Oketz girl 311.
(photo credit: IDF Spokesperson)
Katja’s best friend is Domino. No, that is not the nickname of an elementary
school friend with whom she grew up in Kansas, but it is the name of the
30-kilogram Belgian shepherd who serves alongside her in the elite IDF canine
unit called Oketz.
Due to her membership in this highly-classified unit,
Katja can only be identified by her first name. Her face also needs to be
Born in a suburb of Kansas City 21 years ago, Katja first came
here at eight with her parents and two brothers. She visited numerous times
since then and as she enthusiastically declares: “Judaism and Zionism were
always at the center of my life.” After high school, Katja came here with the
Nativ program affiliated with the United Synagogue Youth movement. She then
returned to the US for college at the University of Michigan.
“I went on
the March of the Living, which had significant impact on me, and that is when I
decided that I wanted to come to Israel for a year and give back, and thought it
would be enough, but after being a year back in the US and missing it, I thought
there was more I could give and I decided to join the army,” she
“To live and make a life here, it is significant to serve in the
She announced her decision to her parents during a family trip
here last summer. Her mother, in particular, was a bit shocked, mostly out of
concern for her only daughter who would be moving thousands of miles away to
serve in the military.
“It was hard for them and for me to be far away
from each other and not always to know what I am doing, but they are very
supportive and proud,” she says.
Back in the US after the trip, Katja got
her logistics in order and flew back, enlisting in the IDF in November without
really knowing any Hebrew. She decided to serve in a combat unit and got
accepted into Oketz.
Training in Oketz is a long process. Firstly, to get
accepted, soldiers need to pass a day of grueling physical stamina tests. Once
in, they undergo full combat basic training just like their infantry
counterparts. The decision to allow female soldiers to serve in Oketz was made
by defense minister Shaul Mofaz in 2004.
Male dog handlers serve in the
field accompanying daily IDF operations in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and the
border with Lebanon. The female soldiers in Oketz are mostly deployed with dogs
at checkpoints throughout the West Bank, where they assist in searching
Katja has yet to make aliya and is currently serving in the
unit as part of Mahal, the IDF’s foreign volunteer program, lasting usually
about a year and a half. Katja plans to serve longer since the training for
Oketz is a year long. She is not yet sure what she will do after her discharge –
return to the US to complete college and then make aliya, or remain
Growing up with a pet dog, her service in Oketz is a like a dream
“I had heard about Oketz when I was thinking about joining the
army and did more research and saw it was a dream come true,” she says. “It was
like two of the best things put together, and to think that I could work with
dogs and help Israel was the greatest opportunity.”
The training, she
says, is physically challenging, but overall she feels lucky to be serving in
the elite unit.
“In America you go to high school, college, get a job,
get married and live a very structured life,” she says. “I am not saying that
this type of life is bad, but it is very cool and scary to break out of that