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Nepal's legendary Gurkhas face an uncertain future

POKHARA, Nepal As dawn's rays illuminate the snowy Himalayan peaks, hundreds of young men strain and sweat through the morning's drills in hopes of passing a grueling physical and mental test. Their chances are slim. Only 240 out of more than 8,000 aspirants will be selected this year to serve in one of the world's elite military forces: The British army Gurkhas.

A historical photograph dominates a wall of the Gurkha Memorial Museum in Pokhara. (Courtesy of Gurkha Memorial Museum)

The pressure, the crush of shame among those who fail, is so intense that some never return home. Suicides have been reported in the past.

Conversely, becoming one of the chosen few, Gurkhas say, is akin to "winning a huge lottery" and "feeling like a god." The applicants are largely impoverished youths. To these 17- to 21-year-olds, winning a place means a secure financial future rarely possible at home. Also, they will be proudly following in the footsteps of their forefathers who have been fighting, and dying, for Great Britain for 200 years.

Still vigorous at 92, retired Lt. Col. John Philip Cross fought with Gurkhas in several wars. (Photo by Denis Gray)

How long this annual rite of passage will continue into a third century is, however, uncertain. While their continued effectiveness and legendary bravery -- last proved in Afghanistan -- remains unquestioned, deep cuts in Britain's military forces and unpredictable lurches in Nepalese politics could sound the last bugle call for soldiers one British officer in World War I described as the most faithful friends the country ever had.

CLOUDY FUTURE "Is there a future for the Gurkhas in the British army? Militarily, yes. Politically, it is up to both sides," said Lt. Col. John Philip Cross, who served with Gurkhas for decades and retired to Pokhara. "I can't really say what will happen in the future."

Britain's "Army 2020" program to restructure and reduce its armed forces has already taken a toll on their numbers and Capt. Philip Lambert, operations coordinator at the British Gurkha Camp, said these may "shrink slightly" from the 2,600-2,700 now serving the crown.

Capt. Philip Lambert, a British army Gurkha officer, poses at the gate to the camp in Pokhara where the final selection test is held each December. (Photo by Denis Gray)

Cross believes if the annual intake of recruits drops below current levels, maintaining the Gurkhas will be regarded as economically unfeasible as overheads will be too high relative to a much downsized force, which peaked during World War II at more than 100,000.

In Nepal, critics say it is time for the country to stop exporting men they regard as mercenaries. "We have grown so accustomed to Gurkha recruitment we don't see the incongruity of a sovereign nation offering its men to fight other people's wars," said a recent editorial in the Nepali Times newspaper. The critics note that Gurkhas suffered more than 43,000 casualties in the two world wars.

Both countries reserve the right to annul a treaty that allows for the recruitment. But Lambert said he doubted that either nation would take such a step, given the Gurkhas' "pride of place in the British army," and the economic benefits Nepal has reaped from remittances sent to families and investments the soldiers have made in their homeland. In Pokhara, it is hard to find a guesthouse or rental property not owned by serving or retired Gurkhas.

The Gurkha Memorial Museum in Pokhara displays photographs, videos and artifacts drawn from 200 years of wars and garrison duty by the legendary soldiers. (Photo by Denis Gray)

Many in the British military certainly remain passionate about these warriors, and thousands of Nepalese teenagers still long for a career under the Union Jack. "There is a perception that Gurkhas are a dying breed in the British army, but we are very keen to have them with us," Lambert said, also noting a royal connection that has perpetuated bonds which Cross described as "a chemistry of camaraderie that has stood the test of time."

Sending "a strong symbolic message," Lambert said, were two senior Gurkha aides who were almost always at Queen Elizabeth's side. Her grandson, Prince Harry, served with Gurkhas in Afghanistan and made a point of visiting his comrades-in-arms during a highly successful visit to Pokhara in March.

Young men prepare for the British army Gurkha test, which includes a 5km run up a steep hill carrying a 25kg load. (Photo by Denis Gray)

FIGHT FOR HONOR An author of several books on Gurkhas, Cross said Britain still needed them "because there are very few men who are better soldiers. In Britain, being a soldier is a job you do if you can't get a better one. But for young Nepali men, it's a prize won." The 92-year-old Cross, who recently ran a 5km race, added a sideswipe at the "soft" modern troopers in Britain and other Western countries: "How can they become really tough when you serve them five courses for breakfast?"

This is hardly a problem in Nepal, where recruits are drawn from the country's mountain people, mainly the Gurung, Magar, Rai and Limbu, whose harsh, disaster-prone environment begets an oft-proven battlefield prowess. In an example of their exploits in Afghanistan, Cpl. Diprasad Pun single-handedly held off more than 30 Taliban fighters storming his checkpoint, unleashing volleys of gunfire and grenades until he finally had to wield the tripod of his machine gun to knock down a charging militant.

Queen Elizabeth II and the Sultan of Brunei inspect the Brigade of Gurkhas as they leave the Gurkha 200 pageant on the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea on June 9, 2015, in London.   © Getty Images

The queen pinned Britain's second-highest award for bravery on his chest in 2011. The highest decoration, the Victoria Cross, has been won by 13 Gurkhas, whose spine-chilling cry of "Ayo Gurkhali!" -- "The Gurkhas are coming!" -- has prompted thoughts of immediate surrender among adversaries in previous wars. "The Gurkhas have always given their all, whether it was taking a hill from the Turks at Gallipoli or the Argentinians in the Falklands," Lambert said. "They have the image of an elite unit. It can never be anything else, and that is part of the reason for their continued existence."

Their intense drive is evident each morning around Pokhara's main sports stadium, where the hopefuls tally endless laps, situps, pullups and push-ups, and in the afternoons, when they pore over mathematics and English lessons. About 60 schools, not all of high repute, have sprung up in Nepal to prepare them for one of the world's toughest military tests, one not only designed to yield superb physical specimens but also intelligent soldiers adept at modern warfare.

Thousands are eliminated in the first round -- for having more than four fillings in their teeth, not being able to do 70 situps in two minutes or speaking poor English. Those are some of the numerous shortcomings that can trigger disqualification. The final round, held in Pokhara in early December, runs for about two weeks: medical examinations, written tests, interviews and tough physical trials climaxing in the "doko" race -- a hurtle up a steep hillside with 25kg of sand packed inside a "doko," a traditional cone-shaped basket carried on the back and secured with a strap around the forehead. The lung-busting 5km course must be covered in under 48 minutes -- a ''traumatic'' effort, Lambert said, noting that the "doko" was equivalent to half the body weight of some of the men. He called completing the course a feat he and most Westerners could never endure.

A photograph at the Gurkha Memorial Museum shows troops in the 1982 Falklands War. Their reputation inspired fear among Argentine troops. (Courtesy of Gurkha Memorial Museum)

Recruitment into the Singapore police and the Indian army, both of which have long taken in Gurkhas, is similarly tough. One test for the police force requires candidates to study 30 items for five minutes before those are covered under a blanket. Candidates must then reel off as many of the items as they can remember.

The British test can be taken three times, and many are not deterred by a first or even second failure. So desperate are Nepalese youth to become Gurkhas that some lie about their age.

"I was very sad when I failed. I returned home and just slept," said Sujan Ale Magar, who had earlier failed the math exam and was preparing for December's finale at the Nepal Action Training Center. "But I am back because it is my dream. This year I will pass."

Magar, a 19-year-old from a poor farming family, cited reasons for his tenacity: "Good food, travel opportunities, medical care, good pension after retirement, all things hard to come by in Nepal."

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