Israel’s military, filled as it is with machismo, may have come up with the best idea to motivate its male soldiers to be physically fit — a female instructor.
“Men can’t stand it when there is someone stronger, faster, better than they are,” said Capt. Maya Nitzan, 26, the first female physical training instructor for an all-male paratrooper’s brigade. “Having a woman trainer gives them an impetus to want to do better — even better than they would if a man were in my position because they could say he is just macho. … In front of men with egos it works.”
“I’ve been training them for about a year,” said Nitzan, who noted that she runs faster than most of the men she trains.
She runs 10 kilometers in 47 minutes and can climb a six-meter rope twice with only her upper body strength.
“I tell combat soldiers that their body is their most important machine, and that if they don’t maintain it, they put their lives at risk,” said Nitzan, who is known as the “crazy red-haired officer” because of her flaming red locks. “If your upper body is not strong enough, you won’t be able to carry a heavy weapon any distance or hold it steady and aim it when you fire.”
She was interviewed here in advance of this week’s fundraising dinner sponsored by the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Founded in 1981 by a group of Holocaust survivors, the FIDF is a not-for-profit group that provides educational, social, cultural and educational programs and facilities for members of the IDF.
Among other IDF officers on hand for the dinner was Second Lt. Chen Waxman, 21, a member of the coveted Karkal Battalion that includes both men and women training side-by-side for combat. It is the only battalion — a ground force of 300 to 400 soldiers — in which women are authorized to engage in combat operations in Israel.
In contrast, a yearlong Pentagon study released last month now gives American women soldiers formal approval to be assigned to a battalion, instead of just temporary attachments. But they are still barred from all combat.
Critics, who note that more than 140 women in the U.S. military have been killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, insist the ban impedes a woman’s military career. Supporters say the military is not ready for women in combat and insist that the demands of the job are too strenuous.
But don’t tell that to the women the Karkal Battalion. Since 2004 they and the men beside them have trained as one unit. About two-thirds of the battalion is women.
“We work together — men and women — commanders and soldiers,” said Waxman, who lived in New Jersey from 1993 until 1998. “It started as an experiment and the army saw that it worked so well that gradually we have begun doing the same duties.”
Although the Karkal Battalion has guarded the Egyptian border and is authorized to engage in conflict within Israeli territory, it is not permitted to cross the border into another country for conflict. Cross-border operations are generally reserved for elite units.
“We always have to prove ourselves and that we can fill the positions like men,” Waxman said, adding that she believed additional male-female battalions would be formed once this one proves “it can really work.”