The IDF’s first fe­male field doc­tor

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - CONTENTS - • By EYAL LEVY

Cap­tain Gal Vaknin re­mem­bers ev­ery de­tail from the in­ter­view she had with the com­man­der of the 52nd Bat­tal­ion of the 401st Ar­mored Bri­gade. “You have to pic­ture the sit­u­a­tion,” re­counts Vaknin. “I’ve barely sat down when he starts drilling me: ‘Let’s say war breaks out – what’s your re­ac­tion?’ So I re­spond, ‘What do you mean? I quickly grab my med­i­cal gear and equip­ment and gather ev­ery­one. I do what­ever needs to be done.’ He looks at me for a sec­ond and then says, ‘Ok, very good.’ When I ask him what he ex­pected me to say, he tells me, ‘I just wanted to make sure you weren’t plan­ning on run­ning away.’ ‘No way,’ I re­ply. ‘My first re­spon­si­bil­ity is to the bat­tal­ion and my sol­diers above all else.’”

A year and 10 months after that ini­tial in­ter­view, Capt. Vaknin is still the only woman in the IDF to serve as a med­i­cal field doc­tor in the in­fantry, which in the case of war, would cross over into en­emy ter­ri­tory.

“To­day, med­i­cal of­fi­cers and paramedics are ex­tremely com­pe­tent in their jobs,” Vaknin as­serts. “From the start, they are taught to be calm and pro­fes­sional in emer­gency sit­u­a­tions so that they can do their work and save peo­ple’s lives. They’re very good at this. There was a re­cent med­i­cal emer­gency in Gi­vati and the para­medic and the en­tire med­i­cal team per­formed amaz­ingly – calmly and with­out hes­i­tat­ing. That’s part of the job.”

Vaknin doesn’t have any scars on her body from bul­lets or other bat­tle wounds and she’s not ea­ger for Is­rael to go to war, but she al­ways wanted to be a doc­tor.

“You have to study and get through many dif­fi­cult years be­fore you can be­come a doc­tor, but if you strive for this goal for the right rea­sons, then some­how you find the en­ergy to keep go­ing. When some­one I’ve treated heals, I see that all the hard work was worth it. I never imag­ined, how­ever, what it would be like to be­come a mil­i­tary doc­tor out in the field. I didn’t have a very re­al­is­tic im­age of the po­si­tion when I was 18. You’re not re­ally a sol­dier, but also not a nor­mal doc­tor, ei­ther. But I’m ex­tremely glad that I’m here now.”

Vaknin was born in Nesher, near Haifa. Her older brother is still serv­ing in the navy.

“I de­cided to be­come a mil­i­tary doc­tor, be­cause when I cal­cu­lated how many years it was go­ing to take me to fin­ish my stud­ies and start my med­i­cal res­i­dency, I re­al­ized I’d prob­a­bly be 30 or 32, if you take into con­sid­er­a­tion time for the post-army trip over­seas be­fore start­ing col­lege. Even with serv­ing as an IDF doc­tor, I’ll still get to that point around the same age. I don’t con­sider what I’m do­ing a mil­i­tary ca­reer – it’s more like I feel like I’m hav­ing a mean­ing­ful army ex­pe­ri­ence.”

THE TRA­JEC­TORY a com­bat med­i­cal of­fi­cer takes is com­pletely dif­fer­ent from that of a typ­i­cal IDF com­bat sol­dier. The for­mer be­gins med­i­cal school and then be­tween semesters squeezes in ba­sic train­ing and the of­fi­cer-train­ing course, with­out ever spend­ing any real time with reg­u­lar sol­diers or learn­ing what it’s like to serve in the IDF.

“I was 25 when I fin­ished my med­i­cal stud­ies. I had done all my mil­i­tary train­ing in the sum­mer­time,” Vaknin re­calls.

“I started the of­fi­cer train­ing course at Ba­had 1

in Fe­bru­ary and it was freez­ing out­side. Ev­ery­one was wear­ing their fleeces zipped up. I fig­ured that it must be manda­tory to have it zipped all the way up like that, so I asked a sol­dier walk­ing by if this was true. He just stood there and stared at me as if I’d fallen from the moon. Fi­nally, he replied, ‘Yes,’ so I asked him if it had to be zipped to a cer­tain height, and again he hes­i­tated and then replied, “Yes, all the way up.” The only sol­diers on this base are par­tic­i­pat­ing in the of­fi­cer train­ing course, so all of them have been in the IDF al­ready for many months or even years, so there’d be no rea­son for some­one there not to know the an­swer to my ques­tions. I had so many in­for­ma­tion gaps I needed to fill about be­ing in the army.”

