Motherly eyes in the sky

Air Force choosing more and more women to serve in lucrative positions.

UAV female pilots 248.88 (photo credit: Ruth Eglash)
UAV female pilots 248.88
(photo credit: Ruth Eglash)
It's Thursday afternoon at the Israel Air Force base at Palmachim - less than 48 hours before Israel launched Operation Cast Lead against Hamas - and, despite the looming threat of an attack on the Gazan rocket infrastructure, Capt. Shira and Sgt. Keren, two of the female engineers who operate Israel's unmanned aerial vehicles, appear fairly relaxed. "I read in this morning's newspaper that there will be military action," says Shira, a 28-year-old who has been a professional soldier since finishing her compulsory IDF service eight years ago. She is not allowed to talk too much about such an operation, but, she explains, "if there is such an action, our job is to help those who are on the ground. We'll be their eyes from above. Usually that means identifying hostile forces and warning the soldiers about what is waiting for them." In essence pilots on the ground, the role of Keren and Shira (IDF regulations prohibit the publication of their full names) is to operate the planes, known as Herons, by remote control and monitor any military action with the help of built-in real-time video cameras. While such jobs, which involve advanced training and understanding of technology, were traditionally held by men, the two women are part of a growing number of females selected by the air force to serve in such positions. What sets Keren and Shira apart from the other 20 or so other women performing this task is that both are brand-new mothers. Keren, 29, has a five-month-old at home. She shrugs off what could be weeks of intense shift-work and long periods away from her family as she helps to guide Israel's offensive. "I don't believe we're moving toward a full-blown war right now," she observes. "If there is some type of military activity, it will likely only last for a few days, and not for months like the last war [in Lebanon]. However, if we do need to be here more than usual then we'll manage, just like anyone... That's why we have husbands and babysitters to look after the babies. It will be difficult, but we'll manage." Two-and-a-half years ago, when Israel found itself at war with Hizbullah on the northern border, Keren - who has been a UAV operator for the past four years - was thrust into the midst of the fighting... albeit by remote. "It was a difficult period personally and professionally," she recalls, describing how she was scheduled to be married in mid-August 2006 and had to plan her wedding "between my shifts." "It was an intense period and I didn't think any of my colleagues would be able to make it to the wedding. At one point, we even had a pilot's briefing about my wedding to discuss what would happen if the war continued and we had to have the wedding during the war!" Keren said. Luckily, the Second Lebanon War ended two days before her wedding and Keren married her former commander, who was released from the IAF only six months ago. Despite the stress of that period, Keren says she also "had a feeling of great satisfaction during the war." "There are so many people who serve in the army for years and never get the opportunity to utilize their training and contribute to the protection of the State of Israel," she says. "Whatever your feelings were about Israel's successes in the war, I think the air force's performance was excellent. We met all our targets and our assignments successfully." While Keren and Shira, who served in other roles during the Second Lebanon War, point out the high and low points of those tumultuous weeks, both acknowledge that their feelings toward any similar action in the future may be a little different now that they are mothers. "Inside every young mother there's always that feeling of anxiety when you say good-bye to your child in the morning," Keren says. "I try to leave early twice a week to be with my son," says Shira, whose baby just celebrated his first birthday. "There is a price we have to pay to succeed here. We often have to work on holidays, over the weekend and through the night," she continues. "However, I do believe that having this job is a very real privilege. It is a very sought after and prestigious position in the air force; many people want to do it. "Anyone who wants to progress in their career has to work hard and, today, there are lots of women who have to work on holidays and festivals or stay late in the office. It does not seem so unusual." In fact, with the number of females serving in UAV unit having almost quadrupled over the last four years, both women agree that the army's attitude toward women and particularly mothers shows it "is one of the fairest employers in the market." "In the army, all my rights as a woman are protected by rules and regulations," Shira points out. "They can't fire me if I'm pregnant and they're flexible enough to let me leave early sometimes to pick up my son from nursery school. I know there are national laws, but not every private employer follows these as closely as the army does." Almost as an afterthought, she adds: "Even though it is a great place for women to work, you still need to have supportive family, especially your husband." Keren agrees: "When I think about where I will be 10 years from now, I think that if there is one great reason to stay in the army it's the support they give me, which I'm not sure if I would get in another place." "It's really nice to see the number of woman working in this field really growing," Keren says. "We have to work our shifts in pairs, and today there are very often two sets of women working in two different UAV stations," she adds. "It gives me a great sense of satisfaction to finally hear lots of women's voices over the radio talkback."