For 35 years, they fought wars. From the mangroves, deserts and savannas of troubled Africa states, they sweated, starved, bled and even watched colleagues die from the firing power of enemy forces in their bid to protect Nigeria and her strategic interests.
As they converged on the Muhammadu Buhari Hall of the Nigerian Armed Forces Resettlement Centre (NAFRC), Oshodi in Lagos for their retirement ceremony from the Nigerian military, 60 of the 342 retirees of Course 01/2020 could not hide their excitement.
The basis for their excitement was not far-fetched. Interactions with some of the retirees revealed that more than two-thirds of the total number enlisted died along the way. A greater majority was killed in different battles and, in most cases, they watched their colleagues gunned down by rebels but could not offer help as they had to take cover in order to stay alive and continue fighting.
For instance, of the over 1,000 Ratings enlisted into the Nigerian Navy (NN) Course One, it was gathered that just about 100 of them retired on that day. Similarly, the Nigerian Army (NA) recruitment of 1985 had over 750 entrants but 243 of them retired successfully after passing through the six-month reintegration to civil life training.
Their joy knew no bounds as they exchanged banter after the passing out parade. The soldiers saw their living the service in one piece as no mean feat, having faced vicious enemies from the United Nations, African Union (AU) and ECOMOG missions in Liberia, Sudan, Sierra-Leone, Congo, Senegal, Somalia and even in the war against militants in the Niger Delta and the guerilla warfare in northern Nigeria, among other insurrections.
Although quite a handful of them had visible scars suggestive of injuries sustained in operations, they had no regrets dedicating their youthful days in service to humanity.
In chats with some of the soldiers, they shared their near death experiences and how they never thought they could make it out of the military alive.
Among those who shared their experiences were Master Warrant Officer (MWO) Sunday Olateju; MWO Peters Adeshina; Army Warrant Officer (AWO) Idrees Sadam; Navy Warrant Officer (NWO) Vitalis Anyawu and NWO Nandon Dashe.
Olateju, who said of the 750 youths enlisted in the Nigerian Army in 1985, 243 of them made it to graduation.
“These 35 years are unexplainable because it is God that has been with me for so long,” he said. “I did not expect that I would live up to this year in the army, but because God has destined me to be here with endurance and discipline, I am able to scale through.
“There were many hurdles and a lot of things took place both within and outside Nigeria. There were times that thoughts of my colleagues’ death made me sad and sober. I can tell you we were 750 in 1985 when we joined the Army, but 243 of us graduated today. If you subtract the number from those alive, you would know that it was the grace of God that saw us through.
“There is no operation that is so good. I participated in the United Nations ECOMOG operation in Liberia, Sudan, Sierra-Leone and other countries, but the experience I can never forget was the fight against the Boko Haram sect in 2014.
“On a fateful day, Boko Haram members disguised as friendly forces by flying the Nigerian flag on their helicopter. Our commandant thought it was our colleagues who were coming to give us support. They landed behind us and released smoke bomb as they were landing to disrupt our visibility while they took over.
“When they took over, they started taking out our fire powers on the field and we were losing some of our people.
“But even in the face of that deadly confrontation, we did not chicken out. We had to fight with the last ounce of our blood. We did not give up until we were able to overcome them and they retreated.”
Adeshina, 60, who joined the Armed Forces at 23, said the journey was challenging but worthy.
Asked if he would encourage his children to join the army, he responded in the positive.
He said: “Yes, I will encourage my children to join the military and serve their country, but as commissioned officers.
“Of course, I have had near death experiences in the course of my career as a soldier. One I cannot forget was on January 15, 2015 at Kangarowa in the Lake Chad region.
Normally, the enemy attacked between 4pm and 8pm. So, if we were on the warfront, we always observed that time.
“That day, we saw them coming right from our observation post. Everybody got into the trenches. The attack was at close range, about 30 to 45 metres away. Then they started shelling. As they were shelling, they were advancing and we were returning fire.”
Also, Sadam said he encountered a lot of trouble moments, hardship, rainstorms and fireworks during his service year and was grateful to God he made it out peacefully.
He said: “I have fought several wars in up to four different countries in Africa. I know what I saw right from ECOMOG to Sudan, Mali, Liberian, Sierra Leone. I participated in all the wars and that’s why you see my medals. God in his infinite mercy saved me.
“I had close shaves with death in Sudan and Mali when they threw blizzards in our camp. Many people died in our camp but we came out of the situation.
“Also, in Sierra Leone, many people died in our camp when the rebels attacked. In fact, some colleagues of mine who were beside me died and some went missing.
“Today, I feel very great. I am very excited that it all ended peacefully and successfully after 35 years.”
Anyanwu, who was a Weapons/ Electrical Electronics Engineer in his 34-year career with the Navy, said he also fought several wars including the ECOMOG mission to Liberia, the Niger Delta militancy and the Boko Haram terrorism.
In his remarks at the ceremony, NAFRC Commandant, Air Vice Marshal (AVM) Kingsley Lar noted that the retirees deserved to be joyful, given the enormous sacrifices they made during their service years.
He said: “The military is a universally acknowledged profession which demands the full and total commitment of the soldier.
“Thirty-five years ago, the bulk of you took the oath to lay down your lives if need be and to go anywhere by land, sea or air as demanded by our country. You committed to 24 hours a day, seven days a week of active duty in protection of the sovereignty and strategic interests of this nation.
“This indeed is the highest sacrifice demanded of anybody, for there is no other sacrifice higher than that which required a man to lay down his life for the good of humanity.”
Source: The Nation