The human spirit: The woman in the Puma

There is a small group of exceptional females that are being counted on to keep our soldiers alive from injury on the battlefield to the hospital.

A female soldier has mud applied to her face for camouflage in this photo from an IDF Instructors course in 2006. (photo credit: IDF FLICKR)
A female soldier has mud applied to her face for camouflage in this photo from an IDF Instructors course in 2006.
(photo credit: IDF FLICKR)
A friend pointed out an article in the Hebrew press about women paramedics serving in combat units inside Gaza.
And what do you know, I happened to be sitting next to just such a woman at a luncheon at medical conference in Jerusalem. And at the entrance to the Intensive Care Unit of Hadassah University Medical Center, in Jerusalem’s Ein Kerem, where a terror victim and a wounded medic were both being treated, I met a petite young woman named Yuval. She was there to visit the wounded soldier.
“He’s my best friend,” she said. “We served together in Gaza.”
Yuval is one of the paramedics who went into the Gaza Strip as part of the IDF ground forces of Operation Protective Edge against Hamas.
Who knew there were women serving in Gaza? As a first sergeant in the tank corps, she entered the Strip inside an armored vehicle called a “Puma” (from the Hebrew for “obstacle remover”). It’s a heavily armored combination personnel carrier and combat engineering vehicle.
It looks like a tank, and indeed the hull is a modified British Centurion (which has enraged certain British critics).
Pumas carry Carpet mine-clearing systems and electronic equipment for detonating roadside bombs and jamming detonation signals.
An average Puma weighs 50,000 kg. Yuval weighs 45 kg. Her backpack weighs nearly as much.
“The equipment is heavy, but I rarely have to carry it very far,” she said.
On the bumpy ride into Gaza City, she was anxious.
“I was scared going into Gaza,” she said.
“But I told myself that the men were scared too, and I wasn’t going to show anything.”
She wasn’t too scared to fall asleep.
“You’re eight persons inside, sitting up. I found myself nodding off. When I woke up, I realized we were inside. ‘Not so bad,’ I thought.”
To be exact, her Puma was in Shejaiya, the neighborhood in eastern Gaza City where the fiercest battles of the operation took place. And she was there to treat the wounded.
My luncheon seatmate, let’s call her E, did the same job in Bint Jbail in the Second Lebanon War.
“We treated patients inside personnel carriers and tanks,” she said. “Back then, it was a deep dark secret that women had crossed over the enemy lines. Everyone was afraid we’d be kidnapped.
But now it’s out in the open.”
This time around, she remained in a command position back in Israel.
“This is why,” she said, and showed me the picture of a smiling toddler on her phone. “My husband is an officer inside Gaza, and I didn’t think it was fair for both of us to be out of communication.”
Yuval is a star athlete and excellent student. She’s the youngest of three daughters. Her older sisters are twins.
They grew up in a town in the center of Israel, a community with good schools and a community-wide technology enrichment program. In 1949, it was an immigrant camp for refugees from Eastern Europe, Yemen and Morocco, who lived in wooden huts. We called them immigrants, not refugees.
Yuval’s mom is the town mayor. A Sabra, she too served in the IDF, for her it was the air force. Back then she couldn’t become a pilot.
As late as 1993, while Ezer Weizman was president, and a woman asked for his help to be admitted to a pilots’ training course, he reportedly replied: “I don’t agree with you. Have you ever seen a man knitting socks? Have you ever seen a woman surgeon or a woman conducting a symphony? Women are not capable of withstanding the pressures needed to be a combat pilot.”
Yuval’s mom took a break from her career in hi-tech to go into public service.
Her first summer on the job turned out to be very busy. She had to make sure the town kindergartens and schools where camps took place had shelters.
Residents complained that the warning sirens weren’t loud enough. She had those fixed. She had daily meetings about reassuring her town’s folks and running a 24-hour emergency hotline.
And then there were missiles and debris from the Iron Dome. A missile knocked the windows out of their home. And while she was dealing with the town issues and repairing the home, she knew her youngest daughter was inside Gaza.
“It’s very tough,” Yuval’s mother said.
“When she was accepted for this position, I asked her if this was really what she wanted. And as soon as she said yes, I was behind her 100 percent, worries notwithstanding.”
Yuval decided when she was 14 that she wanted to become a paramedic, and held on to her dream. A close friend named Jonathan, was grievously wounded in military service.
“He was very badly injured and I felt it would have gone better if there had been better care in the field. I decided I wanted to do that. I am totally devoted to the soldiers with whom I serve.”
She’s the only woman among them.
“They construct a private corner for me when I need it,’ she said.
After 12 Golani infantry soldiers were killed in the battle of Shejaiya, her unit was summoned to battle.
“I heard the shooting, [and] wondered if I would be among the dead,” she said. “But I realized I wasn’t alone here. I thought of Jonathan and the reason I became a paramedic. ‘They count on me,’ I said to myself.”
The hardest part of the job is to make sure the wounded survive the long stretch to the border where they can be airlifted to a hospital.
That’s when the soldier she’s come to visit was hit.
“We heard on the radio that two medics were badly injured evacuating the injured, but that we shouldn’t approach because of the heavy mortar attack.”
The nurse on duty said she could go in to visit now.
Yuval looked around the Hadassah Intensive Care Unit. Her plans? She’d like to study here. Dealing with the wounded has just increased her desire to help.
She’d wants to be a doctor when she grows up.
When she grows up. She seems pretty grown up to me.
The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America.
The views in her columns are her own.