To follow my blog click the “follow” widget above or the small red squares on the right side below.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

In The Military

On Thursday, the Pentagon lifted its 1994 ban on women in combat. Presumably, the model the U.S. has studied for integrating women into combat is the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), which enjoys the reputation of exhibiting more gender equality than any army in the world, even though Israeli women rarely fight wars. And though Israeli woman serve as fighter pilots, infantry officers, naval captains and Humvee drivers, only 3 percent serve in combat roles. 

The Pentagon news and the Israeli example brought me back to my own military service in Israel five decades ago. 

In my yet unpublished memoir I recognize one of the happiest days of my life to be the day I left my military base for the last time. After a two-year mandatory service, checkered with numerous infractions and courts martial, I was honorably discharged from the army. I remember the great sense of liberation I felt as I walked for the last time from the barrack that was mine toward my base’s checkpoint. As I was leaving my base behind, I walked slowly and deliberately, taking great pleasure in each stride, for each step I took on the base’s main road on my way out brought me closer to freedom, my invisible shackles melting into thin air. 

I was wasted in the army, not because it did not recognize my talents. The issue was less about me than it was about the status of women of my time in the military, and about the exercise of authority, a game one had to understand and know how to play not only to succeed in the military, but to endure it.

I fit in, socially. But little did I know that it would be in the military where my own heart, that which sought wisdom and meaning and fulfillment, would clash with the structure of authority; clash, but not crash. It took tragedy, only three years after my military service ended, for me deal with power and authority the correct way.  

In spite of its grueling nature, basic training was the only good experience I had in the army. On sandy hills I learned target-shooting with my heavy, Czech-made M-16, that shook my whole body with each shot; to throw hand-grenades; to shoot an Uzi; to crawl with a heavy kit-bag filled with military gear and hide in ditches; to watch for the enemy on my left, the enemy on my right, and camouflage; to build tents, peel potatoes, wash aluminum pots ten times my size, dust my barrack, shine my boots, and press my uniform to perfection. But in the end, basic training did not mean much, since in my time women in the military, officers including, filled administrative positions only, with many lower rank female soldiers wasting their talents, often serving coffee to their male superiors and doing other mundane chores. 

On my first night’s watch duty, I was standing alone, guarding an empty spot that had but a small lone bench. The night was pitch black; the air sweet; the silence piercing. All I could see were the shining stars; all I could hear was the faded sound of barking dogs in the distance. Mutely, I was humming familiar songs in my mind so I would stop thinking about how scared I was. Suddenly I heard gun shots from somewhere afar. Fearful, I dropped my gun and ran as fast as I could, an act punishable with a jail term if caught. I do not recall where I ran to. But when all was quiet, I went back to my spot and completed my task. It made little sense to stand there alone, as did most of my military service. 

The Army did not need many of us - females who came out of high school with no skills, but it used us nonetheless, and we did not speak out. I did, in my own insignificant, yet costly way.

To my satisfaction, research and studies about the same issues I confronted appeared decades later with the maturity of the Israeli feminist movement in general and the field of women’s studies in Israeli academia in particular.

Two weeks ago my Israeli great niece Naama successfully graduated her officer's course. I would like to believe that she'll find more meaning in her service than I found in mine. 


Tuesday, January 8, 2013

A Family Trip

Last Friday was extraordinary for me and for some members of my extended family.

Forty-five years after my husband Yigal was killed when his armored vehicle was hit by a Syrian shell, twenty-five of my relatives and I went on a trip tracking his battalion’s path on its way to capturing the Golan Heights in a suicidal battle that lasted two days – the last days of the 1967 Six Day War.

We were three generations of cousins, my niece and nephew and their children, and Yigal’s brother and his wife. Some were too young to recall the tense period that led to the war, or know anything about the war or about my past for that matter, though some cousins knew about Yigal from their parents.

We began the trip in the area where Yigal’s brigade gathered before battle. There, sobbing, his brother told us about Yigal’s bravery: Engulfed in flames, he jumped out of his burning armed vehicle, rolled on the ground to extinguish the fire, then, under fierce shelling, running forward he continued to command his unit until he collapsed. Only his belt was left on his body, its metal buckle melted.

He was taken to the hospital suffering burns over ninety-two percent of his body. There, he asked his doctor not to tell me about his injury because I was three months pregnant (I subsequently miscarried).
Earlier, when treated by the field doctors, he asked them not to tell me about his injury so I wouldn’t be disturbed while studying English. I was not. He must have confused his desire to enroll in the Technion (the Israeli equivalent to MIT), to study engineering, with my "English studies."

Our group then drove to Givat Ha’em (Mother’s Hill), from where his battalion began fighting. It was already there that his vehicle was hit. Rusty, it is still standing there as a memorial.

Someone placed the picture Yigal’s brother brought with him safely on the vehicle’s corner. I had planned to tell my family about Yigal and read from my still unpublished memoir a chapter that tells about the war and about Yigal’s death. All wanted me to speak by the vehicle.

There I told them about the tense days preceding the war, when Israel as a nation feared another holocaust because in his speeches President Nasser of Egypt promised to throw all Israelis to the sea. He had already taken aggressive actions that violated the terms under which Israel withdrew from the Sinai Desert a decade earlier.

I told them about our hope that a war would not break out, and about Yigal’s and my goodbyes. I told them about the knock on my door in the darkness of night. I told them about my trip to the hospital, the way I saw him burnt beyond recognition, and about the sound of his last breaths. I told them what his commander wrote about his leadership qualities and his camaraderie and about incidents in our life together that exhibited those characteristics.

I told them about my aunts and uncles – their parents – who, one-by-one filled my apartment upon hearing of Yigal’s death, and about the appearance of his brother there, having been called from the front, and how we silently hugged. Not a dry eye was left in that apartment. I told them that in the corner grocery store, my neighbors were whispering that the silence emanating from our home was worse than a thousand screams.
There was hardly a dry eye left on Mother’s Hill.

We then continued our journey on the path Yigal’s battalion fought until they conquered the Golan Heights, from where the Syrian had constantly shelled Israeli settlements in the valley beneath them.

We ended the trip with a family picnic, on a spot overlooking the now peaceful valley. A family bonded by its closeness and rich history.

My American family – my husband of forty years, my daughter and her family, were not with me on this trip. But that was fine. My past, that which occurred before they entered my life to my delight, belongs to me. The rest belongs with them.


To comment:

1. Type your remarks in the comment box bellow (if the box is not visible, left click on "comment" or "no comment" bellow. It will open).

2. Select from the menu under the box how you want to sign. If you have an account with one of the names on the list use it, or use name/URL to just sign your name, with or without your website address in the URL. Use anonymous if you want anonymity.
3. Click “publish.”

4. You may sign into your account if you have one.