Vital, challenging, exhausting - life on the front line for women

Three Samaria Brigade officers talk about the realities of IDF service.

female soldiers 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
female soldiers 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
As the status of women in the IDF improves, more combat positions are being opened to them and male soldiers increasingly see their female colleagues as equals. But at what cost? Three female officers in combat positions with the Samaria Brigade, responsible for the Nablus district and the busy Hawara checkpoint south of the city, this week discussed with The Jerusalem Post what it's like to be a woman in such an overwhelmingly masculine environment, and how far they can and wish to go in their military careers. Capt. Reut Ouzan from Holon, 25, is the Samaria Brigades's chief operations officer. She commands its operations room and its counterparts at the battalion level. "The operation room is the heart of the brigade. It always needs to see the fullest possible picture," she says, summarizing her job as moving the unit's forces from place to place and to making sure orders are efficiently received and implemented. Ouzan's primary role is authorizing the movement of residents of Nablus and of the area's Jewish settlements, and deciding when and how to open the district's checkpoints. Her private life is almost nonexistent. She is on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and spends every third weekend at the base. The responsibilities on her young shoulders seem endless. "I deal now and have dealt in the past with people's lives, whether it's that of a soldier in the field or an innocent Palestinian at a checkpoint. I have to constantly stay focused because if a terrorist attack comes out of the district it means we didn't fulfill our mission." Her last boyfriend served in the same base; now she is alone. "This is hard. At the end of the day I am a 25-year-old woman who lives in the field. I really don't know what man will accept me," she says, insisting she will not let that stand in the way of her work. Ouzan dreams of becoming a lieutenant-colonel, at least. Fully aware that the IDF has never had a female major-general, she says she still wants "to break boundaries that haven't been crossed yet." Lt. Meital Rozenberg, 22, from Kibbutz Dalia in the North, is a company commander in the brigade's observation unit. She commands dozens of male combat soldiers. "Our goal is to protect the neighboring Jewish settlements by protecting our combatants during their missions inside Nablus," she says. "Originally, my position was supposed to be filled by a male, and this is why I have a male deputy. It is a very sensitive, challenging position." They have to contend with hostile activities in Nablus almost every night, Rozenberg says, and she does not get to bed before six a.m. "I've been here for a year and a half and the male soldiers have become used to me and understood that female soldiers can do just as good a job," she says. Sometimes she goes out on missions with her soldiers. Rozenberg's battalion has four female and three male company commanders. She completes her assignment in four months, and after a short break from the army she plans to take up a new challenge. "I really believe a female soldier who wants to be promoted has to use her elbows and push hard to get where she wants," she says. Rozenberg sleeps in her uniform, "because soldiers enter our rooms" and stays on call even during rare weekends off. She hardly ever spends time with her family and friends. "What I do here fits my personality and capabilities. Right now, I don't think there is anything outside the service for me that would give me the same satisfaction I get here," she says. Lt. Eleanore Milstein from Kfar Shmaryahu was born in Brazil and adopted when she was two days old. Twenty-one years later, as chief medical officer of the Samaria Brigade's district, she is responsible for many people's lives. "We work together with Magen David Adom and the Palestinian Red Crescent paramedics to save victims of car accidents by sending them to Israeli hospitals. We have to respond quickly when soldiers are wounded during IDF operations designed to capture terrorists inside Nablus and evacuate them to Israeli hospitals. Sometimes I have to decide whether an injured Palestinian who can't be treated in a Nablus hospital will be evacuated to an Israeli hospital," she says. Milstein is moving to a much calmer position in a medical officers' preparation course next week, after a year and a half in her current job. She does not intend to stay in the army much longer, instead planning to study art or architecture. "In the field, the soldiers and my colleagues respect my professionalism, regardless of the fact that I am a woman, but this is not an easy environment for a girl. When a crowd of Palestinians gather during an incident they won't listen to me until I raise my voice," she says. "It's a satisfying but exhausting job," Milstein goes on. "I don't have time to eat, I hardly sleep and during exceptional events like the war in Lebanon, I sleep on the floor with everyone else, with a ceramic flak jacket on." When the three women gather for a joint photo they realize none of them actually possesses a "civilian" wardrobe. "It doesn't matter," they laugh, and one says: "We feel just as good in our field outfits."