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Major (R) Surendra Poonia, VSM - The man behind the marathon (Soldierathon)
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Sumit Walia | Date:28 Feb , 2018 1 Comment
Sumit Walia
is an IT Specialist. He is also a military history buff who continues to explore & research various facets of the Indian Military history in his spare time.

Soldierathon – an initiative to bring a common Indian closer to his Armed Force. As explained earlier, it was a small idea suggested by President Dr Kalam and became a gigantic task for Major (R) Sunny Poonia – the man behind this super human effort.

But this is not his first such task.

There are so many lesser known heroes among us, this nation must recognize.Sunny is one such unsung national hero, who hailed from a small village of Rajasthan and went onto become a medical doctor, a Special Forces commando and an athlete – who won whopping 27 medals in World Medical Games (WMG) – where medical professionals from all over the world compete in the field of sports (but in a country where winning Gold medal in Olympics is the only bench mark of the performance, who cares about 27 Medals in WMGs). He took premature retirement but he still is one of the most highly decorated Majors of Indian Army.

His journey is an incredibly interesting story. But if you speak to Maj (R) Poonia, you will find a humble person who does not think that he did anything extraordinary. For him, he just kept moving forward in the line of duty –  be it a training ground or battlefield or an international championship.

I met him first when I was working on my article on the President Body Guard. Sunny was the Medical Officer of the regiment. I was in Lt. Col. Mahendra Singh’s (later Brigadier) office who was 2IC (Second-in Command) of PBG and his friend Maj (R) Ravi Rathod of 61st Cav (a well-known polo player of India) had come to meet him. Major Poonia entered the office to discuss some official matter and Ravi instantly said `look at this young officer, Sumit. He is one of the most highly decorated Majors of the Army`. And my eyes got stuck to Major Poonia’s breast pocket. All his medals, commendation cards and the Balidan Badge were speaking for himself.

Born in village Rajpura (Sikar, Rajasthan) on 1st January 1977 where his father, a humble farmer, still ploughs his land. After completing his initial education in JawaharNavodayaVidyalaya, Patan, Sikar, Sunny joined AFMC. His athletic career started accidently when he participated in a cross country race of around 12 KM in AFMC and secured second position. Everyone there was impressed by his performance. Dean of the college Gen Tutak and Sports Officers P.K Singh &RajbirBalwar (who later rose to become Maj Gen) took special interest in training him as an athlete. Sunny was given special diet, special training & extra medical care. Sunny proved his mettle by remaining `Best Athlete & Best Sportsman` of the year of AFMC for 4 consecutive years.

After completing his medical studies, Sunny got commissioned in Indian Medical Crops on 14th Aug 2001 and completed his internship in Military Hospital Ambala. Every medical officer of Indian Army has to go through a special course MOBC (Military Officer’s Basic Course). Sunny joined 154th MOBC of 170 officers.

Something happened in that 2 months long course that kick-started his Special Forces career.

During MOBC, in a party someone misbehaved with one of his friends,which led to an argument and Sunny & his friends were mistook as culprits. A complaint was lodged to the Base Commander Brig KBP Singh. Sunny & his friends were recommended to be punished with RTU (Return to the Unit). There could be only two reasons for RTU – either the candidate is seriously injured/unwell or on account of indiscipline. Sunny & his friends were to be sent to their units on the account of indiscipline, which would have caused an unbearable insult and a blot on the career. All 6 students requested Directing Staff to re-consider their case and accepted any punishment given instead of RTU. Giving them benefit of doubt, their request was accepted and a continuous cycle of rigorous punishment started.

To put an end to the daily torture, sunny came up with a brilliant plan. Punishment was being monitored by PT Ustaad- anextremely fit instructor from Army School of Physical Training (ASPT), Pune. Sunny challenged PT Ustaad to compete with him one on one. For first couple of days, PT Ustaad ignored his taunts but finally he fell in the trap and asked what Sunny meant. Sunny challenged PT Ustaad to beat him in any exercise of Ustaad’s choice –  be it push-ups, running, cross country etc. Taking the bait, the Ustaad selected 12.5 KM cross country race and spoke to the Directing Staff Col. Bhatt about it.

