Women take the field: An inside look at a live-fire drill

Photo: Tal Manor, Shay Wagner

The mixed-gender Karakal Battalion drills rigorously, preparing its soldiers to operate smoothly in the most challenging circumstances

Date: 30/07/2012, 5:03 PM     Author: Adam May

Sgt. Chanah Schwartz climbs out of her cot at 2:00 a.m. to pack her gear. She drowsily begins filling her bag of medical supplies after a tough night of exercises and roughly two hours of sleep. The other members of her squad emerge from the tent and gather together for the day’s exercise – an early start to an important day. By 4:00 a.m., the different companies of the Karakal Battalion have received their briefings and assembled in formation.

Karakal, the IDF (Zahal)’s only mixed-gender battalion, is a relatively young unit. In 2004, the battalion was cobbled together from the growing number of mixed-gender companies, which had been created to provide more opportunities for women like Chanah to serve in combat units. Today marks the unit’s second battalion-wide exercise.

In the early hours of dusk, the soldiers are nothing but faint shadows in the low light. Like the Caracal desert cat, from which the unit derives its name, it is difficult to tell male from female. Under helmets, gear, and face paint, Chanah is indistinguishable; the soldiers are a uniform force, advancing together in the soundless morning. They arrive at the base of a desert hill, reaching the starting point for the day’s encounter.

A pair of commanders stands on a hilltop beside a company of tanks. As the sun rises, the soldiers begin to make out the winding path through which they will advance and the various enemy hilltop strongholds that they will conquer by the day’s end. Within an instant, the air around them contracts and erupts under the power of a tank blast. Chanah begins running towards her first target under a hail of machine gun fire and the cover of tank rounds. The exercise has begun.

Women take the field: An inside look at a live-fire drill

The infantry advances

As part of the Sagi Regional Brigade, Karakal’s main mission is to help guard the Egyptian-Israeli border, an increasingly complicated task given the increase in terror activity in the Sinai. Today’s exercise provides the battalion a rare opportunity to train for the more expansive operations they would undertake in the event of war.

In an impressive display of integration, the infantry soldiers are joined by a company of tanks that will help cover their advance as they take down more fortified positions. The various companies advance in waves, alternately providing covering fire, flanking positions, and charging head-on. With seamless and urgent orchestration, live fire punctuates each movement, as tank rounds create an advancing wall of dust mere yards ahead of the progressing soldiers.

Chanah’s company begins the exercise in reserve, half a kilometer behind the advancing force. They crouch and wait as the vanguard takes down the first hilltop position. As a series of smoke rounds provides cover, the unit takes a collective breath. Unseen by the imagined enemy, Chanah’s company circles the base of a hill, preparing to take the hilltop position from the side.

A forward element charges and hits the ground, taking position 20 meters ahead. A plume of red smoke peeks over the hill. After a torrent of gunfire and grenades, the company systematically takes the hilltop position. As the first soldier hits the summit, she reaches the bullet-riddled barrel symbolizing the enemy. A cheer erupts from the squad.

An ambitious journey

As the unit consolidates its position, commanders take stock of the situation, giving the soldiers a brief chance to catch their breath. Taking the rare opportunity to let her hair down, Chanah takes a moment to reflect.

Merely two years ago, Chanah was still living in France with her family. After deciding to move to Israel and join the IDF (Zahal), she passed a series of rigorous physical and mental tests and was finally admitted to Karakal.

However, Chanah’s journey was just beginning. She endured eight months of rigorous training, alongside both male and female comrades. In addition, after being chosen to become one of the company’s medics, she underwent extra training in first aid. Beyond the extensive preparations most soldiers made for this day, she took part in extra drills and briefings for the medics of the Brigade.

Chanah’s break is cut short by a call from her commander. A “wounded” soldier is brought back from the front lines, giving Chanah a chance to work her skills. As the company prepares to move again, she manages to stabilize the injured soldier and send him to the triage center far behind the frontlines. The potentially disastrous event moves like clockwork, and before anyone can blink, the company is off and running to the next checkpoint.

Women take the field: An inside look at a live-fire drill

All in a day’s work

As the drill winds down, the hilltops become dotted with soldiers consolidating positions. Former enemy strongholds have been neutralized, captured, and manned by green uniforms. The rapidly moving streams of soldiers begin to slow down and trickle back to the rear positions.

Exhausted soldiers gather around, discussing the drill. They trade stories, recount achievements, and express awe at the power of the armor and airpower that joined them.

Chanah, never resting, is treating a real injury. Even in the morning, the heat is oppressive, and even the most diligent soldiers can find themselves dehydrated. As she feeds an IV into her friend’s arm, they both beam with an exhausted pride. Another successful day on the front lines.