Captain Gal Vaknin remembers every detail from the interview she had with the commander of the 52nd Battalion of the 401st Armored Brigade.
“You have to picture the situation,” recounts Vaknin. “I’ve barely sat down when he starts drilling me: ‘Let’s say war breaks out – what’s your reaction?’ So I respond, ‘What do you mean? I quickly grab my medical gear and equipment and gather everyone. I do whatever needs to be done.’ He looks at me for a second and then says, ‘Ok, very good.’ When I ask him what he expected me to say, he tells me, ‘I just wanted to make sure you weren’t planning on running away.’ ‘No way,’ I reply. ‘My first responsibility is to the battalion and my soldiers above all else.’”
A year and 10 months after that initial interview, Capt. Vaknin is still the only woman in the IDF to serve as a medical field doctor in the infantry, which in the case of war, would cross over into enemy territory.
“Today, medical officers and paramedics are extremely competent in their jobs,” Vaknin asserts. “From the start, they are taught to be calm and professional in emergency situations so that they can do their work and save people’s lives. They’re very good at this. There was a recent medical emergency in Givati and the paramedic and the entire medical team performed amazingly – calmly and without hesitating. That’s part of the job.”
Vaknin doesn’t have any scars on her body from bullets or other battle wounds and she’s not eager for Israel to go to war, but she always wanted to be a doctor.
“You have to study and get through many difficult years before you can become a doctor, but if you strive for this goal for the right reasons, then somehow you find the energy to keep going. When someone I’ve treated heals, I see that all the hard work was worth it. I never imagined, however, what it would be like to become a military doctor out in the field. I didn’t have a very realistic image of the position when I was 18. You’re not really a soldier, but also not a normal doctor, either. But I’m extremely glad that I’m here now.”
Vaknin was born in Nesher, near Haifa. Her older brother is still serving in the navy.
“I decided to become a military doctor, because when I calculated how many years it was going to take me to finish my studies and start my medical residency, I realized I’d probably be 30 or 32, if you take into consideration time for the post-army trip overseas before starting college. Even with serving as an IDF doctor, I’ll still get to that point around the same age. I don’t consider what I’m doing a military career – it’s more like I feel like I’m having a meaningful army experience.”
THE TRAJECTORY a combat medical officer takes is completely different from that of a typical IDF combat soldier. The former begins medical school and then between semesters squeezes in basic training and the officer-training course, without ever spending any real time with regular soldiers or learning what it’s like to serve in the IDF.
“I was 25 when I finished my medical studies. I had done all my military training in the summertime,” Vaknin recalls.
“I started the officer training course at Bahad 1 in February and it was freezing outside. Everyone was wearing their fleeces zipped up. I figured that it must be mandatory to have it zipped all the way up like that, so I asked a soldier walking by if this was true. He just stood there and stared at me as if I’d fallen from the moon. Finally, he replied, ‘Yes,’ so I asked him if it had to be zipped to a certain height, and again he hesitated and then replied, “Yes, all the way up.” The only soldiers on this base are participating in the officer training course, so all of them have been in the IDF already for many months or even years, so there’d be no reason for someone there not to know the answer to my questions. I had so many information gaps I needed to fill about being in the army.”
After finishing her internship at Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv, Vaknin was offered the choice of becoming a doctor in an IDF medical clinic or becoming a field doctor in the armored corps. She didn’t hesitate for even a second.
“I don’t regret my decision at all,” Vaknin says with a chuckle. “I know I would have been miserable working in a military medical clinic. It’s very draining – all day long soldiers come to you with ailments and then you go home and go to sleep, just to wake up the next morning and do the same thing all over again.”
What is it like being a field doctor?
It’s incredibly challenging. Friends of mine who are doctors ask me all the time how hard it really is. I tell them to imagine working the Saturday night shift in an ER, and then instead of going home at the end of the shift, you continue working all week long, non-stop. It’s a very difficult position because a field doctor just jumps right in without having had any regular army experience. From day one, you’re meant to command a unit of soldiers. From the start, I needed to make important decisions when I barely even knew how the army functioned, and never before had I been the top authority making all the medical decisions on my own.
What’s it likely working in such a male-dominated environment?
I don’t really feel that it’s made much of a difference that I’m a woman. I’ve been in many situations before where I was the only woman, so I guess I’m used to it. I don’t think it’s impacted my work – I’m very professional. During training, there were times I had to sleep out in the field with my soldiers, which was fine, and I had no trouble finding a place to pee. I got used to it pretty quickly. I think they got used to me pretty quickly, too.
