Women in Combat

There’s an article on the Arutz 7 website about women in combat units. Not just any unit – Elie’s unit – # 55. And not just any women – three commanders and a soldier and the complaint they filed with their commanders…and then leaked to an Israeli reporter. The soldiers are against the army’s handling of some incoming soldiers (a unit of religious soldiers who do not want to serve with women). No, these incoming soldiers weren’t asked and didn’t voice any opposition. Before they even come into the unit, the army is preparing the way by removing the women to other units. The women are angry and feel the men should go elsewhere.

When Elie entered the army, he was asked if he was willing to serve with women. He told them that he preferred not to – serving in a combat unit puts soldiers in very close quarters; the Israeli army is a very physical one. I cannot tell you how many times I saw soldiers pat each other on the back, give a quick hug of greeting or to say goodbye. Hugs when they finished training; hugs when they said goodbye for a week’s vacation after the war ended. It is an amazing site to see, to realize it is done with such affection. This was what Elie felt was inappropriate between a man and a woman and so he opted out of this.

After being in the army for a year, finishing his basic training, advanced training, several months on a combat position and then the Commander’s course, he was asked to command a unit of incoming soldiers. He was thrilled. He trained, he prepared…and then the night before he was to travel to the training base, he was told that his unit had female soldiers.

I wrote about this experience (Two Rights Don’t Make a Wrong), after agonizing how two rights could be wrong. Elie should have the right to his religious beliefs; women should have the right to serve, if the army feels they can. We have a friend whose daughter went into an artillery combat unit. During basic training, she was carrying another soldier (a female). She dropped the other soldier on her leg – both were injured, but our friend’s daughter was hurt more seriously. She shattered the bone in her leg in three places and it took her many, many months of pain and rehabilitation to get back to where she was.

I discussed this article in today’s news with Elie, curious to see how he would react. He was annoyed, impatient. Please excuse his use of the word “girls” here – he doesn’t mean it in a nasty or derogatory way. Elie did not think of these girls in a sexual way but rather as a commander with added complications that, to his way of thinking, did not deliver justifiable value.

That’s not to say that he does not see a place for women in the army – there were many roles that they fulfilled with honor and equaled any of the contributions made by males. But he has little patience for those who feel it necessary to go against the army by leaking their complaints to a reporter, especially the one these female soldiers chose. To Elie, this is a betrayal of an army that has done a tremendous amount to find ways to accept the tremendous service these women wish to give.

Here’s what Elie said:

When I was there, there were three girls in the entire unit – 5 in the whole battalion. And they want to bring in 100 soldiers. Simple math 5 girls or 100 guys. 

Half the times the girls can’t do a lot of the physical things. It’s very nice that they want to be there, but to be realistic, they don’t do what the men do; and they can’t do what the men do. Besides the fact that the commanders have to work 10 times harder to make sure they have what they need, enough separation to ensure their privacy, for 2 girls to have a separate room, separate bathroom. So all the boys – like 100, have to use 1 bathroom so that 2 girls can get their own.

It makes sense to have them in the army, and there are places that you can deal with this and places that you can’t. You have units that are 50% men and 50% women like the one that is “light combat.” (Here, Elie used the Hebrew word and when I asked him to explain, he came up with the term “light combat) and then explained that this includes those responsible for many of Israel’s borders. Doesn’t sound light to me!)

And then, Elie continued, you have units that have no girls at all (which is most). And, most of the girls that go into Artillery combat – most don’t stay in combat. They drop out and then they fight the army to release them after two years instead of the three they needed to promise to complete in order to get into combat.

A few do really stay for 3 years, but often they get hurt and while they’re 3 years in the army, they still have to leave the combat units. And some have the motivation but because of injuries are going back and forth, in and out of combat units because they were hurt trying to do something that was too physically challenging.

Sadly, this Carmela Menashe has become someone that everyone goes to cry to, instead of trying to be realistic and deal with it and then she blows it up.

Elie was called upon to be a Commander of incoming soldiers and both times it was canceled at the last minute because there were women in the new units. There were to have been units that remained only men, enabling the religious soldiers to serve separately, which is their right. The army messed up – it was headed for this problem when Elie was there because instead of designating a single unit that would include men and women (or one for men only), they alternated which units received the women until there were no units left.

There are many places where it is completely possible, from a physical point of view, to have women serve and there are some jobs where it simply does not make sense. Lifting heavy artillery shells is one place where this service is of questionable value as compared to other places that require more brain than brawn.

The army has a fundamental responsibility to respect each soldier and to balance that respect with the needs of others. Where they succeeded for Elie several years ago, they now seemed to have failed. It’s sad to see – even sadder to see that these soldiers chose to resolve their complaint by going outside the army, to a reporter than is known to love reporting all the wrongs of an army that remains, always, at war, at alert.

For Elie, in the simplest of terms, it becomes an equation – the need to bring in 100 soldiers against the needs of these four. He feels badly for the four but the lesson I learned in my first months as a soldier’s mother is that  though the army is made up of individuals, it is the singular need of the army as a whole that prevails.

Harsh, it may be – but necessity breeds the reality in this case. I didn’t argue with Elie – I wanted his opinion and he gave it. Perhaps in a few years, he would put his words in more politically correct or gender neutral terminology. For now, it is likely he speaks for most of the artillery soldiers, whether that makes these female soldiers angrier or not, it is important for them to understand.

According to the article, the female soldiers sent a letter to their commanding officers. The army has not made a final decision – and yet the soldiers felt justified in leaking the contents of the letter to a gossip-loving reporter who read the entire letter on the radio.

What the female soldiers forgot, was what Elie wanted them to remember. Their commanders have worked hard to help them get to where they are; accepted less than what the men would do because he accepted that they did their best. They have made the conditions of the men harder, in order to make their conditions better. One hundred men will use a single bathroom, so that one can be dedicated to women; same with the showers. Where there may be 10 men in a room, there will be only 2 women in the same size area.

The actions of these women in going outside the army, is a betrayal of everything their commanding officers have done to enable them to fulfill their dream to serve in this way. Elie wanted to be the commander of incoming soldiers. He had trained for it, was looking forward to it. It never occurred to him to ask that the army place the women somewhere else. He only asked that he be removed and given a commander’s job somewhere else.

For the good of the army, the unit, the soldiers, Elie moved to another unit. I wish I could believe these women were acting for the same interests.

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