Inside the sailors domain | Sunday Observer

Inside the sailors domain

18 August, 2019

The Sri Lanka Navy continues her role as the islands first line of defence. Within the naval ranks are women sailors who serve with dignity and decorum. How does a young woman become a disciplined sailor? To find out more I visited the training base at SLNS Thakshila, located at Welisara. This is one of three bases located within a massive naval cantonment.

On entering the parade ground a group of recruit trainees were engaged in drill- marching in formation to the sharp commands of a female drill instructor, Petty Officer Premila Senarathne. In the navy the drill instructor (DI) is identified by a silver chain that is worn across the uniform, knee high black boots and their trademark black drill stick. The recruits learn how to salute, present arms and march at various paces.

On the far right a male drill instructor, sporting the text book naval beard was watching the recruits. This Petty Officer embodied the total naval expression of what it means to be a robust sailor. His voice thunders across the parade ground as he closed the training session. The sound of heavy boots marching back and forth resonated and halted on the parade square.

Shortly we were introduced to the division officer in charge of this training intake Lieutenant Inoka Damiyanthi. She explained “Women recruits are given the same training as their male colleagues. They undergo the same academic syllabus. These young women come from all parts of the country. Within a few days they become friends, and during the period of training they depend on each other. My fellow instructors monitor and encourage the naval trainees as they adjust and rapidly adapt to this new experience”.

By now the parade ground is cleared. After breakfast the young ladies are ready for academic sessions. In this phase of training there is no walking to class- recruits carrying their black bags must run to classrooms at a pace like that of a trotting horse. This is how the civilian mindset is gradually transformed to a rigid but productive military career.

Petty Officer Premila Senarathne is more than a drill instructor. She is also a qualified weapons instructor. She said “New recruits begin their day at 5.15 am with a round of physical training. Under the guidance of the PTI they slowly build up their endurance. During the six months of training the physical fitness is improved. The young women do their first endurance march- 14 kilometres wearing full battle dress and carrying their rifles. Endurance marches are a fine manifestation of team work- as the girls encourage each other and move forward”. After the morning classes finish recruits go for lunch. This is followed by another session of learning. By 3.45pm the women engage in sports. Here their individual talents are monitored and those who excel can join the respective naval sports teams on completion of training. After dinner they must polish their boots and iron their uniforms. During the night there are inspection rounds carried out by the officers. By 10.30 pm its lights out for the aspiring recruits.

As the training progresses the young women are given their first chance to handle a weapon. They will learn and master the T-56 rifle, T-81 rifle, sub machine guns and light machine guns. Attired in new digital print camouflage uniforms they go to the firing range. Under the watchful eye of an officer they fire at targets. The odor of smoke permeates the air, as rounds are emptied from the rifle magazine. During boot camp they will also be taken to dense jungles and camp for a few days. Here these girls who once depended on the safety of their fathers and brothers will now learn to survive and leave the jungle as fearless independent women. Their skills are augmented with a basic course in seamanship at Trincomalee.

On successful completion of their training these indomitable young ladies will be able to serve the motherland in various naval job designations such as- communicator, nurse, musician, naval provost, supply, information technology, physical training instructor. They will be deployed to serve at naval shore establishments across the island.

During the years of conflict the navy did a silent service in keeping the sea lanes safe and thereby sustaining a steady supply of food to the civilian population. For decades women in the navy have worked shoulder to shoulder with their male colleagues. For these mostly rural young women their naval training is a platform to a new life. It is an opportunity to prove themselves as formidable warriors induced with an iron will. Within a few months these raw recruits will proudly march off the parade grounds into a bright naval future.