arranged. Both had discussed the subject matter for nearly half an hour and then had decided to visit the pier at Kalmunai Point which was located nearly 10 KM to the NW direction from the battalion Tactical Headquarters.

The CO had instructed me to arrange the Land Rover Jeep which was allocated to the Artillery Gun Position located in the vicinity. This Gun Position was commanded by Lt. Jagath Bamunuarachchi (An Artillery Officer) who served as the Gun Position Officer (He died later due to a ‘traffic accident’ in 1996 when he was a Major). I arranged the vehicle with an escort comprising Corporal Asoka DM, Private Bandara WMM and Private Gunasena BHM (The Driver of the Artillery Gun Position) and parked it in front of the CO’s office.

At about 10:15 a.m., the CO came out of his office, saying ‘Are you ready’? to which I responded, ‘Sir, we are ready’. ‘Ok get in’ was his reply. He got into the vehicle by occupying the front seat of the Jeep while I was in the rear seat – right behind him. NLO, Anjana was sitting behind the driver’s seat facing my side and the rest of the seats were occupied by the team of escorts tactically by keeping a space for Capt Sarath Karunaratne (My batch-mate) who was serving as the Officer Commanding (OC) of ‘Charlie’ Rifle Company deployed in ‘Pooneryn Tongue’ covering Veddukk Adu and Kalmunai Point. His Company Tactical Headquarters was located nearly 7 KM to the NW direction from the Battalion Headquarters.

The jeep, on the instructions of the CO, moved towards the Main Entrance. When the jeep was getting closer to the main gate, I saw the Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM), WO1 Kotandeniyawa briskly approaching the gate. His body language indicated that he wanted to communicate something important to the CO. He saluted and greeted the CO; responding to his salute, the CO said, “Yes RSM”. The RSM said, “Sir the new Recruits are ready for your welcome address”. The CO got a little annoyed and inquired from me, “Jayanath, you could have kept me informed about this earlier”. I acknowledged only by replying “Sir” and kept quiet. I was wondering why the RSM had failed to inform me. However, later the RSM (We used to address him as ‘Mister’) confessed that it was due to an oversight on his part, and I stood by him because of his loyalty towards everybody who served in the battalion.

The CO then spent about half an hour addressing the new recruits and emphasised on ‘How to be disciplined in the Army’. Then, he left us at about 10:55 a.m. requesting me to take over from where he left. In my view, his speech was so unique in comparison to other speeches he had delivered previously. What was clearly noticeable was his emphasis on leadership traits, qualities, and styles of our great ancient Kings and words of encouragement to become brave soldiers; to serve and contribute to the nation as heroes.

One of the prominent gravel roads which runs up to the Kalmunai Point from Sangupiddy junction was in a dilapidated condition at the time. The area in general was covered with sand dunes on either side of the road compounded with an open terrain with shrubs and palmyra that provided a picturesque view. Hot weather with mild wind prevailed in the area. This road was motorable only for Four-Wheel Drive (4WD) vehicles, tractors, Armoured Personnel Carriers like Buffles and Unicorns. In certain places, these vehicles had to use detours to avoid depressions, hollows and holes on the road surface caused by frequent vehicle movements and inclement weather during the Southwest Monsoon.

The Land Rover Jeep carrying the CO, Naval Officer Anjana Dissanayake, two escort personnel and the driver reached Veddukk Adu area where the Tactical Headquarters of ‘C’ Rifle Company was established to pick up its Officer Commanding, Capt Sarath Karunaratne. His involvement was vital for the CO since Kalmunai Point where the pier was constructed comes under his command. At that point, all of them had reached the Kalmunai Point, where 2nd Lt. Kithsiri Ekanayaka served as one of the Detachment Commanders; this officer retired from the Army as a Major General last year. Kithsiri who welcomed them had given a ‘quick briefing’ covering his area. Thereafter, the CO and his entourage upon visiting the Pier had commended the ‘great job’ carried out by the Naval Officer, Lt. Anjana Dissanayake.

When we were having lunch in the Officers’ Mess at the battalion Headquarters, we heard a huge blast at about 1:15 p.m. The battalion 2nd In Command (2IC), Major Lanka Thalgahagoda – who retired as a Colonel – was much concerned over the explosion and asked me to rush to the Radio Room and verify what had transpired. All of us, including the 2IC rushed to the Radio Room. I contacted the ‘C’ Company Headquarters; the Radio Operator of this company told me that the sound of the explosion had come from the area where the CO and his team were moving.

