Special in Uniform Salutes the IDF Netanyahu Salutes Special in Uniform, June 19, 2018. .
(photo credit: CREDIT-SPECIAL IN UNIFORM JNF)
There is no shortage of meaningful and touching events at the Knesset. But an event this past week was among the most emotional I have ever attended.
The Negev Hall was filled with Israelis with special needs – in their IDF uniforms.
That is right – a wide range of disabilities has not stopped these proud Israelis from serving their country in uniform.
The Knesset event celebrated the contribution these devoted young people are making to Israel and the army – as well as the remarkable opportunity the IDF has given to them.
The project, called “Special in Uniform,” integrates youth with disabilities into the IDF and helps prepare them for careers following army service. There are 400 soldiers in the program, spread among 30 different bases. Though not able to serve as combat soldiers, the army identifies their talents and gives them productive responsibilities.
Special in Uniform was founded by IDF Lt.-Col. Tiran Attia when he retired from the army in 2014, along with Lt.-Col.
Ariel Almog, a commander in the home front division, in partnership with Yad LaYeled and JNF-USA.
“We see the inclusion of people with disabilities in the army as a way to help usher them into a self-sufficient life once they are discharged from the army,” Attia explains. “Our belief is that everyone belongs and has the right to reach his or her full potential. Special in Uniform focuses on the unique talents of each individual participant to help each one find a job that is a perfect fit for the individual’s skills within the IDF. The attention is on the ability, not the disability, of each individual, encouraging independence and integration into society.”
Ministers and Knesset members entered the hall one after another to congratulate these soldiers for their accomplishments.
The beaming smiles of the program’s participants demonstrated the joy and pride which these soldiers felt for the work they are doing, and for the recognition they were receiving from the country’s leaders.
Two moments from the Knesset ceremony stand out. The first occurred when Yisrael Malka, who works in the kitchen in an air force base, shared the following message with Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman: “There is a very wise saying.
Nothing can stand before will. I think that all the soldiers here demonstrate that they are able to give to their maximum just like regular soldiers give their maximum. And we can serve with dedication and love.” Yisrael then thanked the IDF, the project’s leaders, and the sponsors, “for enabling us to serve in the Israel Defense Force.”
Liberman replied that he was at a loss for words, and that it takes a lot to make him emotional, but Yisrael’s words touched him deeply.
The second truly memorable moment came when Daniel Defur, the first blind person to ever serve in the IDF, spoke.
“Israel has people who are right-wing and people who are left-wing when it comes to politics,” Defur said. “But in the army we put that all aside and come together as one nation.”
He then raised his voice and passionately declared: “Long live the Israel Defense Force.”
I was so impressed by what I saw, and asked one of the commanders to explain how the program works. She said that a professional team evaluates every special needs recruit, and then they go through a course of life-skills and occupational- skills training for three months.
The training includes introducing social interactions into their lives, which is done via a variety of activities including nature hikes, cooking, and sewing.
With the guidance of psychologists, the new recruits learn about personal independence, positive self-image, and normative behavior.
Following this stage, the military service begins with a 10-day training program, and then they are integrated into their military units. A team that includes a social worker and psychologist mentors each soldier, and a special bond develops between the soldiers and their team.
President Reuven Rivlin met with Special in Uniform soldiers last year and told them: “You are living proof that no barrier is stronger than willpower.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made the following comment when he met a Special in Uniform soldier: “Most societies see what people lack. Let’s keep being the country that looks for what every individual has to give. You are showing us all what a true champion looks like.”
We live in a time where Israel is under siege internationally. We are accused of abusing human rights, and our military is labeled immoral. When we hear those accusations let us remember “Special in Uniform,” and have the strength of conviction to recognize that we are a truly remarkable country and people, and in actuality, the world has a lot to learn from us.
The author served as a member of the 19th Knesset.
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