Sir, Should I join the Armed Forces ? A common question posed by young medical students of a certain premier medical school! Many answers, tough decision, dilemmas…. for parents and the young doctor (to-be) alike

This write up is by my much loved batchmate Surg Cdr (Dr) Vivek Kumar, Navy Veteran (MD Internal Medicine and Intensivist) , presently Chief Intensivist at the Sir HN Reliance Foundation Hospital Mumbai.

Reproduced with his permission , and narrated suitably by his friendly neighbourhood Sp…. I meant batchmate.

It was originally published in the Dhanvantari issue of 2016 ( Page 119 ).

It has always been a pleasure for Vivek to write for ye olde College magazine, and if I remember correctly, he was also the student editor nearly three decades ago, a post I would have loved to have held, however other pastimes beckoned (said with a devilish cackle, please note). There are many stories which could come easily to his mind instantly, however that time around he wrote on the most common question that was posed to him over the few years that he was posted on the Faculty of Dept of Internal Medicine at the Armed Forces Medical College, Pune. This is a question that was oft asked to me too, when I was shouldering the responsibility of making sure that 95% of the kids stayed out of trouble (the classic bell curve, remember?). Just as an aside, among the many hats I wore while at AFMC, I was also the custodian of the morale of the boys. Not moral-s.

And the question is simply , To be or Not to be! Well, actually, the question is “Should I join the Armed Forces or not?”

At this point of time, let me just add a little bit of info which you already would know…. there are many AIIMS across India now, premier or aspiring to be, run by the Govt, autonomous, having equally high medical education standards and facilities, having a much higher subsidy per student, with low (low) fee structure, negligible living expenses, and Yes, wait for it…. No Bond, or Govt service liability of any form………. I will not state the obvious info you already know about AFMC

Vivek has seen many students take a well-thought of decision in this matter and also an equal number who just tagged along with the decision of their friends. Like all processes in today’s corporate world, decision making is a structured process and in his original article , Vivek suggested a way to go about making a career choice.
In 2015 when he was approached by an International recruitment firm for the post of Consultant, National Health Service, United Kingdom. he had to prepare for an interview and it was while doing so he realized how systematic the NHS team was in assessing candidates for recruitment. While preparing for the interview he had to go through a standard set of questions, at the end of which he realized that making a career decision is a structured decision making process and not a series of chat sessions at the College Canteen.
An interview usually starts with “Tell us about yourself” followed by “Take us through your CV”. This is followed by the obvious question “Why do you want to join this trust?”, “Why should we give this job to you?”, “What can this trust offer you?”, “How will you contribute to the trust?”, & “Why did you quit your last job?” In answering these few questions you speak about yourself and your work but more important about your resolve to join a new organization and how you will align your career plans with that of the trust. This single question “Why do you want to join this trust?” sets you thinking. Vivek had to open a diary and keep writing points as they crossed his mind. For someone who was more used to writing up case notes and giving orders , this opportunity for introspection apparently set him on the path to liberation. This, at a stage of his life when he had completed 22 years of commissioned military service and two years of private practice in a corporate hospital. He had never gone through this exercise before, or even spent 5 minutes on pondering over any similar issue at any time in his life.

Vivek could remember our batchmates of Z who had moved out to civvy street by coughing up the required Bond money, a couple of lakhs in rupees in the early Nineties in India, was still a lot of money. – For some, the decision was part of the patriarchal hierarchy and for others it was a default decision reached at, by a process of exclusion, i.e. excluding the option of joining the Forces. If you spend time pondering over this question it will become clear that you need to have a good knowledge about the organization, a fundamental flaw with all of us whether we join or do not join the Forces. Our knowledge of the Indian Armed Forces or the British or American health systems is paltry and most of it is anecdotal, based on hearsay, or watching TV serials. As far as the Armed Forces Medical Services was concerned, Vivek’s knowledge at the time of his Commissioning was limited to that about AFMC, a few establishments, some ranks, availability of liquor, sixty days of annual leave, and the options for post-graduation.

As an afterthought, Vivek commented candidly, that he spent 22 years in an organization that he had joined based upon this limited mostly hearsay knowledge!

And when he was preparing for the NHS interview he had to read up a lot about the organization, the hospital he was planning to join, their future plans, the job requirements, besides being clear about his own career and life plans.

A proper answer to this single question (“Should I join or not”) will definitely clear your understanding of any system that you wish to join. Because , it is a system that you are joining, any which way that you look at it… irrespective of location in the world.

The basis of your decision to join a new organization has to be very clear, e.g. “NHS is a leading health care delivery system, it will give me a platform to excel in my field, it is a fulfilment of a dream to be part of an evolved medical system, and so on”.

Similarly you should write down the points you feel are for and against your decision to join the Forces. This process can start in the First Term and culminate after the IX Term results. At no stage should your career options compromise your academic performance. No slacking please! The desire to excel must outplay all career choices. Your first goal must be to achieve merit in all subjects, and gain knowledge through reading (of books and journals as relevant). Once you have achieved this goal you can go ahead and navigate through your list of pros and cons about joining the Forces.

