Israeli teens with special needs join program for IDF service

Special In Uniform is serving as a model to help people with special needs to serve in the US military.

By Sharon Wrobel, The Algemeiner

For most 16-year-old Israelis, getting their preliminary call-up letter to enlist in the army is a critical step in their career path. But Israeli teens with disabilities also get a letter: an automatic deferment that they cannot serve in the army.

The Special in Uniform project is trying to change the paradigm, by opening the door to the Israel Defense Force for youth with special needs — hoping to restore the sense that they can enjoy the same professional and social development as any Israeli.

“The only army in the world to consider integrating people with special needs is the Israeli army,” Lt. Col. (res.) Tiran Attia, director of Special in Uniform, told The Algemeiner. “We believe that everyone has an ability, you just have to find it. It’s like an unpolished diamond; the only thing that we need is to cut one of the angles and see if it sparkles. From the moment that it sparkles, we start to polish.”

As military service in Israel represents a gateway to networking, a social life and a career, virtually every parent wants their child to take part. Led by his personal experience of raising a child with Williams Syndrome, IDF veteran General Gabi Ophir helped make this a reality for other families, founding Special in Uniform with two other IDF commanders in 2014.

Sponsored by the Jewish National Fund (JNF), the program began with 40 special needs participants; after seven years, it has more than 800, including current soldiers and those in training. Another 300 young adults are on the waiting list, Attia said.

Special in Uniform takes on young people with physical disabilities such as cerebral palsy, autism and other developmental and intellectual disabilities, providing the individual skills and training — including hydrotherapy, personnel therapy, and mentoring — needed for integration into the IDF.

“Not all of them will have the army ID card but all of them will have the pride of wearing the Israeli uniform,” Attia said. “We tell them that we don’t know who wore their uniform before. It could have been a parachuter who returned from the Gaza Strip, or a parachuter who came back from an operation.”

The participants can start the program from the age of 16 when they are still at school, volunteering at IDF bases once or twice weekly. After high school, that volunteer site will likely be where they are drafted or enlisted.

“All of our participants are capable, with certain adjustments. We make those adjustments by teaching the commanders, teaching the soldiers, teaching the young adults so that according to their capabilities, later on, they can find jobs in the Israeli labor market,” Attia remarked.

The Palmachim Air Force base south of Tel Aviv is one the main army bases where program participants serve. Some are placed at the Iron Dome defense system’s electronic laboratory, while others are serving in logistical posts or in the kitchen. Recruits with special needs also serve in the IDF’s Home Front Command, mostly taking care of heavy machinery, or are placed in IDF cyber units.

“We consider this program the ‘Hotel California’ — which means that at the age of 16, you are checking in and you can never leave,” Attia quipped. “The whole idea is that we are going to provide for them everything that they need during their life. Our oldest participant is almost 27 years old.”

Attia cited the experience of Ben Levi, one wheelchair-bound participant, as exemplifying the strong desire of many with special needs to serve in the army and contribute to society.

After Levi received his exemption letter from the army, he spent every morning for months at the entrance of an IDF base, begging each commander he saw to let him be a soldier. One day, Levi appeared in front of the gate with the message that if he was not going to get inside the base, no one would. That perseverance caught the attention of a high-ranking IDF officer, who became a co-founder of Special in Uniform.

Levi ultimately served in the headquarters of the IDF’s Home Front Command as a commander in the human resource unit, and received an Excellence Award for outstanding performance. Since finishing his army service, Levi is working as a court security officer in charge of 17 guards at the Israeli Supreme Court.

“My vision is that the army will send all young adults at the age of 16 a letter that says, come to the army and we will evaluate your skills, and not automatically discharge those with special needs,” Attia said.

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While fighting the coronavirus pandemic, as Israel experienced a lack of COVID-19 testing kits, 25 Special in Uniform soldiers packed more than 50,000 kits in four weeks in Health Ministry warehouses. They also delivered food packs for the elderly during lockdown periods, Attia recounted.

To foster independence and integration of its recruits into mainstream society after the army service, Special in Uniform has also started to open community homes, and has recently formed a military band with singers, a drummer, a guitarist and violinist. The organization is working with almost 70 large companies in Israel, Attia said, to help participants land jobs.

The program’s success has even attracted interest abroad, with a partnership underway to adopt a similar model in South Carolina and Virginia for those with special needs to serve in the US military.

And with an eye on surpassing 1,000 participants by 2024, Special in Uniform is planning a large community center on a plot of 14 acres to bring all the treatment and training for people with special needs in one place.

“Our vision is to change the view of the general population when they think about people with special needs,” she said. “When someone who participated in our program comes to apply for a job, the disability won’t be the main issue.”