Then, I contacted one of the Piquet Points – commanded by a Corporal – which was deployed for road security; the closest point where the sound came from. When I was talking to him, I found that this Corporal was in a state of panic. I asked him not to panic and to brief me the situation. Then, he told me that the Jeep which was passing that location, had got caught in an explosion emitting a thundering noise and its debris being scattered over the Palmyra tree tops. All of us were in deep shock and dismay to hear the bad news. We were so upset there was heavy silence among us for quite some time. All radio communications of the entire network maintained a dead silence owing this shocking news.

OC ‘B’ Rifle Company, Major Wsantha Weerakkody (who Retired as a Colonel) who rushed to the Battalion Headquarters, had been sent to the ‘blast site’ with an element of reserve troops by the 2nd In Command. Prior to his move, I told Wasantha to recover the CO’s Wedding Ring which he used to wear, always.  Wasantha coordinated the transportation of all the victims to Palaly by a Helicopter dispatched by the Security Forces Headquarters – Jaffna. According to information I received from Wasantha, the dead bodies were in a highly mutilated condition. However, he had managed to find the kinked Wedding Ring and one of the field ranks worn by the CO at the time of his untimely death; these were handed over to his beloved wife ‘Mrs Chintha Punchihewa’ on the day of the funeral; who was a lachrymose lady unable to control her tears. The CO was posthumously promoted to the rank of Colonel with effect from 10 June 1992.

Col Chithra Kaushaliya Gardiya Punchihewa was an exceptional military leader whom I met during my military career in the army. His well-balanced and pragmatic approaches to solve problems were very much effective and that was highly commended by everybody in the battalion. His insights and perspectives on strategic and tactical matters were exceptions. I was very much fortunate to hold two-unit line appointments – Adjutant and Intelligence Officer – under his command. His last ceremonial event which he attended with his beloved wife Chintha Punchihewa was my military wedding held at Ambepussa Rest House on 11 May 1992 – one month before his demise.

Born on 4 April 1954, he was educated at Isipathana Maha Vidyalaya, Colombo. He was enlisted to the Regular Force of the Sri Lanka Army as an Officer Cadet on 2 December 1974 and completed his officer cadet training successfully under the Intake 18 A at the Army Training Centre, Diyatalawa. Upon successful completion of basic military training, he was commissioned into 1st Battalion Sri Lanka Light Infantry on 2 October 1976 as a 2nd Lieutenant and subsequently promoted to the ranks of Lieutenant, Captain and Major. With the raising of the 3rd Battalion Sri Lanka Light Infantry, he was posted to this unit on 1 January 1986.

Having recognised his exceptional and illustrious service, he was appointed as the ‘2 in Command’ of 3SLLI and later posted as the Commanding Officer of 4th Battalion Sri Lanka Light Infantry on 30 April 1991 when this battalion was deployed in Mullaitivu. He commanded the battalion having displayed courage, bravery and great leadership qualities including excellent management skills. During one of the major offensive operations launched in Elephant Pass namely ‘Balavegaya’, I witnessed his professionalism on planning, organising, directing, supervising and monitoring of operational activities.

During his exemplary military career, he has successfully followed, Commando Course at Army Training Centre, Diyatalawa, Young Officers Course at the Infantry School, India and Junior Command Course at the College of Combat, MHOW, India.

He held a number of key positions to the entire satisfaction of his superiors; some of them were: Adjutant of 1 SLLI, Staff Officer (Grade 111) at the Coord. Headquarters in Vavuniya, Company Commanders in 1 SLLI and 3 SLLI, 2 in Command – 3 SLLI, Regimental Adjutant at the RHQ SLLI, Officer Commanding/Chief Instructor at Army Training School in Maduru Oya.

In recognition of his courage, honesty, loyalty and illustrious military service, he was awarded the Ranasura Padakkama, Sri Lanka Armed Services Long Service Medal, President’s Inauguration Medal, Purna Bhoomi Medal, and Vadamarachchi Campaign Medal.

His untimely death has created a void and an irreparable loss – not only for his beloved wife Chintha Punchihewa and two children but also to all in the Regiment, the entire Armed Forces and Mother Lanka. Finally, let me conclude this by quoting the last paragraph of the Special Part One Order issued by the Regimental Commander of the Sri Lanka Light Infantry in honour of this courageous and kind-hearted gentleman:

“Though you have departed from us your name and service shall be remembered by us forever as a great patriot and true son of Mother Lanka who has paid the supreme sacrifice for the country.”

“May he attain the supreme bliss of Nibbana!”

By Major General Jayanath Jayaweera