Recently, the United States military rescinded a policy restricting women to non-combat roles. The move, instigated by then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, was partially an acknowledgment that many women are already working in combat zones.
As this official policy change takes root in the U.S. military, Israel provides an example of what its implementation might one day look like.
Israel has faced asymmetrical warfare threats since its inception. Because of its small population size and geopolitical reality, it has maintained mandatory conscription laws for both sexes. Yet, women were barred from direct combat roles from the inception of the country until 1996.
At that time, the court ruled that women could serve as fighter pilots, which was followed by a 2000 ruling that, theoretically, opened all military roles to women. The ruling noted that women could only work in those roles if they could qualify under the established requirements- a standard also found in the new U.S. policy.
Today, women serve in 69% percent of units with 88%-92% of roles open to them, including military police, border guards, combat pilots, K-9 units, and infantry units.
One of the most well-known co-ed combat units is called Karakal, which is the Hebrew term for the desert lynx, an animal that displays only a small degree of sexual dimorphism. The unit is responsible for guarding Israel's border with Egypt. Most of the soldiers in its ranks are female.
In September 2012, the Karakal Unit faced its most serious brush with combat to date. Egyptian militants killed an Israeli soldier and attempted to cross into Israel. A female soldier, from Karakal, was credited by the Israel Defense Forces with shooting and killing one of them. It later emerged that another female soldier hid in a bush.
In most respects, the basic training regimen for Karakal is the same as other combat units in the IDF. As such, it ends with a long training hike and culminates with a ceremony in which soldiers receive the unit-specific beret.
In the windy, crisp pre-morning darkness of the literally, biblical desert, soldiers from Karakal prepared themselves to undertake this final hike. Backlit by vehicle headlights, the soldiers applied camouflage face paint to each other, went over last minute details, and arranged their gear in a manner that belied the impending start.
Lt. Col. Jackie Ben Yakar, gathered all his soldiers in a circle, Ben Yakar reminded his them to support each other and be mindful of fundamental safety considerations. His delivery was understated, but sincere and direct.
Upon the speech's conclusion, the soldiers quickly arranged themselves into their respective squads and began the hike without ceremony.
As many senior Israeli officers do, Ben Yakar. led his soldiers in the field alongside his two personal assistants and Capt. Igal Raskin. Raskin's face paint and bald head added to his war face, as did his seemingly fixed expression of seriousness and stern commands. A jeep, carrying supplies and communication equipment, moved ahead and one brought up the rear. At the fist rest point, all jeeps drove off into the wild.
From the outset, some soldiers, always of the same sex, held hands for support- sometimes in pairs, sometimes in groups. According to soldiers in Karakal, as well as members of other, all-male, combat units, it became clear that similar expressions of support are prevalent amongst most military units.
At the first break, which included an impressive array of both sweet and salty snacks, Ben Yakar explained some of the guiding philosophies in commanding a mixed unit.
Acknowledging the inherent physical differences between men and women, he said that much of the remainder of unit dynamics are the same as previous units in which he served, besides the barracks, of course.
He said that since women are, generally, not capable of carrying as much weight or hiking as far as their male counterparts, especially in the context of combat military units, physical requirements for the Karakal Unit are less than that for other combat units. Asked if this sort of physical discount hampered combat effectiveness, he quickly replied, "No."
Citing mission of the unit, which is limited and specific, he said that soldiers in Karakal are more than capable of executing all tasks assigned to them. He also said that senior command constantly reviews training procedures in light of the ability to carry out this mission.
As the unit's fitness instructor explained to me, since Karakal is focused on guarding the southern border, no one in the unit would have to cover long distances on foot, in pursuit of their job. Instead, the key was to be able to move over short distances. Quickly.
Ben Yakar also pointed out the benefits of having women in combat roles. He noted that they bring a different set of skills, as well as attitudes, to the group. As one male Karakal soldier, whose name cannot be used because he was not authorized to speak to the press, said, "We can either be like apes and try to fight like that and live like that, or, with the girls, we can be smarter and more civilized with things."
For the female soldiers, volunteering in Karakal represented a major decision, one which, even today, many of their peers did not fully understand. Despite the country's history, which saw women in combat during the pre-state era, and current political situation, the fact remains that societal expectations for females do not encompass being a combat soldier.
Yet, despite initial resistance, after completing some weeks, and then months of basic training, many of the female soldiers said that their friends' initial concerns and doubts faded away in the face of Facebook photos showing them actually participating in combat basic training, as well as firsthand accounts from the soldiers regarding what they had accomplished.
The common thread expressed by the female soldiers was a desire to serve their country and to give "more". Many stated that they knew it was possible to help in a support capacity or from behind a desk, but that they felt they were capable of undertaking the stresses and hardships of combat. As one female officer said, she did not feel it was fair for only the guys to be fighters. She also wanted to contribute.
She went on to share her specific experiences as a female combat officer, commanding men and women. She said that it was more difficult for her in officer school in that she felt she had to work three times as hard as the guys to earn their respect. Yet, she clarified this by stating that the only area in which she felt she actually had to work that hard, for reasons having to do with ability and not perception, was in physical fitness.
