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22nd November 1998

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Soon to receive University status, the Military Academy at Diyatalawa aims to produce quality officers

An officer and a gentleman

By Tharuka Dissanaike

A group of young soldiers came huffing up the hill. Armed with T-56 automatics they flung themselves down on the grassy bank and waited for the burst of gunfire that signalled the next round.

"Who is your leader?," bellowed a burly Officer.

He had to repeat the question several times before a tentative hand went up and a fresh faced youngster said,

"Here sir."

"Your timing is not good. Five minutes and 27 seconds. Very bad. You're supposed to get here in five minutes. How can you hope to win tomorrow's competition like this?" the officer asked, shaking his head.

In the next moment the entire clearing exploded with the crackling burst of an automatic weapon. That was the signal. As the last echoes died down, the cadets began their own shooting. Running, ducking behind makeshift covers, aiming at balloons strung atop wooden poles as targets, they made their way to the far end of the firing range where more difficult targets had to be put down. The noise was deafening.

The soldiers, in their muddied green camouflages were practising for a shooting competition the next day in the pine forested surroundings of Fox Hill, Diyatalawa.

Training: not just fighting: strategic planning too.Their colleagues who had done their training for the day were resting at the other end of the shooting range. Some were hungrily tucking into lunch packets-using cutlery, -not their fingers-others were lying flat on their backs chewing grass, brooding over the dark rain clouds that had gathered overhead.

New recruits, freshers they are called, dressed in back-to-school white shirt and shorts were helping out by blowing the balloons which were used as targets.

Nestled in pinus forested slopes below Haputale, the Sri Lanka Military Academy at Diyatalawa is well known for its picturesque location. The Academy is also known for producing many men and women of superior quality as officers of the Sri Lankan Army.

Today recruits are taken in after they complete the A/L exam with three passes. But once they get University status the academy will only recruit students with 4 A/Ls, said Lt. Col. Milinda Peiris, CO of the Academy.

The raw young men, just out of school, bursting with energy and enthusiasm are progressively moulded into the Academy's vision of a "Perfect Officer."

"An officer and a gentleman," Lt. Col. Milinda Peiris said.

"We want them to excel in military manoeuvres and academics. We train them to be exemplary leaders."

Their first six months are devoted entirely to English language training, a British Council course which will teach the youth to write and speak correct English.

"The standard of English in our schools is a major setback,' Lt. Col. Peiris said.

"We have to basically start from scratch in most instances.'

Meal breaks: still with colonial fork and spoonThe cadets do not merely learn war. Their subjects include peace time administration, military and civil law, computer science and current affairs. They also learn to socialise and develop other interests. Various club activities keep the cadets occupied after 6 pm. Photography, golf, nature studies, music and computers are some. The officer cadets' mess has a bar where the youth cash in their monthly allowance for liquor, a dance floor which is used at graduation night and the long dining hall, which is laid out with all appropriate cutlery and glassware at every meal.

Even out in the firing ranges of Fox Hill the cadets do not forget their table training to use cutlery.

The men pass out as Second Lieutenants, polished and poised. No longer gawky boys from rural backgrounds, the cadets are now fit to command a platoon of around 30-35 men in battle.

They will know to order cocktails and which wine goes with fish. They will be able to play a round of golf and discuss the state of the American economy. More importantly, they'll have skills that would come handy in peacetime, when the war is no more.

Preparing them better for life

The Academy was es- tablished as a training centre for the Army Recruit Training Depot in 1950, and the officer training facility in 1968. The main course of study at the Academy is two years in duration and very Military oriented.

The Academy is on the verge of receiving University status from the University Grants Commission. With this, they will be allowed to issue a BSc degree in Defence Studies.

Slight changes have been effected in the syllabuses to raise the status of the academy to that of a University. In addition to the military subjects cadets are also taught subjects like history, current affairs, sociology, general science, management and human resources and economics. The students are also given an intense grounding in English and a working knowledge of Tamil. In addition the Academy takes in volunteer force cadets, women officer cadets, graduates from the Kotelawala Defence Academy for weapons and tactics training.

A new batch is taken in every six months. The size of the batch varies according to requirement. The women are trained for just one year at present.

They come from all walks of life, from all areas of the country. Officer Cadet S.D Premaratne, 21, is from Galle. We met him, toting a gun in battle fatigues as he prepared to practise his aim at Fox Hill.

"I wanted to join because of other school friends who came into the Academy," said the swarthy-complexioned young man. He said he appreciates the English language training they get during the first six months of the training course.

Another cadet with very good A'Level results, opted for the academy instead of University. He said the Academy prepared them better for life. In fact Major Ananda Rajapakse, who accompanied us to Fox Hill encouraged the cadets to answer questions in English.

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