For almost 59 years, mentally and physically challenged youngsters who had reached army service age automatically received exemptions. But not all of them wanted to be exempt. After their families and representatives of AKIM, the organization that cares for the mentally handicapped and fights for their rights, put in a series of pleas to the defense establishment saying that it wasn't fair to deprive those who wanted to serve of the opportunity to do so, the IDF relented and agreed to join AKIM and the Welfare and Social Services Ministry in a joint project that would allow mentally handicapped youngsters to enlist. Two such soldiers, Shimrit Kroiteru and Gilad Rozdial, were at Beit Hanassi on Wednesday for the launch of the annual AKIM fundraising campaign. Shimrit was the project's pioneer inductee, and the large crowd of AKIM professionals, volunteers and some of the young people on whose behalf they work saw a moving documentary of Shimrit's first day in the army. After the film, an excited but confident Shimrit stood up by the podium and said the army treated her like any other soldier and that the IDF had boosted her self-confidence and her ability to carry out different tasks. Gilad had been chosen to present a gift to President Shimon Peres, and the expression of pure delight on his face was worth a million dollars. General Ami Zamir, who is in charge of the IDF side of the project, said there were a lot of good reasons to wear the uniform, "and to be a partner in an endeavor of this kind, made it all the more important." Zamir added that there was no reason to exclude people with special needs from full service in the IDF, "because we all share the same destiny." The pilot experiment had already proven that mentally handicapped people could contribute to the IDF, he said, adding that 50 more would be inducted this year. They would be deployed to Sar-El, a volunteer unit that attracts people from all over the world to help clean, sort and stock equipment in the IDF's warehouses. Another 40 will be taken in next year, he said, and would be sent to units whose commanders had indicated their willingness to participate in the project. AKIM chairman Reuven Samuel said that it was the dream of every parent with a mentally retarded child to have that child do what regular children were doing, and that the IDF was providing that opportunity. Ilana Nuriel, the incoming chairwoman of Friends of AKIM, noted that there were some children that required help all their lives, "but if we provide the right, loving environment, they too can become productive and contributing members of society." Outgoing chairman Shalom Zinger, who after 13 years in the position is now moving up to be the organization's president, said nothing had given him greater satisfaction than seeing the integration of mentally handicapped young people into IDF, industry, sport and service professions. Observing their successful forays into mainstream society had spurred him to work harder on their behalf, he said. "There's nothing more important to a mentally handicapped person than to be accepted as an equal in society," he said. Referring in passing to the recent elections, Peres said the media had been busy forecasting the number of mandates the various parties would get. "The number of elected people is not all that important," he said. "It's the number of volunteers that count." When it came to leadership, he said, the public always looked for some superman, but from his perspective it was better to look for weak people and make them strong "so that they can rise to new heights and fill untold potential." In this way, he said, the face of society could be changed. For those with disabilities, even the smallest sign of progress brings great joy, said Peres. "Each of them lives with hope, and we don't know what medical discoveries may be able to help them overcome disabilities in the future - but no medicine is better than the milk of human kindness." Following the ceremony, Peres met privately with Shimrit and Gilad.