After fin­ish­ing her in­tern­ship at Ichilov Hospi­tal in Tel Aviv, Vaknin was of­fered the choice of be­com­ing a doc­tor in an IDF med­i­cal clinic or be­com­ing a field doc­tor in the ar­mored corps. She didn’t hes­i­tate for even a sec­ond.

“I don’t re­gret my de­ci­sion at all,” Vaknin says with a chuckle. “I know I would have been mis­er­able work­ing in a mil­i­tary med­i­cal clinic. It’s very drain­ing – all day long sol­diers come to you with ail­ments and then you go home and go to sleep, just to wake up the next morn­ing and do the same thing all over again.”

What is it like be­ing a field doc­tor?

It’s in­cred­i­bly chal­leng­ing. Friends of mine who are doc­tors ask me all the time how hard it re­ally is. I tell them to imag­ine work­ing the Sat­ur­day night shift in an ER, and then in­stead of go­ing home at the end of the shift, you con­tinue work­ing all week long, non-stop. It’s a very dif­fi­cult po­si­tion be­cause a field doc­tor just jumps right in with­out hav­ing had any reg­u­lar army ex­pe­ri­ence. From day one, you’re meant to com­mand a unit of sol­diers. From the start, I needed to make im­por­tant de­ci­sions when I barely even knew how the army func­tioned, and never be­fore had I been the top au­thor­ity mak­ing all the med­i­cal de­ci­sions on my own.

What’s it likely work­ing in such a male-dom­i­nated en­vi­ron­ment?

I don’t re­ally feel that it’s made much of a dif­fer­ence that I’m a woman. I’ve been in many sit­u­a­tions be­fore where I was the only woman, so I guess I’m used to it. I don’t think it’s im­pacted my work – I’m very pro­fes­sional. Dur­ing train­ing, there were times I had to sleep out in the field with my sol­diers, which was fine, and I had no trou­ble find­ing a place to pee. I got used to it pretty quickly. I think they got used to me pretty quickly, too.

What’s your opin­ion on women serv­ing in com­bat units?

I con­sider my­self a fem­i­nist, but I was never much of a so­cial ac­tivist. In my opin­ion, if a woman does a good job, then ev­ery­one will see that she’s just as good as men are. In gen­eral, women do not have the same phys­i­cal ca­pa­bil­i­ties as men, but there are plenty of women who do have in­cred­i­ble phys­i­cal ca­pa­bil­i­ties. Our paramedics are cur­rently en­gag­ing in very de­mand­ing train­ing, and I’m amazed at how well all of our fe­male para­medic cadets are func­tion­ing on the long treks with the heavy equip­ment. They’re a very in­spir­ing group of sol­diers.

Were they the ones lay­ing down in the stretch­ers?

No way. After three days of walk­ing with all of the equip­ment and barely any sleep, I made them run hard. I treat the fe­male paramedics in ex­actly the same way as their male col­leagues. Their com­man­ders were ex­tremely proud of them.

Do you think fe­male sol­diers should be al­lowed to serve in tanks?

Sure, if they have the ap­pro­pri­ate tem­per­a­ment and meet the phys­i­cal re­quire­ments.

VAKNIN HAS never been to war, but she has ap­proached the Gaza bor­der a num­ber of times with her com­bat unit to keep the area se­cure when ri­ot­ing took place on the other side of the fence.

“At one point, we were re­spon­si­ble for a sec­tion of the fence area near Gaza for about six weeks,” Vaknin re­calls. “We slept in the Wolf Ar­mored Ve­hi­cle. The first few nights were a bit over­whelm­ing, since I hadn’t had such in­tense com­bat train­ing like my sol­diers had, but I soon got used to it and then I was fine. I was very busy mak­ing sure none of my sol­diers got hurt.”

Are field doc­tors itch­ing to see some ac­tion?