The next set of thought provoking questions for Vivek was “Where do you see yourself in five / ten / twenty years from now?” But then he was always an ambitious bloke…. for me, I am quite happy seeing the future just in five year instalments.

Vivek, with refreshing candour admits that he had never thought on these lines when joining the Forces in 1991. Indeed one has to sit down and look ahead at life from a different perspective. Our future vision usually ends at post-graduation or a speciality examination. We all suffer from short foresight and very long hindsight. He suggests imagining yourself in a workplace of your choice ten years down the line. He assures you that this visualization is a totally different experience. He wished that he had imagined himself in specialist appointments outside the protective and insulated (and insular) cloak of the Forces. The reality is that there are numerous avenues and opportunities outside the cocoon and in the Medical Corps is different for those posted to AFMC versus those posted to other medical establishments within the Forces, and between the IAF, IN and Army its all too dissimilar too.

You must have an idea of how life is for those working in medical & non-medical units, not just the romanticized Technicolour version, but the daily grind. Before Vivek’s NHS interview the interviewers had sent a brochure which described a day in the life of a Consultant in his speciality, the call duty rotation, the leave programmes, familiarizing him with the job requirements and expected lifestyle. Similarly you should be familiar with the working schedule, duty requirements, and standard lifestyle of a serving Medical Corps officer. It is preferable to find out the details yourself rather than base it on hearsay. Ask yourself “Can I fit into this job profile?”, “Is this I want to do in life?” Clear all your doubts by personally interacting with Officers of various ranks. They are all usually very approachable and always glad to give a patient hearing to a young doctor- to- be! Get the facts straight!

Iron out all the discrepancies between your perceptions of the job and the actual scenario, by hearing of it from those who have served and are serving. Test your comfort levels on completion of this exercise. You will know what you are getting into and even if you have no choice, this exercise will help you understand the “system” better and make your life peaceful. Even today, for many of us, the pride of having worn the uniform and serving our country overrides all our personal desires. Indeed for me personally, my Maroon beret and my uniform was the single major source of pride (apart from my family) during my 26 years of military service, and now in the thereafter. I am proud to have served in the military, and supported our fighting troops. Given a choice, I would do it all over again!

One of Vivek’s interviewers for NHS job was someone from the Human Resources Dept. He briefed Vivek about the values & behaviours of the particular NHS hospital. These included pride, respect, empathy, consideration, compassion, and dignity. He directly asked Vivek if his own values matched their value system. The NHS wanted its staff to “live our values & deliver the best patient care”, to have “fulfilling & enjoyable place of work”, to exhibit “right attitude & behaviour contributing to a positive patient and staff experience”, designing a “crucial role for each individual” and finally motivating people into “putting our heart into what we do”. Vivek truly wished that he had looked upon the Armed Forces from this perspective prior to joining . The Indian Armed Forces still remains one of the largest organizations in this country. It offers a platform where one can serve with pride and dignity and live up to one’s personal values. Like any organization in the world there are shortcomings but in no way will these ever compromise your personal values.

To put it in other words if you feel you have to compromise upon your personal value system while in the line of duty, you should be strong enough to take a decision to adhere to your principles and either work at improving the situation or just letting go of the situation without compromising your principles. Its a choice that is to be made every day in an adult world. A doctor in the Armed Forces is an Officer and a doctor. The sense of pride in working for the honour of the country and a strong sense of duty is reflective of the spirit of ‘Dharma’ .

To summarize, in his original article, Vivek spelt out a few questions which a young medical student must answer before making a career decision. All these answers must be based upon extensive research done by the student himself or herself. The best way to do this research is to interact with as many people whom you feel are learned and wise and whom you see as a role model .

Once you start the process of answering these questions you will find that there are many more questions arising which need to be addressed. Take your time and do so till no questions are left unanswered. Discuss this with your batchmates, with your senior batch friends, with your well wishers, with the Canteen tea guy, with your parents, with whoever you want…. Discuss ad nauseum. The truth shall set you free, and the truth is that you are the one who has to own your decision. You are then your own boss to make a career decision for your self.

If you feel confused after reading this article whether Vivek or I want you to join or not join the Armed Forces, then I have to clearly communicate to you that this write up is not about our preference but about indicating to you a path that you may tread to go about making career decisions.  We both left military service voluntarily after nearly two and a half decades of military service and colourful experiences to last a lifetime. Grateful to have been on the journey with our brothers in arms.

In the final analysis, this is all about you , young AFMCite…. Be the Change that you want to be…. Live the dream that you want to….Just have a plan to live it with honour and dignity…. Only you can choose the path you need to be on… that is Dharma, to do because you must!

Published by Delta Zulu Consultancy

I am a Public Health Specialist with a passion for sustainable promotion of human co-existence with the environment! My areas of interest and expertise are Health Risk Communication and Community Engagement, Food Safety, Environmental Medicine and Mass Gathering Medicine. I believe in leveraging the power of technology to capture the imagination of people to inspire them to achieve their health potential, in a sustainable manner. I aspire to empower my partners and motivate stake holders to consistently seek 'work around' solutions, while hoping to achieve an utopian ideal balance.

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