Special in Uniform: Opening the military's door to people with special needs

Equal in Uniform recruits, trains, escorts and supports hundreds of youth who volunteer to serve in the IDF.

Hillel Tragin of IDF Central Command (photo credit: SPECIAL IN UNIFORM)
Hillel Tragin of IDF Central Command
(photo credit: SPECIAL IN UNIFORM)

For most Israelis graduating from high school, the Israeli army is their next step before entering the job market or continuing on towards higher education. But for a segment of Israeli youth – those with intellectual disabilities – the door to the IDF and towards Israeli society has remained shut.

But many have found a way to open that door, by volunteering to serve in the IDF with Equal in Uniform, a joint program by AKIM and the Welfare Ministry.

Founded in 2006 after two youths with intellectual disabilities who wanted to serve in the Israeli military were given exemptions, Equal in Uniform recruits, trains, escorts and supports hundreds of youth who volunteer to serve in the IDF.

In the 15 years since it began, some 500 people have volunteered to serve on dozens of bases across the country through Equal in Uniform. According to the IDF, there are currently 38 volunteers serving in the military, 18 of whom have asked to extend their service.

Hillel Tragin prepares food for his fellow IDF soldiers at Central Command. (credit: SPECIAL IN UNIFORM)Hillel Tragin prepares food for his fellow IDF soldiers at Central Command. (credit: SPECIAL IN UNIFORM)

The volunteers go through a civilian premilitary-training program before they get drafted. Then they enter either an individual service track or as a group according to the needs of the military and the volunteer’s abilities and wishes.

Hillel Yitzhak Tragin, who moved with his family from New Jersey four years ago, volunteered to join the military with Equal in Uniform last year after he heard about the organization. Though he has an intellectual disability, he is the first person in his family to join the Israeli military.

Hillel serves in the Central Command, cleaning vegetables and preparing food for troops in the base kitchen.

While he was unsure at first if he wanted to join the IDF, now that he has he told The Jerusalem Post that “it’s a good feeling” to put on his uniform and head to base in the morning.

And, unlike many volunteers, he went through the draft process and became a full-fledged IDF soldier three weeks ago.

“I became an actual soldier last week,” he said. “It feels different now that I’m a real soldier.”

Special in Uniform is part of AKIM, a national organization founded in 1951 that is dedicated to helping individuals with intellectual disabilities. AKIM promotes programs that empower those with disabilities to achieve independent lifestyles.

“We are helping and advocating for people who want to fulfill their duty – it’s a very special value in our society,” said Dotan Seigal, director of supported employment and leisure programs at AKIM Israel.

“We have two main goals: To allow people to have a better stepping stone into Israeli society – joining the IDF is the main way to be a part of Israeli society – and to create social change," he said.

"People need to be exposed to those with disabilities. Since it’s not something that happens in school, this needs to happen in the military. There can be a real societal change where people with intellectual disabilities feel like they belong in our society.”

One of the bases where volunteers serve is the Israel Air Force’s Palmachim airbase in central Israel, where some 50-60 of them come every day.

“It’s very meaningful – and what the volunteers bring to the base is incredible,” former airbase commander Brig.-Gen. (res.) Yoav Amiram told the Post in a recent interview. “When troops work together with the volunteers who have special needs, they come out a lot more aware and see the world differently.”

According to the military, there has been a “significant increase” in the number of volunteers serving in the IDF with “currently about 2,000 volunteers” who have joined through a number of different organizations.

“The IDF recruits those of special populations for all positions and units in the IDF, and sees their recruitment as an important goal,” the military said in a statement. “Those wishing to volunteer for service are eligible to submit the required applications and documents, and their application is reviewed by all relevant parties.”