Sunny’s victory would mean end of punishment for his friends but his defeat would have brought harder punishment. When the race started, two bikers were leading the way to ensure that both participant stick to the defined route. Sunny allowed the Ustaad to take a lead & kept his strength saved for last leg of the race, during which Sunny picked up the pace & left PT Ustaadfar behind. Ustaad tried his best but could not cope up. Sunny won the race. DS staff was surprised butthe defeated Ustaad was so surprised that he refused to accept that Sunny was a medical doctor. He had not seen any doctor so physically fit in his life. Finally, with Base Commander’s approval, their punishment ended.

Base Commander was impressed with Sunny’s fitness. Being a para trooper himself, he advised Sunny to apply for Special Forces course. Sunny readily accepted but there was a problem. Sunny had his orders to join 6 Grenadier in Rajouri. CO of 6 Grenadierhas already sent a letter informing him that two officers from 6 Grenadier will receive him. Having a medical doctor with a unit in forward area is very important and no CO would want his Medic to let go.

Brig KBP Singh gave a Para Volunteer form and assured Sunny that he will take care of the posting orders. Sunny filled up the form & called CO of 6 Grenadiers to inform him about the change. An angry CO warned Sunny that if he failed the probation period of Para Special Forces and came to join 6 Grenadiers, he (sunny) will have toughest time of his life. Pat came a reply ` Sir, this will never happen. You will never see my facebecause I am going to join Special Forces for sure`.

True to his words, Sunny completed the training with flying colours and joined 2 Para SF and served in Siachen. Later, Sunny served with 10 Para SF and in an anti-terrorist operation in Bandipore in 2004, he saved 18 injured soldiers. He kept moving from soldier to soldier giving them medical assistance and saved all of them. No injured soldier died in that operation. He was rewarded with Chief of Army Staff’s Commendation card for gallantry – his first. Sunny received 4 such Commendation cards, other three were for the Distinguished service in field &in sports.

After serving for United Nations with 5 Para, Sunny got selected for oldest & most prestigious regiment of Indian Army – The President’s Body Guard.

A new chapter of his glory started there.

Sunny started preparing for World Medical Games. Without taking any help from anyone, he trained hard, bore visa & travel expenses and flew to Croatia to participate in WMG in 2010.

In his very first attempt, he bagged 1 Gold, 1 Silver & 1 Bronze medals. Being the only participant from India,who had no coach or helping staff, there was no one to click his photo while receiving his first gold medal. A fellow sportsman from another country came to his rescue and captured his glorious moment.

On coming back, he presented all three medals to the President Pratibha Devi Singh Patil, who was delighted & asked what her office can do to help him. Sunny requested to have a gym built in the President House. A world class gym with all facilities was then built in the Presidential Estate.

2010 WMG event that was just the beginning. Sunny went back again 2011, 2012, 2013 & 2015. He participated in power lifting, 800 m race, 600m race, 1500m race, 5000m raceand12.5 KM cross country race and won whopping 27 medals in total, which includes 11 gold medals. He is the first athlete to have won Gold medal in power lifting in 3 consecutive years and still holds the Limca Book record of most international sports medals won by any Indian doctor.

Year

Place

Gold

Silver

Bronze

2010

Croatia

1

1

1

2011

Las-Palmas, Spain

2

2

1

2012

Antalya, Turkey

2

5

2013

Croatia

3

2

1

2015

Limbrick, Ireland

3

2

1

On 26th Jan, 2012 he was awarded with Vishisht Seva Medal (VMS) – one of the youngest recipients of the prestigious award.

Soldier in him never died and even after retirement, he goes out to answer the call of duty. Be it helping people during the floods in Kashmir or arranging a marathon (Soldierathon) for security services’ personnel. Soldierathon proved as bigger task than army operations he participated in. Soldierathon is a noble task initiated to collect funds that would be spent to educate kids of martyrs (from Army, Air Force, Navy and para-military forces BSF, ITBP etc.) and on artificial limbs/rehabilitation of physically disabled soldiers. But raising funds for the noble task is more challenging than the COIN operations.

If you are in New Delhi on 11th March, 2018 please take out time to participate in Soldierathon, to Run Like A Soldier, Run With A Soldier And Run For A Soldier.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

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