Israeli soldier Arielle Werner has some advice for American women in the military who will soon be allowed to serve in combat: You can do it.
Werner, 21, said that while she wasn’t permitted to give specific details of incidents in the field, “there were one or two times when I was pretty scared, but in the end I knew what my job was, I knew what I had to do, and I got courage from the fact that I was the one with the gun.”
“I have definitely surprised myself that I made it through some of the physical things that we do,” she said in a telephone interview from a base in southern Israel. “Combat isn’t for everybody. Carrying heavy stuff over distance is a problem, but we all take part, we all help out and if we need help from the guys we ask for it.”
Werner, an American-born immigrant, has been patrolling the Egyptian border since October, part of a combat unit called Caracal that’s half-female. Israel, which by law includes women in its near-universal requirement of military service, has a female participation rate in the military of 34 percent, more than double the U.S. rate.
Now, the U.S. is looking to Israel for ideas on how to implement the decision, announced last week, to allow American women soldiers to serve in combat.
Slideshow:Women at War
General Robert Cone, commander of the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, said he visited Israel last summer to learn how the military had integrated women into its combat forces.
“I asked them a whole host of leadership questions,” Cone said at a Pentagon briefing last week. The lesson was that “gender truly does not make a difference,” even though the U.S. female participation rate probably will never rise to Israel’s.
More than 90 percent of all positions in the Israeli military are available to women, a proportion exceeded only by Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland, whose armies have much lower female participation. Still, fewer than 3 percent of Israeli women soldiers serve in active combat roles and the army’s elite fighting units are closed off to them.
Israel has about 10 combat units that have significant female participation. In 2006 the army established the Nachshol Reconnaissance Company, the first composed entirely of female combat soldiers. Nachshol serves primarily in the south, providing field intelligence along the Egyptian border.
The most high-profile mixed-gender combat unit is Caracal, in which Werner serves. It is tasked with guarding Israel’s border with Egypt. The seriousness of its mission was illustrated last September when a patrol encountered two armed militants infiltrating the border and a female soldier shot dead one of them in the ensuing firefight.
Women now play key combat roles in infantry, armored and field-intelligence units, said Major Galli Eilat, head of the army’s female integration section.
“The most important thing is that a military framework that was set up to accommodate only male fighters has to be properly re-established at the basic level,” Eilat said in a telephone interview. “Right from enlistment, through basic training and out into the field, it takes into account what women require to fulfill their potential as fighting soldiers.”
While there is no difference in basic training requirements for men and women, some of the standards are proportional, according to the Spokesperson Unit of the Israel Defense Forces. Men and women, for instance, must all be able to carry about 30 percent of their body weight on patrol.
The men and women in Caracal have to be able to complete the same obstacle course and carry a stretcher in groups of four at a run for 22 kilometers (13.6 miles); the distance is longer for all-male units. The individuals in the spokesperson unit can’t be named, by military regulation.
Israel’s armed forces take other steps to accommodate women, such as establishing appropriate field sleeping and personal arrangements. That is especially important in a country where many soldiers follow religious rules of modesty stricter than those of the average combatant.
Every unit in which women serve has one female officer as the representative of the General Staff’s adviser on women’s issue. That officer provides ongoing education for all soldiers in the unit and also serves as the first point of contact for female soldiers with complaints on misconduct.
To military historian Martin van Creveld, a former professor at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Israeli example may not be applicable to the U.S military.
“The image of Israeli women as fighters has always been overrated and doesn’t provide a suitable comparison for the U.S. army,” said van Creveld, who has long been skeptical that women have the physical capability for long stretches of field combat.
Serving close to home in Israel is nothing like the multiyear overseas deployments in countries such as Afghanistan that characterize U.S. military missions today, van Creveld said in a phone interview, adding that combat resilience is required for such extended battlefield duty.
Eilat agreed that overseas service, along with the U.S.’s voluntary enlistment, are the two big dissimilarities that must be taken into account in comparing the Israeli and American military experiences.
“There are basic physiological differences that make it challenging to place women in the top combat units, including the weight of equipment those soldiers have to carry,” she said, adding that the difficulties could be alleviated by advances in weapons technology.
While women have always been subject to Israel’s draft, they haven’t always been fighters. They did play combat roles in the 1948 war, when the newborn nation was fighting for independence and desperately short of manpower. After that, though, women were relegated to non-combat duties, including clerical work, course instruction and healthcare. Draftees were also given the choice to do alternative national service on religious grounds.
That system received its first serious challenge in the mid-1990s, when recruit Alice Miller successfully petitioned Israel’s High Court of Justice to be allowed to take the entrance exam for the Air Force pilots’ course. Miller’s case received widespread support after Israel’s then-president, former air force commander Ezer Weizman, told her that a woman serving as a pilot was as unlikely as “a man knitting socks.”
In 2000 an amendment to the Military Service law made it official that any position open to men should be equally available to women, spurring a process of integration into combat roles. During the 2006 war in Lebanon, air force mechanic Keren Tendler became Israel’s female active combat soldier killed since the war of independence.
To Werner, who is from Minnetonka, Minnesota, and emigrated in 2011 because she had “loved Israel from the beginning,” serving in combat was never in doubt.
“Obviously you’re taught to preserve your own life, if you think you are in danger you’re taught to save yourself,” she said. “But when you are with a group of people who rely on you, you learn to think differently about those situations, you learn to protect your group and not just yourself. If that means going into a dangerous situation, you go.”
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