Women In Combat: Some Lessons From Israel's Military : Parallels The U.S. will soon begin to open combat positions to women. That's already the case in Israel, where women say it is an important step but doesn't guarantee full equality. The military's upper echelons remain male-dominated.
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Women In Combat: Some Lessons From Israel's Military

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Women In Combat: Some Lessons From Israel's Military

Women In Combat: Some Lessons From Israel's Military

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The U.S. military could also look overseas, to Israel, for an example of how to integrate women into combat roles. The Pentagon decided earlier this year to drop the rule barring women from serving in infantry and artillery units, among others. And this week, the military services submitted initial plans for how to implement this big shift.

In Israel, military service is required for both sexes, but women still had to fight for the right to serve in combat. NPR's Larry Abramson has that story.

LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: In Israel, the military does more than just defend the country. The Israel Defense Forces also serve as a melting pot where immigrants and minority groups all experience the same rite of passage. That's what struck Leora Prince when she visited Israel after high school. Lots of young people joined in a common purpose.

SGT. LEORA PRINCE: That were completely, selflessly guarding over the country, and I wanted to be a part of that.

ABRAMSON: That explains why this New Jersey native is serving in the Israel Defense Forces today. She immigrated, learned Hebrew and put on a uniform. But it doesn't explain why Sergeant Prince is riding in an SUV along Israel's desert border with Egypt, cradling a Tavor assault rifle in her arms. Leora Prince started out learning how to be an instructor, but she wanted to do something truly hands-on.

PRINCE: When I was in basic training for the month, I realized that this isn't enough for me. I wanted to do more, do the guarding, not just teach people how to guard. So I switched to Caracal, and it was the best decision I've ever made.

ABRAMSON: The Caracal was formed in 2004 with the chief purpose of giving women a chance to serve in true combat roles. It's a coed combat battalion, named for a desert cat whose gender can be difficult to discern. Sixty percent female, the Caracal patrols Israel's border with Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. It's a desolate stretch of high desert that's become a hot spot in recent years. In 2011, eight Israelis died in a terror attack launched from Sinai.

PRINCE: The fence is going to be right here, right on the border.

ABRAMSON: The border is dangerous enough that Israel has decided to build an expensive border fence through this punishing terrain. A big part of this battalion's job is guarding the construction crews building that fence. Soldiers like Prince put up with clouds of dust, wicked heat and long shifts.

Prince says women don't have to carry quite as much gear as the men, but otherwise they're treated just the same - in theory, anyway. Prince says that in Israel's battle-hardened, male-dominated military, she still gets plenty of razzing.

PRINCE: The way that the rest of the army views us, a lot of times there's a lot of jokes that are being made about Caracal. But the people that see us, the people that see us work, they're the ones that realize how serious we are and how much we do.

ABRAMSON: You don't sign up for work like this if you're put off by teasing. Within the Caracal, Leora Prince says, she is taken seriously, and she looks completely at ease as she chats with her male counterparts. As the U.S. moves towards a more integrated force, some have questioned whether men will trust female soldiers with their lives. Leora Prince's commander is Captain Yaron Eyal, and he says he's gotten over any doubts that he had.

CAPTAIN YARON EYAL: I trust them - the same way if we need to shoot somebody behind me - to watch my back.

ABRAMSON: Israel holds out the Caracal as proof that women can be all that they can be in the military. The Israel Defense Forces say that, today, nearly 50 percent of Israel's lieutenants and captains are women.

But the upper echelons are still a male domain. The highest-ranking female officer is a major general who's in charge of personnel. Miri Eisin, a retired colonel who spent 20 years in the Israeli military, says there are clear limits for women.

MIRI EISIN: We won't have a female chief of staff. The glass ceiling is there for a variety of reasons. The IDF is a boys club. I think every military is a boys club. It's still a majority of men who are going to choose that way of life.

ABRAMSON: Of course the U.S. military has a different role than that of Israel or really any country in the world. An expeditionary force that must be ready to go anywhere, anytime, will have different needs than a mostly defensive force like Israel's. Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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