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May 27, 2017

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British Gurkha war hero fights one last campaign

LONDON--Rambahadur Limbu is one of Britain's greatest living war heroes, yet the 74-year-old veteran feels dishonored by the way the country has treated Gurkha soldiers like him.

Standing with his walking stick outside the Houses of Parliament in London, few who pass the old Nepalese warrior would recognize his name or the Victoria Cross (VC) on his chest.

Fewer still would know the short, stocky farmer is among just four people alive who won the highest possible military honor serving in the British armed forces — an award given only for extreme bravery in the face of the enemy.

Feeling his age, Captain Limbu is in London for perhaps the last time to wage one final campaign: a push for retired Nepalese Gurkhas to receive the same pensions and welfare as their British comrades.

He gave heartfelt evidence to the Gurkha Welfare Inquiry, a panel of lawmakers examining veterans' grievances, which holds a final hearing on Wednesday.

In an interview with AFP, Limbu said: "I enlisted in the army in 1957 and for the first 18 years of my career, I always regarded the British and the Gurkhas as equal, and I thought the British were the best friends we could ever have."

But from then on, he saw "discrimination in every area of life in the army, and that included accommodation, food, pay — anything you name".

Limbu proudly wears his VC, an award bestowed by Queen Elizabeth II in 1966 for his actions in Borneo during the Indonesian-Malaysian Confrontation. Its crimson ribbon is fraying at the edges.

"I feel very honored because this nation honored me with a medal. But when I look back (on) my service, I feel very dishonored," he said.

His Gurkha captain's pension and VC allowance combined came to "way less" than the pension of a (lower-ranked) British non-commissioned officer.

"Isn't that an insult to me and my bravery?" he asked.

"What do I do with this honor when that honor does not give me a dignified life to live?

"You cannot eat a debt of honor. You have to give equality so that people feel the debt of honor is given."

The Gurkhas are renowned for their ferocity, loyalty, bravery and razor-sharp kukri fighting knives. They first served as part of the Indian army in British-run India in 1815. Around 3,100 currently serve in the British army.

Limbu won the VC for his exceptional valor in the jungles of Sarawak on November 21, 1965.

In a five-man uphill vanguard assault on an entrenched Indonesian platoon, he twice went back into the front line during a 20-minute spell to rescue fatally wounded comrades while under continuous fire from machine guns — at point-blank range.

He then rejoined his platoon, which forced the Indonesians to abandon the position, and killed four as they attempted to escape.

"Because of the intensity of the situation, there was no fear in me," he said. "I just thought that I must do anything in my capacity to stop the enemy and to take the bodies and the injured back to safety.

"I don't really consider myself as a hero.

"Those who died, when I think of them, they were more heroes than I am."

The day after his return from Sarawak, 10 weeks later, his first wife died, leaving him with two children aged eight months and five years to look after.

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