June 6, 2005, just after 6 A.M. At the Qalqilyah checkpoint is a long line of Palestinian cars waiting to take passengers from the West Bank to Israel, for work. Facing them are soldiers from Caracal, a combat battalion. One sees two Palestinian women entering a taxi that’s moving toward Israeli territory. She asks them for ID, and a scuffle breaks out. The commander of the checkpoint, Lauren Dagan Amos, one of the first female soldiers in Caracal, runs to help the soldier. “In the midst of the struggle I head the soldiers at the checkpoint shout ‘terror attack, they have a bomb strapped to their body,” Dagan Amos recalls, and can’t stop her tears.
“I didn’t understand what was happening, I found myself lying on the road together with the two Palestinian women and everyone around us started moving away. I don’t remember calling for help, I thought that if this is what’s happening, let it happen quickly, so I won’t feel too much pain.” She doesn’t know how long she lay in the road, waiting to die, until two army jeeps arrived. To her surprise, they didn’t try to rescue her. “They were Shin Bet [security service] or combat soldiers, but I saw they were just standing far from me and shouting at me not to shoot, because it would set off the explosive.”
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Only later, when it was clear the Palestinian women weren’t carrying explosives, did the soldiers swoop down on the women.
“I’ll never understand why they left me on the road. To this day no one has explained it to me. I felt that my body simply collapsed there.”
Three months later, when Dagan Amos's rehabilitation was going nowhere, her physical therapist asked to meet her father. “This girl is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder,” he told her father. Dagan Amos had never heard of PTSD. “Suddenly I realized my failure has a name,” she says. “At the moment of truth I failed as a combat soldier. It’s a failure I live with every moment. ... I, one of the first female combat soldiers in Caracal, a success story, proof that women can be combat soldiers, who sent a 10-page letter to the chief of staff with research from abroad showing why I deserved to be a combat soldier. I failed at the moment of truth and that broke me.”
After grueling rehab, Dagan Amos was reassigned to the home front. Only now, 16 years later, at the age of 35, a doctoral candidate in political science at Bar-Ilan University studying the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (“I want to understand why they wanted to kill me,” she says), does Dagan Amos find the courage to speak about the incident that won’t leave her.
Dagan Amos is one of 100 female combat and combat-support service members in the army and the Border Police who took part in a rare, even unique, large-scale study, by Prof. Ayelet Harel-Shalev of Ben-Gurion University’s politics and government department and Prof. Shir Daphna-Tekoah of Ashkelon Academic College’s school of social work.
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They say they wanted the soldiers to relate the most significant event of their military service. “Almost all of them said it was the first time anyone had asked them about these experiences,” they had been asked what they went through in their service and how they dealt with it,” says Harel-Shalev. She and Daphna-Tekoah turned their study into a book, “Breaking the Binaries in Security Studies: A Gendered Analysis of Women in Combat.”
Without being asked specifically about a traumatic event, all the women interviewed reported that they had taken part in incidents in which they felt tension, great anxiety and danger to their lives. Two other issues that all the women brought up were what it was like to be a woman in a male role and how it was to be a combat soldier vis-à-vis the civilian population.
“They spoke passionately about the traumas they had never shared before, nor where they asked by any official,” Harel-Shalev tells Haaretz. “Very quickly we realized that women serving at the front felt that they were fighting a double battle,” she continues, “one on the battlefield and the other against society.”
Only six of the 100 women said they had initiated psychological therapy or counseling during their service or after, although all said they had experienced trauma in which they were exposed to death, danger of death and physical injury.
The study found that the women hesitated to ask for help so as not to be tagged as “damaged.” The idea that they had fought so hard to get where they were, and then had to ask for help “would serve the interests of those who are opposed to women in combat roles,” says Dagan Amos. “Female combat soldiers today are in the place where male combat soldiers were after the Yom Kippur War. Where it’s shameful to admit that you came out with trauma or you need the help of an army psychologist. Even today I can’t accept that I have PTSD. …I’m ashamed,” she added.
Shir Peled, who was drafted in 2002, was the first female combat soldier to go undercover, in the Border Police. Two years ago she began having physical and psychological symptoms and she realized she was suffering from PTSD. She didn’t know where to turn. She founded a Facebook group for female combat soldiers. “Female combat soldiers feel they’re strong. It’s hard for us to think of ourselves as a support group, to be victims.
“I had an incident of a terrorist who stood in front of me with a pistol, and the gun malfunctioned and didn’t go off,” she said. “When he started to run I stuck my foot out and tripped him and that’s how we arrested him. To this day there’s a joke in the unit about how I tripped him instead of shooting him. But I stopped a terrorist, I caught him. If it were a male soldier he would have gotten a medal, but with the women, they’ll always minimize the achievement.”
Harel-Shalev believes the security establishment’s disregard for female combat soldiers is due to ignorance. The research has focused so far on PTSD in male soldiers and women who have suffered physical injury. “The absence of women from the battlefield has influenced the research,” she says.
“On Friday, before we went home, our commander would change his clothes and hat so people wouldn’t know he commanded women in Caracal. He was embarrassed,” Lauren Dagan Amos said. "These female combat soldiers get up every day to fight for the country and protect the citizens of Israel."
“It’s important that the army be aware that there are gender differences in trauma research. The time has come to abandon the stereotypes of hysterical women, women as rape and abuse victims, and listen to their narratives of trauma, including their trauma in battle,” Prof. Harel-Shalev says. “Listening can enlighten us regarding hidden aspects of war and of trauma,” she adds.
Yet despite the difficulties, more than 80 percent of the women interviewed for the research said they would do their service again. Dagan Amos, the soldier who lay on the road abandoned that morning in Qalqilyah would do nothing different, she says. “I would do everything the same that day, even if I knew it would lead to the result I’m dealing with. I would do anything to be a combat soldier again. It’s a feeling of pride you can’t explain to those who haven’t been through it."