8th August, 2004  Volume 11, Issue 4

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The Commander's wife

By Ranee Mohamed 

They have been married for 28 years and have spent two years together in Colombo. This is the life of a wife of an army officer. But Sonia Kottegoda showed no tell-tale signs of a lonely, difficult life.

"My husband's life was in Jaffna, Vavuniya and Batticaloa," said Sonia speaking of Lt. General Shantha Kottegoda's tour of duty in the army. She spoke glowingly about the army despite having lived alone all these years. "Our happiest times were the two years he was at the NIB in Colombo. But thereafter he came home once a month," said Sonia recalling the life that any serviceman's wife has to lead.

Heartache and loneliness

But these years, these hardships and longings have not touched Sonia Kottegoda. "Life in the armed  services is not easy, people may think that service families have all the perks and the privileges but few focus on the heartache and the loneliness," said Sonia. "I have seen husbands of close friends getting killed. Each time I went to a funeral, I have asked myself the question, will it happen to me?" said Sonia.

When General Kobbekaduwa was killed in a blast, the present commander of the army had been with him. "General Kobbekaduwa was a man I admired so much. He was my hero. My husband used to tell me that he cannot be a Kobbekaduwa and that he is a Kottegoda. Anyway, I was so distressed when I heard about the blast and I was panic stricken at the thought that I had lost my husband too, for he was with him at that time. It was the saddest day in my life. And then I heard his voice," recalls Sonia.

Lt. General Shantha Kottegoda who assumed office as the 17th Commander of the Sri Lanka Army in July is an officer who has climbed the ladder. But Sonia seems unaffected and untouched by any of those rungs - and today even as the first lady in the army, Sonia Kottegoda remains as simple as she has always been. The good cook who has tantalised tastebuds with her chutneys is the same woman who strives to make life better for the fallen heroes.

Having been the President, Seva Vanitha Unit of the CLI Regiment, Sonia focused on the disabled soldiers. Today as the President, Sri Lanka Army's Seva Vanitha Unit, she is thinking of making life better for the fallen heroes. "There are 2000 deserving children of soldiers who have got killed during the war who ought to be given scholarships. The scholarship is Rs. 500 a month from grade one upto the ordinary level," said Sonia who is trying hard to complete this task. "Even when I am travelling, these thoughts are foremost in my mind," said Sonia.

Help fallen heroes

"My main intention is to help the disabled. There is no life for these fallen heroes after they are confined to a wheelchair. I hope to improve the Ranaviru Sevana," revealed Sonia who said that she is looking out for people who wish to donate property in different areas. "What I think is that when these disabled soldiers are put into Ranaviru villages they are not quite happy, for these villages are away from their homes, in isolated places. What I am trying to do is get land for these fallen heroes in their own hometowns and help them to build houses," she pointed out.

"Army wives are compassionate. They are able to feel for other people. They are all like one big family," she said. Sonia's tries hard to help everyone who comes to her. It is easy to fathom that this commander's wife can never say 'no' to those who seek her help.

"My husband advises on all matters and though I prefer to do things on my own, I have found that his advice has always been correct," said Sonia.

"We believe in compassion and my husband is a very compassionate and reserved man. I remember how he broke down when our daughter left for India," recalled Sonia. Speaking of life with the Army Commander she said that he is an honest, straightforward and silent man who has contributed a lot in his own way. "I am very proud of him," she added.

Homely man

Lt. General Shantha Kottegoda, according to his wife, is a simple man who prefers to eat at home and do gardening. She spoke of the distress that he experienced at having had to leave the pond he made at their former army quarters before moving in here to General's House in Bauddhaloka Mawatha. It is very unlikely that the Army Commander can do any gardening here. The flowers and the trees have got all the care they need. Inside, the impeccable white tiles open out into darker floors - there is  spaciousness and quietness. The huge sofas and the lone Sonia still suggest an unmistakable loneliness.

Sonia Kottegoda speaks of times she had to take her children to school, a time when she had no vehicle. She speaks of her husband's dedication to duty and the motto that duty does come first has always been foremost in their lives.

Sonia Kottegoda is confident. Time seems not to have touched her and she speaks with sadness about the stray dogs and puppies that she used to feed at their former abode. Life offers different times to us. And to Sonia it is a time to live alone with her husband, for her two children are away on higher studies. "I always think of my children. When I wake up each morning, I close my eyes and think that nothing bad should happen to my husband and children," said Sonia Kottegoda.

It was a relaxed evening with the Commander's wife. For Sonia, there were no airs and graces - no diplomacy and no empty words - for this Commander's wife spoke out and those words came generously tinged with feeling, straight from the heart.

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