Sushmita Pandey’s greatest tribute to her late husband was joining his army regiment
On March 17, 2016, Major Neeraj Pandey, an Indian Army Signal Corps officer, died in a landslide. His company was deployed along the Indo-China border in Arunachal Pradesh as part of a counter-insurgency operation, Operation Rhino.
The greatest tribute to the brave officer’s legacy came when Sushmita Pandey, his wife, joined his regiment as an officer in 2018. She joined the Corps of Signals – the communications branch of the Indian Army military – just a week before the second anniversary of her husband’s death.
Sushmita belongs to a middle-class Brahmin family from Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh. Prior to her arranged marriage to Neeraj in 2010, she was a schoolteacher. Shortly after the wedding, the couple moved to Srinagar while posted there. Later he was transferred to Alwar, Rajasthan. Their son, Rudransh, was born there in 2013.
Neeraj was a family man. He used to tell Sushmita to be ready for any eventuality in life. But she only understood the true meaning of his words after his death. They last spoke on March 15, 2016, two days before he died.
Neeraj was only 32 when he died. He was then with an Assam Rifles unit deployed in Arunachal Pradesh. Areas of the state affected by militancy were the responsibility of his unit. Neeraj’s convoy was hit by a landslide in Cipra. He was mortally wounded and died a short time later.
Sushmita was then in Bhopal. Neeraj’s commander and his wife broke the news to him. She couldn’t believe it at first. She didn’t even cry. But she reluctantly accepted the truth and didn’t want Neeraj’s sacrifice to be in vain.
So, at age 31, Sushmita decided to join the army. His parents had doubts; they pointed out that it would not be easy for her to deal with Rudransh in military work. However, they gave him their full support once they saw his determination.
“She wanted to relive her husband,” says her younger brother, Shashank Tripathi. “It was certainly not an easy decision, but we gave him all the support he needed on his journey.” Moreover, Sushmita never wanted to be seen as a weak mother. She wanted her son to experience his father’s bravery through her.
Six months after Neeraj’s death, Sushmita appeared before the Service Selection Board (SSB). Prior to her SSB exams, she stayed with her brother in Delhi and underwent training. In 2017, she joined the Officers Training Academy (OTA), Chennai.
Physical training in OTA was difficult in the initial phase, but she was determined to go all the way. Sushmita was an athlete in school, but she gained weight after giving birth. During her training days, she lost almost 20 kg. “Her coaches at the academy told us she was on par with other cadets who were much younger,” Tripathi said.
During the first six months of training, she could barely talk to Rudransh, but she wrote him letters almost every day. He stayed with his parents in army accommodation in Delhi. In the latter part of her training, she managed to talk to him regularly on the phone.
The OTA training completely changed his shy and introverted nature. She is proud of her achievement, though she still carries the pain of Neeraj’s absence. Her colleagues and the Army community have been very supportive, she says.
Sushmita is now a Captain and is posted to the Military College of Telecommunications Engineering (Mhow) in Indore, Madhya Pradesh. Rudransh, 9, studies at the Army Public School, Mhow. She hopes her son will also follow in his father’s footsteps and join the military.