She used an analogy to further explain this, which involved her brother, a combat officer who has dyslexia. When studying for a school test, she had to study one hour and he had to study for three hours. When they received the result of the test, however, they both earned the same grade.
She said that other officers told her, directly, that it was hard to take her seriously. She took this as motivation to work even harder. As evidenced by the group dynamics on the hike, it was clear that she had been successful in earning the respect of her superiors, peers, and soldiers. Asked if she felt her male or female subordinates treated her differently, she said problems arose, as they do in any unit, but were not correlated to gender.
In spite of the adversity she faced, the officer recognized and expressed the unfairness of the special adulation that she receives in society, as a volunteer combat officer. She pointed out that healthy men are basically forced to be combat soldiers and, as such, receive no type of pervasive additional respect from society. Yet, females who serve in the same capacity are lauded for their service. She said there is nothing to do about this, just as there is nothing to do about the unlikelihood of additional combat units for women or other instances of gender-based disparities, both for men and women. At that point in the conversation, she headed over to assist on of her soldiers who was having difficulty.
Rissa Kelmer, 19, from Baltimore, decided to not only move to Israel but to also join a combat unit. Kelmer's decision stemmed from a mix of religious ideology and previous trips to Israel, which dotted her life since she was born. She said she had a familiarity and comfort level with Israel and Israelis and that this eased her transition from American citizen to Israeli soldier.
With her blonde hair and upbeat, friendly personality, she is emblematic of what many Israelis see as standard American traits. Kelmer would have no problem fitting in on a typical American college campus. Still, here she was, fitting in with her fellow soldiers as part of an Israeli combat unit. She said she had no regrets and was happy with her decision, but that she had not decided whether or not she would live in Israel after completing her military service.
Most of the men in the unit joined after participating in a special one-year service program. As such, they were among friends upon joining the unit. These men did not express any qualms about serving with women. On the contrary, many said that they enjoyed it- both for reasons having to do with why any teenager would like being around girls as well as for the behavioral balance that females bring to the unit.
Asked if his friends gave him a hard time about serving in combat with women, one soldier said that some did, but that they were the ones who were working in offices. None of his friends in combat units hassled him about it. He said this is because they understand what is required in a combat unit and that women can do most of the same things that a guy can; all the same things if you subtract the physical aspect, important as it is to most types of military combat.
Other men in the unit arrived due to a lack of options. One soldier explained that he had a low fitness profile and other units would not have him. Yet, he wanted to serve in a combat role. Karakal gave him a chance.
Israeli soldiers in the co-ed Karakal combat unit on their final hike of basic training.
Some men said they did not end up in Karakal by choice. A few expressed their ambivalence and displeasure with the unit. However, most comments were more centered on a general dislike of military life, rather than any specific aspect of Karakal. "We got up at 1 AM, they told us to walk, so I'm walking here. I got 2 and half more years of this. What can you do?" said one soldier.
As the hike wore on, increasing strain became evident on the faces and postures of the soldiers. A few became emotional. While most of those who did so were female, both male and female soldiers seemed to struggle and require additional support from their peers in equal proportions. Without fail, when someone was having a hard time, fellow soldiers quickly came to their aid. Sometimes it took the form of a hand to hold, sometimes a readjustment of equipment, and sometimes just some encouraging words.
At the top of an incline overlooking the end point of the hike, an army base, stretchers were assembled and the soldiers had to carry some of their comrades. This was part of the "grand finale" of the exercise. Soldiers took turns being on the teams underneath the stretchers- quite a difficult task after hours of hiking in the desert in full combat gear. As the finish got closer, soldiers began loudly chanting "Fun, fun, what fun, (to carry stretchers) on my shoulder". An Israeli flag was unfurled. Cars on the adjacent highway honked their horns in support.
As the hike came to an end, soldiers inside the base spontaneously congregated by the gates and shouted encouragement. The crowd grew as the soldiers finished their hike and made it to the end.
One of the soldiers' parents sponsored a meal and a table was set up to accommodate the sandwiches, vegetables, hot dogs, and sweets. There were also cookies with the unit's logo on them. It could have been a high school graduation party. Almost.
Officers ate alongside soldiers, including Ben Yakar as well as brigade commander and Full-Bird Colonel Guy Biton, who joined and supervised the soldiers during the hike as well.
The ceremony, held later that day at an amphitheatre overlooking the Negev desert, echoed a high school graduation, only with berets replacing mortarboards, uniforms replacing gowns, and assault rifles replacing diplomas. Families were in attendance, cameras and supportive signs in hand. Commanders gave speeches. Awards were handed out. Promotions were formally announced. Drab, generic olive green berets were exchanged for the florescent green berets of the Karakal Unit. Even the soldiers who were the most detached during the hike glowed with pride. After berets had been placed on all, families swarmed their children.
After the hike, sitting in one of the open tents on the base that serves as a home for soldiers during many weeks of basic training, Raskin shared his perspectives on women in combat. Raskin is a man who has seen war. He fought as a part of an all-male combat unit earlier in his career. Asked if he would he feel comfortable going into combat with Karakal, he immediately responded, "Yes. In fact, in some ways, I would feel more even comfortable with this unit than the one I was with before."