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 בלתם.” This is an acronym that translates into English as “an unplanned week.” It’s a phrase that trivializes something far more complex, but this seems to be the way in which we humans tend to characterize 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 your stomach’s reaction to 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 enjoying 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 myself.
Laying in the dark, surrounded by women alongside whom I had crawled next to in the dirt, sung naked with in the shower, buried myself next to in desert mud, and with whom I had matching large purple bruises on our right arms from long hours of shooting, I did not think that this was something most of us shared. 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,” nor the meaning of closeness in friendship, 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. With severe long-term effects on our future relationships, friendships, behaviors, attitudes, models of self, feelings of loneliness, and overall mental health, 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. Despite having spent an intensive 8 months together, there was a clarity and vulnerability that night that hadn’t been before. As if we were seeing each other for the first time – night vision goggles removed. For some, it was the first time they had openly spoken about what had happened to them, releasing floodgates 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 in the months and years following, to loved ones who never knew.
We were appointed with our mission at the end of the week. We geared up, 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 help lead the way.
Our training taught us how to run, shoot, work as a team, 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 now face a battle from which triumph is far from promised, and which may take a lifetime to achieve.
And this battle is always unplanned.