- 29 января 2013, 19:49
Corporal Arielle Werner, now a member of the IDF, welcomes the US decision to allow women to serve in combat roles
When she was a child growing up in Minnesota, Arielle Werner dreamed of becoming a veterinarian. Now the 21-year-old spends her days and nights patrolling the harsh desert landscape through which the Israeli-Egyptian border runs, wielding a gun, trained and ready to kill in defence of her country.
"If at the age of 19 you'd told me I'd be a combat soldier, I would have told you that you're crazy," she said in an interview with the Guardian. But, she added, "it's totally worth it. I wouldn't want to be anywhere else in the world – university, travelling. This is the place for me."
Werner is one of a small number of women combat soldiers in the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF). Since the state lifted its restriction on women serving in combat roles in 2000, only 4% of soldiers in fighting units are women.
But the principle of equality is important to the IDF, and to other countries which allow women to serve on the frontline.
Last week, the US officially lifted its ban on women in combat roles, with President Obama saying: "Today every American can be proud that our military will grown even stronger, with our mothers, wives, sisters and daughters playing a greater role in protecting this country we love."
Werner joined the IDF after immigrating to Israel from the US 18 months ago. "There was never any doubt in my mind that combat was the place for me. I wanted to give my all, physically, mentally, everything I had. And I have done that," she said.
She serves in the mixed-gender Caracal unit, named after an androgynous desert cat. "The unit drafts guys and girls equally, we're in the same groups and we do everything together. We have guy commanders, girl commanders, everything's just about equal, we become really good friends, just everyone together. We don't really even notice the genders after a while."
Training took seven or eight months. "It was tough. You have to learn how to shoot a gun, and there are physical tests in running, push-ups, an obstacle course. That was the hardest thing for me – you have all your gear on, your vest, gun, helmet, you run, you do a bunch of obstacles, like jumping over walls, climbing ropes, more running, and if you don't pass within the time, you have to do it all over again."
The training was the same for both male and female recruits, except women were allowed a little longer to complete their exercises. But Werner, who spoke only basic Hebrew before coming to Israel, faced an additional challenge. "I got to the state where I totally could handle anything they threw at me on the physical side. But the Hebrew – holding a conversation or understanding some of the lessons – that was very tough for me."
She found it challenging "because it's the army, not because I'm a woman. But I had enough motivation, enough will-power to get through everything."
Werner has never regretted joining a combat unit, although "there have been a couple of times when I have wanted to call my mum and tell her I was scared. But in the end everything's fine, I'm still here."
Last September, a male soldier in the unit was killed in a clash with militants who had managed to cross the border. A female soldier, named only as S, received a citation after firing two shots at the head of one of the militants, who was wearing a suicide belt. "I knew we were in mortal danger," she said at the time, adding that there was no room for hesitation or mistakes.
But another female soldier was reprimanded for hiding in bushes for more than an hour during the skirmish, while her comrades hunted for her, believing she had been killed or kidnapped. According to an Israeli radio report, she admitted she was afraid.
Werner conceded that some aspects of soldiering are more difficult for women. "For example, tanks are a little harder for women to be around – if you're stuck in a tank for three days … And there are some jobs that have a lot of mental strain, even on the men and I'm not sure if women could take it."
Israel is the only country which requires women to do military service, although in practice only around half of 18-year-old women enlist compared to 70% of young men. According to the IDF, 92% of roles in the military are open to women.
In May 2011, Orna Barbivai became the first woman to be promoted to the rank of major general. "I am proud … to be part of an organisation in which equality is a central principle. I am sure that there are other women who will continue to break down barriers," she said at the time.
Werner, whose interview with the Guardian was monitored by the IDF, said she had not encountered sexist attitudes among male soldiers in her unit. "The guys in my unit are actually pretty chilled. What the girls do here is tough so there's a lot of respect."
But other former women soldiers have told the Guardian of a pressure to be tough. "If you want to survive as a woman in the army, you have to be manly."
Inbar Michelzon, who later joined Breaking the Silence, a network of former soldier raising concerns about military practices in the occupied Palestinian territories. "There is no room for feeling. It's like a competition to see who can be tougher. A lot of the time girls are trying to be more aggressive than the guys."
Asked if she considers herself a feminist, Werner said: "I see myself more as an equal opportunist. I believe men and women should be treated as equals." Femininity on frontline, she conceded, was "a little tough, but we get by. Make-up and nail polish and earrings – that doesn't happen here. Everyone is wearing the same uniform."
She welcomed the US decision to allow women to serve in combat roles.
"I think it's fantastic. I think women should have the privilege of defending their country just like men. It's not a country of men, and a country of women, it's both. So both should have equal opportunities."