Greensleeves and Green Leaves in Nepal
Retired RADC dental officer Lt Col Philip Holmes writes with a suggestion as to how the Corps can mark its historical connections with Nepal and the Nepalese people in our centennial year.
Speaking with John Sharp by zoom today, we reflected on the flight of time. Some of the current younger serving personnel in the RADC will have not even been born when I resigned my Commission in 1999. And of course, a good few fellow pensioners who read this will have completed their service before I enlisted in 1982. So, John thought that for both groups there was a need to introduce myself.
When I presented myself, fresh-faced, at Tournai Mess for my Dental Officer Military Introductory Course (DOMIC), I had only joined up for three years. To that 22-year-old, this seemed like a major commitment; at the time I could not have countenanced staying on for what became almost 17 years! But Army life proved to be great and wherever I was posted I enjoyed the company of the best of colleagues and wonderful times that weren’t to be missed. I wasn’t sent anywhere exotic, beyond six months in Belize in 1987, with tours of duty being confined mainly to the UK and Germany. That was largely a matter of my own choice, as I was married to a Dutch lawyer, Esther Benjamins, and we preferred to be within some kind of commuting distance to her work – even if that involved weekly flights for her between the UK and Holland. For that reason, I spent my final five years of service in Aldershot area (which isn’t too far from Heathrow!), living in Church Crookham where we had Gurkhas as neighbours. These were productive years clinically, as I completed my MGDS and, soon afterwards, my MSc in Endodontics at the Eastman.
But in January 1999 my service came to a premature end when Esther tragically took her own life. This was the devastating culmination of a year’s rapid decline into the depths of a depression that she was unable to shake off. Although we had had the happiest of marriages, Esther had been heart-broken at her childlessness and on that last day of her life she wrote in her one-line suicide note that life without children had become “unbearable”. In the midst of my emotional trauma and the horror, that note became a challenge that I felt had to be addressed. I could not allow both of us to be defeated. Within just a few days of the tragedy I had resolved that I would leave the Army and dentistry and set up a children’s charity in Esther’s memory. And that (tenuous) connection with Nepal through our Gurkha neighbours made me decide that I would focus my efforts on helping Nepalese children.
So began a 22-year journey that was not only spiritual and surreal, but also a very physical one; I remarried in 2002 (John Sharp was my Best Man) and, two years later, my wife Bev and I moved to live in Nepal. Echoing my intentions at the time of joining the Corps, we planned to be there for three years but stayed for eight. During that time, I planned and led a ground-breaking programme that shut down two cross-border child trafficking routes permanently. My work spelt freedom for over 1,000 innocent Nepalese children whom we rescued from inside prisons, the dangers of the streets and from child slavery. The latter activity involved our launching cross-border raids on Indian circuses which were hair-raising to say the least, but also, unmissable. I have documented that unprecedented activity in my memoir, Gates of Bronze, which I published last year.
I am now living in Devon, where I run my charity ChoraChori (the Nepalese word for children) from home. We continue to rescue and support children, including child rape victims. Up until this pandemic, I was visiting Nepal quarterly. However, I have now turned my attention to an even greater challenge that hasn’t gone away; the Climate Emergency. Nepal is very much in the frontline of the crisis, with its Himalayan glaciers melting at an average of 30 metres per year and increasingly erratic weather patterns that are having a severe impact on agriculture and the rural economy, while causing both floods and drought as natural disasters. We are responding by supporting rural and urban reforestation programmes that help redress the balance while providing employment to vulnerable people, including through ecotourism and the sustainable use of forest products. Many of these people are from the so-called “untouchable” community. And we link this work to the education of children, developing youth climate activists – perhaps we’ll inspire Nepal’s Greta Thunberg of the future!
Which brings me to our Christmas appeal….
Through our “Turn Janakpur Green” project we are planning to restore a park in the city of Janakpur, south Nepal, using an intensive reforestation technique called The Miyawaki Method. See this link for the full project description. I am proposing that within the overall project we reforest a section of the park to mark Centennial year, with a plaque at the site describing the RADC’s historical links with Nepal and acknowledging those, by name, who have donated to the project. Our connection spans many decades with dental facilities established in Kathmandu, Pokhara in the west and Dharan in the east. And in more recent years, Nepalese citizens have joined our ranks as dental nurses, hygienists and two dental officers. As part of the project we’d love to collect memories and images of service in Nepal that we can share on this site and in social media. Like this great picture taken in Dharan, circa 1982, featuring the late Lt Col Brian Hunt, dental hygienist Rembahadur Gurung and a (hirsute) dental technician Paul Armstrong. If you have any similar material, please send it to me (link below) and I will publish it alongside updates on progress of the project next year. The park has its own unusual military history and our contribution will complement that very nicely and provide additional interest to the very many tourists that we will attract in the future.
Here’s how the Appeal works:
It will run from 1st to 24th December through our “Big Give Christmas Challenge” that allows all online donations to automatically double in value to those who are early-bird donors. That’s because I’ve found some major donors who have pledged to match gifts up to a certain limit. The donation link will go live at noon on the 1st December (please don’t donate before then!), so, either make a diary note of that or, if you would like to forward me your email address through this link, I will be very happy to send you a reminder on the day and point you to the link for making donations. It costs £7.50 to plant a tree using the Miyawaki Method but through The Big Give you can plant two trees for the price of one! If you prefer not to donate online, just send a cheque to me at the charity address (Three Ways, Ledstone, Kingsbridge TQ7 2HQ), made payable to “ChoraChori”. Unfortunately, cheque donations do not qualify for matching.
Please join me in commemorating the Corps and its distinguished involvement with Nepal next year. A little corner of a foreign field that will be forever (RADC) green!