Through sunshine and some unseasonable rain, the male and female new recruits of the IDF’s Artillery Corps were out in the field earlier this month, an area accessible only by all-terrain vehicle or helicopter — and the women had an edge.
Before starting basic training, the more than 70 female recruits had already endured an almost two-week intensive program to prepare them for the rigors of their combat service. This field time was well-worn territory. But it was new ground for the boys.
“We had already been out to the shooting range, out in the field. We weren’t as in shock,” Pvt. Sara Tobol told The Times of Israel.
In late March, Tobol and 92 other women entered a preparatory course — known in Hebrew as a mechina — for artillery training. Twenty-two of them washed out, deemed unfit for a combat position, according to the course’s commander, Lt. Omer, who could only identified by his first name for security reasons.
The 71 women considered mentally and physically prepared for combat service were then joined earlier this month by their male counterparts to begin full basic training in the Corps.
According to the army, those 93 women who opted to try out are part of a trend of growing female interest in the Artillery Corps, one of the first Israel Defense Forces units to integrate women into combat roles and one of the most successful, with the vast majority of jobs open to women. Indeed, many of the highest-ranking female combat officers come from the artillery.
The previous draft brought in approximately 70 female recruits, with about 50 successfully completing the program and moving on to join the Artillery Corps. “And that draft was bigger than the one before it,” according to Lt. Col. Yigal Katzav, commander of the Artillery Corps’ training base, who oversaw both courses.
For Tobol, 21, who moved to Israel from France by herself two years ago, combat service was about camaraderie and a desire to push herself.
“I didn’t see myself sitting in air conditioning,” she said over the phone with a thick French accent.
The Artillery Corps also had a reputation of being a more egalitarian combat option than some of the other mixed-gender units, Tobol added.
Until not too long ago, women who wanted to wear the neon blue beret of the Artillery Corps suffered through a brutal daylong performance test — known in Hebrew as a gibush — to see if they could handle the stress of becoming a fighter.
We go over them, soldier by soldier, and ask, ‘Is she suitable for a combat position?’
“The chief infantry officer did away with that two years ago, and decided instead to have women do a preparatory program,” Katzav said during our phone call.
The two-week program gives new recruits “an experience, a sense” of what awaits them in their army service.
In order to command this preparatory program, Lt. Omer, who ordinarily serves in one of the Corps’ more elite units, left his comrades and returned to Shivta, an artillery training base deep in the Negev Desert.
There, Omer led a staff of nine commanders — two men, seven women — who ran the program for the 93 female recruits.
“I sincerely believe in the importance of integrating women into the army, into combat positions, especially in the Corps,” Omer said.
During the course of the program, some realized that this was not what they had anticipated and decided that it was not for them. “We review them, soldier by soldier, and ask, ‘Is she suitable for a combat position?'” Katzav explained.
‘We review them, soldier by soldier, and ask, “Is she suitable for a combat position?”‘
Unlike their male counterparts, women must volunteer to serve in a combat unit, which means that female recruits are, by definition, more eager to serve, he said.
“With girls, there’s no lack of motivation,” Omer agreed. “With boys, well, they don’t all necessarily want to be there.”
Unfortunately for a percentage of the volunteers, motivation and drive cannot overcome physical limitations. The close to 25 percent washout rate of this draft’s mechina was “about average,” Omer said.
The fitness demands have long been a sticking point in the full integration of female soldiers into combat positions, as most women’s bodies are physiologically less capable of handling the heavy burdens and long distances infantry soldiers are required to endure in training and in the field.
“It’s hard for me to demand of the girls what I demand of the boys, from a physical (fitness) standpoint,” Omer said.
As it is, female soldiers in the Artillery Corps deal with stress-related injuries at an alarming rate, Katzav said.
Last summer, the IDF revealed that approximately 70% of female artillery soldiers suffered from some kind of injury during their service, a number twice as high as their male equivalents. Female combat soldiers often suffer ankle, knee and back injuries as a result of their training and use of heavy equipment that is not designed for their bodies.
“It’s intolerable,” Katzav said.
Since then, the Corps has worked with the army’s fitness trainers to develop better ways of getting female soldiers to the physical level required without endangering them. For female soldiers in the Artillery Corps, that means shorter marches and lighter packs, including for the climactic “beret march,” in which soldiers trek dozens of kilometers after which they’re awarded their bright blue beret.
“It sounds bad, but women don’t do the full beret march. They do a lot less,” Katzav said.
‘A soldier comes up to you and says she’s having “feminine issues” — what do I do with that?’
Lt. Omer, whose only command experience has been with male soldiers, described the experience of being responsible for 100 female soldiers, including his staff, as eye-opening as well as challenging.
“A soldier comes up to you and says she’s having ‘feminine issues’ — what do I do with that?” he said.
With his male soldiers, Omer said, you can throw anything you want at them, and they won’t say a word. “Women are just a totally different population,” he continued. “I’ve never had to deal with that much crying.”
But for Tobol, there was nothing uncomfortable about approaching her male officer with problems. “I didn’t have any issues that I couldn’t speak with my male commander about. If I have one, there’s always a female officer around or some way to take care of it,” she said.
To Omer, the tears and complaints were not signs of weakness in his female soldiers, but the opposite.
“I love soldiers that don’t back away from telling you what they think. You need to have a lot of courage to come up to your commander and cry to him about something, and not just keep it in your gut,” added Omer. “It’s definitely a positive thing.”