Nurses on the front line: IDF pilot program aimed at improving battlefield medicine

“In the past, you saw them in first aid clinics or in the unit that accompanies hospitalized soldiers. Now, there is a trend involving growing numbers of nurses who are strengthening the medical chain in the field,” said IDF head nurse Lt. Col. Oshrat Gozlan.

Nurses in the Israel Defense Forces now attached to combat battalions. Credit: IDF Spokesperson’s Unit.
Nurses in the Israel Defense Forces now attached to combat battalions. Credit: IDF Spokesperson’s Unit.

The Israel Defense Forces’ Medical Corps is in the midst of a pilot program that places nurses and male nurses in combat battalions, as part a series of changes designed to improve the military’s medical services.

IDF head nurse Lt. Col. Oshrat Gozlan told JNS in an interview that some 200 nurses and male nurses serve in the military today, but that unlike in the past, a growing number of them are in the field, together with combat soldiers.

“In the past, you saw them mainly away from the front, in first aid clinics or in the unit that accompanies hospitalized soldiers. Now, there is a trend involving growing numbers of nurses who are strengthening the medical chain in the field,” said Gozlan.

The pilot program began a year-and-a-half ago, she said, based on the goal of making them accessible to combat soldiers where they are needed. “In the IDF, we had doctors and medics, but where is the nurse component? Now, they are serving alongside doctors, much like in the civilian medical systems all over the world. In the past, we  got used to having doctors and medics in the military, but nurses have very broad medical knowledge.”

In addition to their unique know-how, nurses bring with them the essential quality of empathy, a desire to listen, a willingness to address the distress of patients—qualities that make their presence a medical-force multiplier in combat units.

“We wanted to bring this heart to the battalions,” said Gozlan. “In the IDF, the nurses also have greater authority to provide treatments than their civilian counterparts.”

The end result, he said, is a “very significant improvement in the medical service within the battalion framework, which did not previously exist.”

In the coming years, all IDF field battalions will have their own attached nurses and male nurses.

Soldiers feeling unwell will find nurses waiting at their battalion air stations, even if doctors are away dealing with other incidents. The nurse will be able conduct initial assessments, classify the soldiers’ condition and “raise a [warning] flag if they need urgent intervention. This is a response that is much more appropriate to the needs of the soldier,” stated Gozlan.

Israel Defense Forces’ head nurse, Lt. Col. Oshrat Gozlan. Credit: IDF Spokesperson’s Unit.

In addition to the dramatic change in the IDF’s battalions, this year the Medical Corps also began increasing the number of soldier-students who qualify as nurses before joining the military.

Unlike the civilian world, where the large majority of nurses are female, student IDF nurses include 40 percent male recruits, reported Gozlan. “They want field experience and to feel the military, but they’re also looking for an opportunity to treat others. For those who want roles away from the field, we can cater to their wishes, too.”

After three years of study, the students receive a bachelor’s degree in nursing before serving for four-and-a-half years in the military. Most student soldiers serve six years of professional service after completing the studies—a year-and-half more than the IDF’s nurses.

“This is an attractive path. The IDF pays for their academic studies and their university residences. It tells them to do their mandatory service in their profession, but shortens their service by a year-and-a-half. They gain the operational experience, and then they head to the civilian medical system with knowledge and experience,” explained Gozlan. “They’re coming from a very strong position, from which it is easy for them to find employment in the civilian medical system.”

In light of the nationwide shortage of nurses in the civilian system, this path will also prove vital for the civilian medical world, said Gozlan. “Many of the student soldiers will emerge every year with their experience, thereby benefiting the country, too. We shortened their service so they can help the national health system,” she added.

Since October 2018, the number of IDF nurses has been increasing substantially. This year, 56 military nurses entered service, compared to the 25 that were in service in previous years. In October 2019, the Medical Corps plans to increase the number to over 70. “That is three times what we began with in 2012,” noted Gozlan.

This way, she added, the IDF will help make up for the shortage in the civilian world.

‘Saving lives is deeply rooted in our ethics’

Gozlan, who took up her role as Head IDF nurse two years ago, has been in the IDF’s ranks for the past 20 years. She has held a range of medical, command and administrative roles.

She said one of her most moving moments occurred during  an awards ceremony, held at the start of May by the Israel National Nurses’ Association Ethics Bureau, which honored IDF nurses for their work tending to the wounded in Syria’s civil war.

“Beyond our routine role, nurses and male nurses also have a role to play in emergencies,” she said. “In the military, they know they must be available and that at any time, they can get a phone call and head out on a mission with an unknown duration. They could be deployed in Israel or abroad, like on a humanitarian rescue mission for earthquakes.”

“The nurses leave their families behind; they leave their children behind; they pack a bag and head out. They don’t always know where they are going. In my eyes, this is a very significant and deep commitment in terms of values. The value of saving lives is deeply rooted in our ethics,” she added.

“This is what happened with the patients from Syria. In the past five years, as the Syrian war raged, war wounded came to the border with Israel, bleeding. And the State of Israel took the decision to save lives, regardless of whether they come from an enemy state.”

In line with that decision, the IDF set up a field hospital near the Syrian border, and wounded Syrian civilians began arriving in large numbers.

“I don’t know how they arrived at the border. On pickup trucks, on the backs of people who carried them—they made it. They received medical treatment. Otherwise, they would have bled to death on their own soil in Syria. Intensive-care-unit nurses received them and treated them in operating rooms in a dangerous area that sometimes came under fire,” recalled Gozlan.

For this work, the Ethics Bureau awarded IDF nurses with a citation. “I was very moved. To see the audience—many of them senior nurses and male nurses in the national civilian medical system—cheering and applauding us was very moving. They were proud to see professionals in their sectors undertake such ethical, professional work,” she said.

Gozlan also commented on what she described as a new phenomenon of Jews from the Diaspora who are opting to join the IDF as nurses in rising numbers. “This is not something I saw in the past,” she said. “In the last two years, a growing number of Jews who moved to Israel or came for military service are enlisting as nurses. Jews abroad who are in this profession and wish to contribute to Israel have an opportunity to serve as nurses and male nurses,” she said. “This is also a way to serve the state.”

“It doesn’t matter what situation we are in,” she said. “Whether  on the battlefield,  a stretcher, or bedside, we are there.”

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