SLMA: The place which transforms cadets into resilient warriors | Daily News


71st anniversary of SL Army on October 10

SLMA: The place which transforms cadets into resilient warriors

Adjutant and cadets at parade
Adjutant and cadets at parade

The Sri Lanka Army, the defenders of our nation are about to celebrate their 71st anniversary on October 10. In this backdrop, it is important to recognize and appreciate the role and the task of the Sri Lanka Military Academy (SLMA) which is located in the salubrious green hills of Diyatalawa. This school has transformed young cadets into responsible officers and produced many General rank officers.

I have visited this academy on three occasions and gained deep insight into the academics and training of these cadets, who will rise to positions of authority in the service of this nation. The Military Academy was once a garrison of the British Army, who first settled here in 1885. The location and terrain had its own defensive advantage. It was later during the First Boer War that they made changes to facilitate the detention of prisoners of war. It is said there were 2,500 inmates held here during that era.

After the war, the British built the first Army Training Depot here and began to train soldiers. This tradition duly infused with pomp and decorum has continued since then with significant changes to suit the evolving needs of the military. Thereafter, in 1950, the Army Training Depot began to train other ranks. Ceylonese officers were sent overseas for training. In 1968, Major J.E.D. Perera (subsequently promoted to the rank of General) was entrusted with the task of establishing an officer training school.

The new local syllabus was a reflection of the officer’s course of the prestigious Sandhurst Military Academy, England - the cradle of the British Army. On January 10, 1981, the Sri Lanka Military Academy was raised under the motto “Serve to Lead”, to train cadets of the Regular and Volunteer Force. On successfully completing two years of extensive training, the robust cadets are commissioned at a passing out parade in the rank of Second Lieutenant (Regular Force). The reality of becoming an Army officer is a demanding challenge but when achieved it is a career with distinction. It requires confidence, character, intelligence and endurance.

Serving as a military officer is a lifestyle. It is one of the few jobs in the world that offers you a chance to defend your nation on the frontlines. Thankfully patriotic parents have willingly enlisted their sons and daughters, knowing the risks involved, especially during the three decades of conflict.

Enlisted cadets receive their first taste of military life as they enter the training grounds of the SLMA. During the training period, the intake is divided and cadets are attached to four companies, each under the command of an officer in the rank of Major. These companies are named after four prominent battles that took place in Sri Lanka, namely, Vijithapura, Gannoruwa, Randeniwela and Balana.

The battle of Vijithapura is steeped in history. According to Mahawamsa, the armies of King Elara were well entrenched in four fortresses, along with 24 other armed detachments. These forts were located at Mahiyangana, Thitthambha, Vijithapura and Mahela Nagara. They were under siege for four months. The troops of King Dutugemunu had prepared for a head on assault on the fortification of Vijithapura.

The king’s war elephant was used to ram down the massive door. Gannoruwa is a village in the Kandy District. In 1636, Portuguese forces launched their attack from the Fort of Attapitiya. They intended to capture Kandy. King Rajasinghe II was able to muster an offensive battalion of 15,000 troops. Before the encounter, a spell of rain rendered useless the firearms of the foreign army, reducing their effectiveness. The native battalion surrounded the troops of General Diego de Mello, and unleashed a counter attack that left behind only 33 Portuguese prisoners. General de Mello and his Captain Damio were both killed. This is one of the most successful battles in the history of Ceylon.

In close proximity to Wellawaya lies the village of Randeniwela. By 1628, the Portuguese had captured Batticaloa. They consolidated their defences by establishing forts in Malwana, Menikkadawara, Ruwanwella, Alawwa and Kuruwita. The coastal forts were in Jaffna, Mannar, Colombo, and Galle. The gallant Kandyan Army took up positions in Badulla. They defeated the Portuguese under the command of King Senarath. The pass at Balana (Yatinuwara) was of strategic significance. It was the key to Kandy and was guarded at all costs.

At Diyatalawa, new recruits are transformed mentally and physically. One of the first military requirements enforced on male cadets is a “crew cut” haircut. The new cadets begin their day around 4.30 am as the morning is still engulfed in a thick cold mist. After making their beds, they must get ready for physical training by 5.45 am. This lasts an hour. Exercising in this cold climate is a demanding routine. Breakfast is served at 6.45 am, after which they prepare for drill practice. During the first term, cadets must engage in a gruelling 5-mile run finishing the challenge in one and a half hours from the village of Beragala in full combat uniform carrying their rifle and a 3.5Kg pack.

As they progress to their second term, the cadets must demonstrate their physical prowess by completing a nine-mile run in two hours. When nearing the final segment of their training at Diyatalawa, they must endure a distance of 24 Km beginning from the Kalupahana Bridge. This challenge, which draws your energy, must be completed in three hours carrying a 10 Kg pack. In addition, the cadets are also subject to a Battle Obstacle Course and Battle Confidence Course. Apart from this, cadets are taught fieldcraft, military tactics and the use of firearms. They spend a lot of time with their books learning a range of academic topics. One of the new competencies for cadets introduced in the recent past is horse riding. There is a fully-fledged stable at the Military Academy where horses are kept in very healthy conditions, enjoying the lush green fields. The riding school was opened in 2013. The stables are nestled in a large paddock. A Staff Sergeant involved in the training process informed me that it takes a cadet almost one month to safely mount the horse and exert the right amount of control in keeping with military riding traditions. After three months, the cadets master all the equestrian skills with confidence. The horses add grandeur to the passing out parades held at Diyatalawa. Prior to every parade, the horses are taken two months before to the parade ground and taught to trot in formation, getting accustomed to the music of the Army band.

The grand day when cadet officers are ready to receive their commissioning is a day of honour and achievement. Families and friends converge on the quiet town of Diyatalawa. It is the culmination of a long and challenging transformation. The horse-mounted adjutant of the academy and his deputy, holding their swords enhance the decorum of the parade. The Army Commander is always present and the chief guests often include the President, Prime Minister and the Defence Secretary.

The cadets march into the parade grounds with their boots shining in the morning sunlight. All cadets receive a sword as the symbol of their commissioning from the Chief Guest. Awards are given for excelling in academics and marksmanship. At the end of the parade amidst resounding applause from their families, the newly commissioned officers of the Sri Lanka Army climb the steps of the famous Makara Thorana (arch) and proudly march off, for the final time from the same parade ground where they once learnt to march and salute. It is a beautiful sight to see the adjutant guiding his horse up the steps, solemnly making his exit behind the cadets.

Later on, the parents of the new officers take part in the decades-old tradition of the “piping” ceremony, where the officers’ stars (denoting rank) are pinned on to their shoulder epaulettes. The officers will be sent to respective regiments of the army including the Armoured Corps, Artillery, Infantry Regiments, Signals Corps, Commando Regiment, Military Intelligence Corps, National Guard, Special Forces, Military Police and Engineers Corps depending on service requirements. Every intake of officer cadets always remains in touch, even after their retirement. The transformation of a civilian into an Army officer is best captured in the words of American General Douglas Mc Arthur who said “A true leader has the confidence to stand alone, the courage to make tough decisions and the compassion to listen to the needs of others. He becomes a leader by the equality of his actions and the integrity of his intent”. The Sri Lanka Military Academy will continue to serve the Army with pride.