Officer chases his “Ironman” dream from his wheelchair after being shot.
Six years ago, Lieutenant Colonel Amardeep Singh Dehal was shot in the head during a counterterror operation in Kashmir. Since then, he has been using a wheelchair. But the 35-year-old combat engineer won’t give up on his dream of taking part in the Ironman triathlon, a tough endurance race where the fittest people in the world test their limits by swimming 3.9 km, biking 180.2 km, and then running 42.2 km.
For a man who almost died after a bullet from a Kalashnikov went deep into his brain in 2017, was in a coma for seven months, faced an uncertain future for years, and is still fighting hard to get back on his feet, Dehal, a third-generation army officer, thinks he got something that many people never do: a second chance at life. And he’s just getting started.
Dehal says, “Life just flew by me, and I have a lot of catching up to do.”
“The triathlon will be the very first thing I do when this phase is over. It will happen, but I don’t know when. I had been getting ready for the race for a long time before terrorists attacked my convoy near Shopian. I need to continue from where I left off.”
Dehal is clear that he wants to get back on his feet and compete in the regular event without any help or aid.
He is getting advanced treatment at Mumbai’s Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital (KDAH), which includes robotic-assisted walking and gait training. This is the latest in a series of medical treatments and procedures he has had at different hospitals.
The officer joined the 38 Assault Engineer Regiment in 2008 and was serving with the 44 Rashtriya Rifles when the attack happened, which killed three soldiers and hurt five others, including Dehal. The 44 RR squad was going back to its base after a search and cordon operation.
Over the past six years, Dehal, his wife Lieutenant Colonel Sheela Shrimali, and their families and loved ones have been through a lot.
When things were at their worst, the officer found light and hope in his wife. “The real hero is Sheela. Without her unwavering support, I could never have hoped to get better as much as I have. I’m glad to say that, with some help, I can now take a few steps. “Difficulties come and go, but the people around you and their love and support are always there,” says Dehal.
Dehal and Shrimali are both good shooters, and they fell in love at the Army Marksmanship Unit in Mhow, close to Indore, where they met. They’ve been together for eleven years. “He gives us hope and is a source of strength. Both our families and the army have given us a lot of help. Shrimali says, “I’ve never had to go home and cry on a pillow.”
She says that if he wants to do the triathlon, he will try to get on the podium. “I know he’ll do his best. From the time he was at the National Defense Academy, he was a great swimmer, cyclist, and runner. “As for me, I’m glad to see another sunrise with him, hold his hand, and tell him that we’re in this together,” she says.
Sheela says that the journey so far wouldn’t have been possible without the help of the army, especially Lieutenant General HS Kahlon, General Officer Commanding, Maharashtra, Gujarat, and Goa Area, the 38 Assault Engineer Regiment, and the Jillo Irani and Silla BFJ Foundation, who have been with the family every step of the way during his treatment in Mumbai.
When Dehal was taken to the 92 Base Hospital in Srinagar on February 23, 2017, with gunshot wounds to the head and abdomen, he showed no signs of life. Only when he took a single breath, which his wife calls a “divine intervention,” did the doctors realise that the soldier was still alive. They rushed him into surgery to remove a piece of his skull to relieve pressure on his brain, where the bullet was stuck.
Two days later, he was flown to the Army Hospital (Research and Referral) in Delhi, where some of the army’s best neurosurgeons removed the bullet. Someone of them gave it to Sheela. Sheela remembers him telling her, “This is your trophy.” Dehal, on the other hand, fell into a coma and stayed there for seven months.
After that, he began to say a few words and recognise his family. It was the first time anyone in his family thought he might live.
Officials who know about Dehal’s case say he had several surgeries at the hospital over the course of a year and was slowly taken off life support. One of the officials says, “When he finally left the R&R hospital 18 months later, he couldn’t move, his vision was blurry, and he couldn’t speak clearly.”
After he was a little more stable, he went to the Indian Spinal Injuries Centre in Delhi for more care in August 2018. By December 2019, he was able to stand with help. But because of the Covid-19 pandemic, he had to stop getting treatment for the next two years.
In January 2022, he and his wife were sent to Chandimandir, where Dehal began getting treatment again in March. “Amardeep lost all of the progress he had made up until December 2019. It took another six months of therapy to get back to the point where it was safe to stop. At this point, he needed more advanced care at KDAH in Mumbai,” a second official says.
In October, he started getting treatment at the Mumbai hospital, where he stayed for a month. On February 14, he went back to Mumbai for more treatment. He is expected to stay at KDAH until early May.
What’s next for Dehal after the triathlon?
“I want Sheela and me to travel the world. Then, if given the chance, I might go back to Kashmir to do operations,” he says, his words full of hope, inspiration, and strength. Wheelchair-bound.