Two months ago, May 2, Major Anuj Sood, 30, company commander, 21 Rashtriya Rifles, made the supreme sacrifice for the motherland in a hostage-rescue mission in J&K.
As his grieving family grapples with their immense loss, they graciously share memories of the young major -- a husband, brother and son -- whose only calling was the fauj.
In the weeks after Major Anuj Sood was martyred along with his team in Jammu and Kashmir, his wife Aakriti has spent the days remembering him.
"I think of the good times we shared, sometimes you feel angry, sometimes sad -- I talk about the moments we had, the stories we shared -- and that brings happiness to me," Aakriti tells Rediff.com's Archana Masih over the phone from Bhatinda, Punjab, where she had gone to spend a few days with a friend who is married to an army officer.
"I have only started going through everybody's messages on my phone. The five martyrs touched everyone's heart and people express their gratitude -- that gives me strength."
The daughter of an Indian Navy marine commando, Aakriti had never intended to marry a man from the armed forces, but when the two met through a common friend at a Holi party in Pune three year ago, they just connected at a different level.
"I have never met two people who were genuinely meant to be together," says Major Sood's elder sister Shruti over the phone from Australia.
The pandemic prevented the family from grieving together and Shruti could only see her brother's funeral over a video call. "This disease has forced us to grieve remotely. It is hard. We take one day at a time," adds Shruti as she waits for flights to resume to travel home with her husband and two-year-old daughter.
"We lost our mother ten years back when Anuj was in his final term at NDA, we thought we have had one tragedy and we will not have another. We used to be worried about him serving in Kashmir, but he had done it for two years and his tenure had almost come to an end. But what has to happen, happens," Shruti says as she shares memories of her brother and a childhood spent across cantonments where their father Brigadier Chandrakant Sood was posted as an officer of the Indian Army's mechanical corps.
As a boy, Major Sood loved seeing the men saluting his father and there was nothing else he wanted more than a life in the olive green.
"The fauj was his calling. He always wanted to be an infantryman and had the fighter spirit. When I hear about the two-day operation, I keep thinking how brave he was," says Shruti.
"The army meant everything to him. I wish I had that kind of passion for my job. It was good to see someone truly love what they were doing," adds his wife, Aakriti.
Major Anuj Sood along with his Commanding Officer Colonel Ashutosh Sharma, Naik Rajesh Kumar, Lance Naik Dinesh Singh and Kashmir police officer Shageer Qazi Pathan were martyred in a hostage rescue mission in Handwara, J&K, on May 2.
A day before his encounter with terrorists, Major Sood had spoken to his wife and sister on a group call. Major Sood had told them he was in the middle of making atta halwa for his men to celebrate the unit's Raising Day.
That afternoon, the band of five men set out for the operation against terrorists in a village in the Rajawar forest, North Kashmir. They entered the house to rescue a family and sacrificed their lives in the line of duty.
"We can't replicate the bravery the five martyrs showed that day, no one can. It takes immense courage to be able to put your country before anyone and anything else," says Aakriti.
"I know he would want me to be strong through this. It is my way of honouring him. I get my strength from him," she says.
That morning, the couple had spoken of everyday things that husbands and wives talk about. Major Sood told her that his salary had been transferred and they discussed the new appliances they needed to buy for the house in Gurdaspur where Aakriti was to join him in a few weeks.
"Anuj was the planner. Since he had been posted to Gurdaspur, we had literally planned the next one-and-a-half years, day by day and month by month," says Aakriti with a pause. "It will take some time to change those plans."
Before setting out for the operation, he texted her that they were going on a mission and he would text her on his return. It is a routine followed by men in uniform to their wives and loved ones. Aakriti would often receive these texts at work or at home or while driving and she would wait to hear from him on his return, always worried till she did.
On May 2, she was in Dharamsala with her parents and grandparents. Worried about the long hours without any word from her husband during the day and night, she kept looking at her phone and sent messages to his phone that was switched off.
At 8 am on May 3, she got the call that no army wife wants to receive.
"It is a call that we all fear, but somewhere in our minds, we are mentally prepared that this could happen. When you marry an army officer you know this."
Colonel Ashutosh Sharma's wife, Mrs Pallavi Sharma has been a pillar of strength. United in grief as they come to terms with the loss of their husbands, they talk often and draw support from each other.
"The unit is a close-knit family. Till date they are supportive and I know they are genuine. I feel Anuj knew at the back of his mind that I would be taken care of by our family that includes the regiment as well. That's why he was confident to take the step that he did," she says.
Hailing from a family with deep roots of service in India's armed forces, it is unfortunate that no one in the Union government has called Aakriti or Major Sood's father, Brigadier Sood.
Except for Anurag Thakur, the Union minisyer of state for finance who is known to the family. The Union home minister sent a routine demi official letter that is sent to next of kin of martyrs.
A letter sent from a Haryana MLA referred to Major Anuj Sood as 'Alok', while Maharashtra, where the martyr lived and where his Aadhar card is registered has not made any effort to reach out to the family.
Major Sood's family initiated an online petition last month demanding that elected officials should send a letter to the next of kin of martyrs pertaining to their sacrifice.
There needs to be national protocol legislated by Parliament which lays down duties of citizens. including public administrators, representatives of the public on how to behave with martyrs because they are special people, says Brigadier Chandrakant Sood (retd), Major Sood's father.
"They are the only special people in this country, or in any country," says Brigadier Sood, who has been trying his best to ensure that the jawans who were martyred alongside his brave son are given their due.
"The entire armed forces fraternity feels the political class and bureaucrats make political potatoes out of martyrs. They make announcements to the press and expect the next of kin of martyrs to go running around after them," the brigadier says in anguish.
"Martyrs don't need rhetoric, they need respect."
Feature Production: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com