This woman’s best friend

She grew up with a beloved dog at home in Kansas City, so serving in the IDF’s elite canine unit is like a dream come true.

Oketz girl 311 (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson)
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 blurred.
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 says.
“To live and make a life here, it is significant to serve in the army.”
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 Palestinians.
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 here.
Growing up with a pet dog, her service in Oketz is a like a dream come true.
“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 structure.”