I don’t think so. We all func­tion well un­der stress and are very pro­fes­sional, but also hope that there will be as few ca­su­al­ties as pos­si­ble.

What is it like treat­ing an in­jured per­son while un­der fire?

I don’t know how other peo­ple func­tion, but when I’m in a stress­ful sit­u­a­tion and I need to treat an in­jured per­son, ev­ery­thing else around me be­comes quiet and I’m able to fo­cus on treat­ing the in­jured per­son. Once, I was at a fam­ily gath­er­ing and some­one needed med­i­cal at­ten­tion. Ap­par­ently, there’d been lots of con­ver­sa­tion while I was treat­ing him, and af­ter­wards when my fam­ily was talk­ing about it, I re­al­ized I hadn’t heard any of the con­ver­sa­tion. In other words, I func­tion bet­ter in med­i­cal emer­gen­cies than when I’m re­laxed.

But it must be nicer work­ing as a civil­ian doc­tor, no?

Civil­ian doc­tors also need to func­tion un­der in­cred­i­bly stress­ful con­di­tions. Ev­ery time a sur­geon be­gins a surgery, a mil­lion things can go wrong. And ER doc­tors deal with pa­tients who stop breath­ing all the time. I must say, though, that mil­i­tary field doc­tors do learn to make quick de­ci­sions, work in­de­pen­dently, deal with in­cred­i­ble stress and se­cu­rity threats. When you’re a doc­tor in the army, you also quickly learn how to com­mand sol­diers and man­age a team. I’m sure th­ese skills will also come in handy once I tran­si­tion to civil­ian life. It’s not a co­in­ci­dence that many de­part­ment heads had served as field doc­tors.

How well pre­pared is the IDF Med­i­cal Corps for war?

I don’t know about the rest of the army, but I can tell you that the units out in the field are ex­tremely well equipped to deal with med­i­cal prob­lems. The field doc­tors are car­ing, ded­i­cated and ex­tremely ca­pa­ble.

Do you think you might need to go to war at some point?

Of course I might. Thank­fully, I’ve not had to un­til now, but we are al­ways pre­pared for this sce­nario and the first thing I would need to do is know ex­actly where all of my peo­ple are. Ev­ery day I call each unit and check to make sure we don’t have any per­son­nel short­ages, such as sol­diers out do­ing cour­ses or out sick for the day. I need to know the sta­tus of each para­medic and doc­tor, and make sure that each of them checked all their equip­ment ev­ery day to make sure they’re not miss­ing some­thing. I check to make sure each am­bu­lance and ar­mored ve­hi­cle is fully equipped. Part of my job is mak­ing sure that we’re ready to go to war at any mo­ment in time. Of course, I’m up­dated from above re­gard­ing se­cu­rity as­sess­ments.

Are you ac­ces­si­ble 24/7?

Yes. I never turn off my phone or even put it on silent mode, since you never know when an im­por­tant call will come through. When one of my doc­tors calls me in the mid­dle of the night, my heart skips a beat, since that’s not a nor­mal oc­cur­rence. Some­times I get calls in the mid­dle of the night to tell me that a sol­dier got in­jured, so I go take care of him. I am al­ways on call.

What does it feel like know­ing that you’re the first fe­male IDF field doc­tor?

It didn’t give me an ego boost or any­thing like that. I just feel like I’m do­ing an im­por­tant job to the best of my abil­i­ties. Although it is fun be­ing the first one.

At 28, you have three more years of mil­i­tary ser­vice left. Do you have any plans to be­come the IDF Chief of Staff one day?

When IDF doc­tors stay in the army, they usu­ally move on to ad­min­is­tra­tive po­si­tions and don’t con­tinue prac­tic­ing medicine. I re­ally like be­ing a doc­tor, so I don’t think I’ll end up stay­ing in the army, but I might change my mind in the fu­ture. You never know…

You still haven’t taken a post-army trip over­seas.

Yeah, that’s true. I’ll prob­a­bly take a trip, but it might not be such a long one. I’ve just al­ways wanted to be a doc­tor – even back in ju­nior high school, I knew.


(Moshe Shai Pell)

‘I FUNC­TION bet­ter in med­i­cal emer­gen­cies than when I’m re­laxed.’

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