December 4 is Navy Day. Vice Admiral Satish Soni, Flag Officer Commanding in Chief, Southern Naval Command, speaks about his career and the Navy

Like any middle class young boy in the late 60s, just out of school, only a few roads opened up before Satish Soni. A brilliant student from the famed Punjab Public School, Nabha (Punjab), widely considered a feeder school of the Defence Services, Satish took the ‘road less travelled’ by anyone in his family and one that a large number of students from this school had traversed before. And what a difference it made!

Looking back at that choice Vice Admiral Satish Soni, Flag Officer Commanding in Chief, Southern Naval Command, considers making that choice a ‘true blessing;’ a right decision.

“I didn’t know then that the National Defence Academy (NDA) was the best choice. I took up whatever came up first. But the youngsters today have varied options. NDA was tough but interesting too. We then came to the first training squadron. The first six months on INS Delhi and the next six on the old INS Tir. When I was commissioned I won the Sword of Honour. You have your lows and highs, but what finally matters is how you perform and how you contribute later on in service,” says Admiral Soni, who also served as Commandant NDA.

Few aspirants

Even today, comparatively, there are very few youngsters from the State who aspire for a career in the Services. The reasons for this are manifold. “I don’t have the statistics, but yes, I think more people from the North join the Services. It could be related to the density of population in different states, it could be linked to the job opportunities available, it also could be historical or traditional.”

The Admiral also felt that the Services ought to change its approach. “I feel we are not reaching out to the public in a manner that we should in all the states equitably. There is this place Jhunjhunu in Rajasthan where every family has two or more people in the Services. It is a tradition there. I think we must endeavour to get more publicity in the villages about what we are, what we stand for and what we offer.”

Perhaps the disinterest shown by youngsters today towards the Services can be attributed to this. “I tried to motivate my son to join the Services but he chose to become an investment banker. The young generation doesn’t realise the quality of life in the Services. However hard we try we cannot sell the intangibles. There’s so much camaraderie, loyalty, the kind of friends you make. I think it happens only here. The job is like that. We work as a team; there are no deadlines to make money. It’s all about achieving something together. The gains of this career cannot be quantified.”

The Admiral’s decorated career is wrought with numerous challenging experiences. “For us in the Navy, such moments are those we spend at sea,” says this specialist in Navigation and Aircraft Direction. “One experience that will remain etched in my memory is when I was asked to travel to the erstwhile USSR to commission the ocean going minesweeper INS Kakinada. I must have been just 30 then, you are in command for the first time. We spent some time in Riga to learn about the ship and equipment. We sailed through the Kiel Canal, the English Channel, the Mediterranean, the Suez Canal and the Arabian Sea to Vizag. We went through challenging moments, bad weather; tricky situations. That’s when you are on the edge but need to show that you are calm.”

On another assignment, when he was asked to accept the lead ship of the Talwar class from St. Petersburg as recently as 2003, the challenge was different. “It was in many ways a very special ship. For the first time we were getting an absolutely state-of-the art, top of the line equipment. The challenge was in accepting a ship that was notches higher than what we had earlier.”

Coastal security is another challenge for the Navy. In the last four years or so the Coast Guard and the Navy have been putting in a lot of effort to improve the country’s coastal security. “It has been a success, though we still need to do more. Acquisition of various systems and putting them in place takes time. There is need for coordination between the many departments which is also tough. We have taken the initiative to involve everyone, every department, including local fishermen. We have, in fact, just completed a combined coastal security exercise off the Kerala and Lakshadweep coasts. It has been fruitful.”

Another initiative that the Admiral is keenly pursuing is the Naval Regimental System. The Navy has been providing support to widows and dependents but felt the need to institutionalise a support system akin to the Regimental System in the Army. “The aim is to reach out to each and every family of our colleagues. We will be there to guide, help and take care of the widows and dependants. Our office in Kochi has so far traced and reached out to 870 widows across the State and would be happy to get information about anyone else who may need our help and support.”

Besides ensuring completion of all paper work to get them their entitled dues, efforts are made to help them tide over other difficulties as well. “We can say with pride that once you are in the Navy we take care of you and your family. If you cannot reach out to us we’ll reach out to you. Which corporate would do this? When they set targets to make more money every quarter, we set a target of helping more dependants for none of them should go without assistance,” winds up Soni with a firm handshake and a warm smile.