What’s your opinion on women serving in combat units?
I consider myself a feminist, but I was never much of a social activist. In my opinion, if a woman does a good job, then everyone will see that she’s just as good as men are. In general, women do not have the same physical capabilities as men, but there are plenty of women who do have incredible physical capabilities. Our paramedics are currently engaging in very demanding training, and I’m amazed at how well all of our female paramedic cadets are functioning on the long treks with the heavy equipment. They’re a very inspiring group of soldiers.
Were they the ones laying down in the stretchers?
No way. After three days of walking with all of the equipment and barely any sleep, I made them run hard. I treat the female paramedics in exactly the same way as their male colleagues. Their commanders were extremely proud of them.
Do you think female soldiers should be allowed to serve in tanks?
Sure, if they have the appropriate temperament and meet the physical requirements.
VAKNIN HAS never been to war, but she has approached the Gaza border a number of times with her combat unit to keep the area secure when rioting took place on the other side of the fence.
“At one point, we were responsible for a section of the fence area near Gaza for about six weeks,” Vaknin recalls. “We slept in the Wolf Armored Vehicle. The first few nights were a bit overwhelming, since I hadn’t had such intense combat training like my soldiers had, but I soon got used to it and then I was fine. I was very busy making sure none of my soldiers got hurt.”
Are field doctors itching to see some action?
I don’t think so. We all function well under stress and are very professional, but also hope that there will be as few casualties as possible.
What is it like treating an injured person while under fire?
I don’t know how other people function, but when I’m in a stressful situation and I need to treat an injured person, everything else around me becomes quiet and I’m able to focus on treating the injured person. Once, I was at a family gathering and someone needed medical attention. Apparently, there’d been lots of conversation while I was treating him, and afterwards when my family was talking about it, I realized I hadn’t heard any of the conversation. In other words, I function better in medical emergencies than when I’m relaxed.
But it must be nicer working as a civilian doctor, no?
Civilian doctors also need to function under incredibly stressful conditions. Every time a surgeon begins a surgery, a million things can go wrong. And ER doctors deal with patients who stop breathing all the time. I must say, though, that military field doctors do learn to make quick decisions, work independently, deal with incredible stress and security threats. When you’re a doctor in the army, you also quickly learn how to command soldiers and manage a team. I’m sure these skills will also come in handy once I transition to civilian life. It’s not a coincidence that many department heads had served as field doctors.
How well prepared is the IDF Medical Corps for war?
I don’t know about the rest of the army, but I can tell you that the units out in the field are extremely well equipped to deal with medical problems. The field doctors are caring, dedicated and extremely capable.
Do you think you might need to go to war at some point?
Of course I might. Thankfully, I’ve not had to until now, but we are always prepared for this scenario and the first thing I would need to do is know exactly where all of my people are. Every day I call each unit and check to make sure we don’t have any personnel shortages, such as soldiers out doing courses or out sick for the day. I need to know the status of each paramedic and doctor, and make sure that each of them checked all their equipment every day to make sure they’re not missing something. I check to make sure each ambulance and armored vehicle is fully equipped. Part of my job is making sure that we’re ready to go to war at any moment in time. Of course, I’m updated from above regarding security assessments.
Are you accessible 24/7?
Yes. I never turn off my phone or even put it on silent mode, since you never know when an important call will come through. When one of my doctors calls me in the middle of the night, my heart skips a beat, since that’s not a normal occurrence. Sometimes I get calls in the middle of the night to tell me that a soldier got injured, so I go take care of him. I am always on call.
What does it feel like knowing that you’re the first female IDF field doctor?
It didn’t give me an ego boost or anything like that. I just feel like I’m doing an important job to the best of my abilities. Although it is fun being the first one.
At 28, you have three more years of military service left. Do you have any plans to become the IDF Chief of Staff one day?
When IDF doctors stay in the army, they usually move on to administrative positions and don’t continue practicing medicine. I really like being a doctor, so I don’t think I’ll end up staying in the army, but I might change my mind in the future. You never know…
You still haven’t taken a post-army trip overseas.
Yeah, that’s true. I’ll probably take a trip, but it might not be such a long one. I’ve just always wanted to be a doctor – even back in junior high school, I knew.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.
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