PETALING JAYA: Lieutenant Zulkifli Tahir had a bad feeling when he discovered that one of his men had forgotten to pack vital batteries for their squad mine detector.
“I was cursing inside, but we had a job to do: clear the mines so our troops could advance to the enemy position close to the Thai border,” he told FMT recently.
“I took three soldiers to clear a path the only way we could – with sticks.”
The battle-hardened men of the 9th Malay Regiment were prepared for the worst, but their enemy, the Malayan Communist Party had made the battleground a lot more deadly.
“This was 1986, so the communist guerillas had picked up the skills needed to make improvised explosive devices like the Vietcong used to great effect in the Vietnam War.
“From the day we were inserted into the jungle, we’d been hearing explosions near us.”
Zulkifli’s group, part of Ops Taksin 8601, a joint operation between the Malaysian Army and the Thai Royal Rangers to destroy communist bases near the border was in the most advanced position.
“We were about 150 metres from the border and the closest other army unit was two kilometres away. If we were ambushed, we’d be dead men.”
As they slowly advanced through the minefield, Zulkifli saw movements in the bushes and, suspecting guerillas, he signalled his men to provide cover while he and a soldier called Ariff pushed forward to attack them.
“I had barely taken five or six steps when there was a deafening explosion and the next thing I knew, I was looking at my mother in the kitchen and then my wife; it was as if I was suddenly in the Twilight Zone.”
That lasted for a split second until Zulkifli heard Ariff calling out for his mother.
“Then I saw Ariff. His face was covered in blood, and he was screaming in pain so I gave him a dose of morphine. In those days, each officer would only have a single dose for ten men.”
After administering the morphine, Zulkifli tried to stand but toppled over and hit the ground.
“I was dizzy but still conscious. I could see shrapnel had torn up my hand and left foot.
“One of my men told me to take a look at myself. I told him I was okay, and I wasn’t badly hit.
“He asked me whose boot was on the ground a few metres away. I looked and knew it was mine.
“I checked my right leg and what appeared to be a bunch of wires were sticking out where my foot should have been.”
Zulkifli’s men heated a knife with a lighter and cauterised the wound. He says he didn’t feel much pain at the time.
“They asked me where the morphine was and I said I had given it to Ariff, so the next best thing was a cigarette.”
Another soldier, Lieutenant Azmi then carried Zulkifli on his back three kilometres through the hilly terrain back to the helicopter landing point so he could be medevacked out for treatment.
“As I was being carried away, I saw my men had tears in their eyes. I couldn’t bear to see that so I sang to lift their spirts. P Ramlee’s ‘Berkorban Apa Saja’ it was,” he says, before belting out a line from the classic song.
He was airlifted to Penang General Hospital where due to a shortage of doctors because of Chinese New Year festivities, he had to wait 12 hours for treatment.
He was also told that Ariff had only suffered a cut on his ear and hadn’t needed the precious morphine at all.
The avid sportsman lost his right leg, though in a few months he was back in the same jungle only this time with a prosthetic leg and serving as an intelligence officer.
The career military man who entered service in 1980 ended up being posted to the Defence Ministry, from which he retired earlier this year with the rank of Colonel.
In his later years, he even represented Malaysia as a Paralympian in shooting. He continues to be active, most recently scuba diving with his trusty prosthetic leg.
Looking back, Zulkifli says he does not have any regrets serving the country but feels sad looking at the low level of patriotism among Malaysians today.
People wave the Jalur Gemilang and sing patriotic songs, but to Zulkifli, patriotism means a lot more than that.
“I see real patriotism in Malaysians who show respect for their fellow countrymen. I hate it when some start demanding special rights for their race.
“In the army we learned to be colour blind.
“When I was growing up in Kuala Lumpur in the 1970s , we had friends of all races. We played together and celebrated each other’s festivals together.
“Today? It’s all about race and religion,” he says.
The veteran wishes Malaysians could again embrace that old spirit of togetherness.