In the middle of the desert sits an IDF base where a unique, all-female unit works around the clock to train soldiers in high-intensity combat. The Tower’s photographer takes us there.
Deep in Israel’s south, where the fertile central plain gives way to unrelenting desert, lies the Tze’elim army base, one of the largest military training centers in the country. The base is best-known for its massive Urban Warfare Training Center, a multi-million dollar state of the art facility in which an entire desert town has been constructed in order to train soldiers for the intensity of urban combat. Every week, thousands of IDF soldiers—both new recruits and veteran reservists—descend on Tze’elim in order to hone their skills and prepare for the next time they will be called upon to defend the Jewish state.
But among them is one of the most unique units in the IDF: The Hummer operators unit. Founded in 1998, it is an armored unit made up entirely of women. Crisscrossing the desert in Humvees or “Hummers” only they are permitted to operate, these young female soldiers play what the Israeli website Mako once called “one of the most demanding roles in the IDF.” It is they who are in charge of training Israel’s most elite combat units for the hardships of war, and in doing so they have gained the respect and admiration of some of Israel’s most prestigious soldiers and commanders.
Tower photographer Aviram Valdman traveled to Tze’elim to capture these women at work as they conducted a series of exercises that simulated tank battles and urban combat. Using lasers and red smoke to simulate live fire and the resulting damage, the women pilot Humvees modified to look and feel like tanks, armored personnel carriers, and D9s, allowing the IDF to conserve the precious fuel and equipment required to operate the real thing. According to the IDF Spokesman’s Unit,
The combat Hummer operators are responsible for making sure the “rules if the game” are being followed and security protocols are maintained. They are also responsible for dealing with any technical difficulties in the system that may come up. These operators are experts in driving Hummers through difficult terrain, whether it be sandy, rocky, open terrain, or an urban area.
It is a grueling regimen, with the women often in the field by 2:00 AM, after which they operate their unwieldy vehicles almost constantly under the blazing desert sun. Usually, they are still at it long after nightfall.
But perhaps because the Hummer operators unit was one of the first field units in which women were allowed to serve, perhaps because of the camaraderie that emerges whenever a group of people find themselves under immense pressure and discomfort, these women have a famously high morale and sense of motivation. Valdman himself noted that, while they share the same emotional connection as their male counterparts, they also have something more. When released from their duties, they often sing, dance, and brew coffee together over portable stoves, expressing what Valdman could only call a kind of joy.
All of this may come from simple pride at their accomplishments in such adverse conditions. According to Mako, they are often asked by hard-bitten combat soldiers, “How do you do this all week? We wouldn’t be capable.” Indeed, the most striking tribute to these fighting women came from Tze’elim’s own base commander in 2011. “I’ve had a lot of time in the army,” he said, “and I can say there are not a lot of soldiers who can do so much…with the strength and intensity of these girls.”
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Banner Photo: Aviram Valdman / The Tower