For anyone who hasn’t been a combat soldier in the Israeli army and has not had the complicated privilege of undergoing the 8-month training process, I’ll tell you about a little thing called “שבוע בלת”ם.” This is an acronym that translates into English as “an unplanned week.” This phrase trivializes something much more complex, but this seems to be the way in which we humans name things – in every language.
This “unplanned week” comes at the end of the 8 months of training, and is meant to incorporate skills and tactics that soldiers learned and mastered in the previous months. However, unlike weeks with clear scheduling – shooting week, camouflage week, Sergeant screaming at you for no apparent reason and making you wake up 10 times throughout the night week – this “unplanned week” holds a large-scale, multi-platoon active duty exercise that soldiers cannot anticipate and must execute.
So, while you sit around waiting for the briefing of the Big Unplanned Mission, a mixture of excitement and fear tickles your stomach (though that feeling might also be the endless canned field rations that are your three meals a day). If there’s one thing to be true about female combat soldiers, it is that 1. we do not particularly enjoy the heaps of white bread at our disposal, and 2. we know how to enjoy each other’s company. It’s the one thing every woman – regardless of place of origin – can agree to.
One night during the Unplanned Week, after complaining about our 23rd can of beans and a joyously sweaty dance party out of sight of the commanders, we lay in our bunks talking, as we often did at bedtime. That night, not knowing how the conversation led us there, we spoke about sexual assault. It started with one soldier, mentioning an account of how she had been violated, and then another broke the thick silence and shared her story. One after another, we each joined in, sharing our individual stories of trauma and pain. I had assumed that I was the only one. Or maybe I’d be one of two or three at most. The infamous “they” say it is 1 in 5 women who experience sexual assault, so I calculated the statistics out myself.
Laying in the dark, surrounded by women who I had crawled next to in the dirt, sung naked with in the shower, buried myself with in desert mud, and shared the same large purple bruise on our right arms after long hours of shooting, I did not think that this was something that most of us had in common. But the awkward chorus of me-too followed by stories of how our bodies were used without our consent showed me that it was more than our identical make and model of M-16 that we had in common. From boyfriends who thought that girlfriends couldn’t say “no” to uncles who confused the meaning of niece, to male friends who did not understand the word “stop,” we bonded in a way that came as a sad surprise to us all.
Our hurt and sorrow, trauma and confusion, hung in the muggy summer air, but the embrace of unspoken unity made our raggedy green sleeping bags suddenly feel impossibly comforting. But with severe long-term effects on our future relationships, friendships, behaviors, attitudes, feelings of loneliness, and overall mental health that our experiences would have on our lives, there was an unspoken understanding of an endless uphill battle that we would often have to fight on our own.
That conversation broke a heavy silence. It was a major turning point for many of us in the room that night. For some, it was the first time they had openly spoken about what had happened to them, releasing floodgates that they had sealed shut for years in fear of shame and more hurt. For others who were in the room and still remained quiet, the pivotal realization that they were not alone allowed them to open up, even years later, to loved ones who never knew.
We were appointed with our mission at the end of the week. We set out on foot, in the dead of night, into a village up north. Our silent and steady stealth was called into action as we crept along, one after the other, trusting the woman in front of us to show us the way.
Our training taught us how to run, shoot, and engage in combat with the bulk of our gear, but we now carried more than just the heavy weight of our ammunition-filled vests. The problem was that nobody taught us how to battle against these new internal combatants. We had trekked the grueling journey from civilians to soldiers, and now we had turned from girls into women, together. Yes, we had become strong and resilient soldiers, but as women we are now tasked with a battle that might take a lifetime to overcome. And this battle is always unplanned.