How does the IDF integrate young adults with disabilities?

Special in Uniform is a pioneering JNF-USA affiliate designed to incorporate youths with autism, special needs and disabilities into the IDF.

 Lt.-Col. Tiran Attia (photo credit: SPECIAL IN UNIFORM)
Lt.-Col. Tiran Attia
(photo credit: SPECIAL IN UNIFORM)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

Lt.-Col. Tiran Attia, who was wounded in the Second Lebanon War, never dreamed just how far an injury would lead him. Today, as director of Special in Uniform and with a distinguished 28-year military career under his belt, governments, armies and public bodies around the globe seek him out to learn more about his world-acclaimed military inclusion model which incorporates young people with disabilities into the Israel Defense Forces. 

When Attia was inducted into the IDF as a teen right out of high school, his long-term plans precluded a career in the military. Yet life works in wondrous ways, and Attia commenced his service as a warrior in the armored corps and eventually became a commissioned officer. 

In the summer of 2006, the Second Lebanon War broke out between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon following a cross-border raid by Hezbollah terrorists that ended in the deaths of three Israeli soldiers and the abduction of two others, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev. Israel responded with heavy artillery attacks and airstrikes, eventually sending in ground units to fight Hezbollah forces in south Lebanon.

Attia was among those who battled Israel’s enemy. “This war was different than anything we’d ever known,” he recalls. “Hezbollah fought back with heavy fire, and we suffered many casualties and losses.” 

In the course of the fighting, Attia was moderately wounded and temporarily lost his ability to walk. “From an active, positive, powerful young man, I became an invalid. From the height of authority, I plummeted to the depths of despair – confined to bed, unable to move,” he says.

“From an active, positive, powerful young man, I became an invalid. From the height of authority, I plummeted to the depths of despair – confined to bed, unable to move.”

Tiran Attia
 A group of soldiers serving with Special in Uniform. (credit: SPECIAL IN UNIFORM) A group of soldiers serving with Special in Uniform. (credit: SPECIAL IN UNIFORM)

Throughout his extended hospitalization, Attia received many visitors, some whom he knew and others who just came to cheer up the downhearted officer. One set of visitors was a group of kids with special needs.

“Until this day, I have no idea if they came specially to visit me or if they simply got mixed up and visited the wrong guy,” he recalls with a chuckle. “One of the kids was a girl with Down syndrome who struck up a conversation with me and kept telling me, ‘Don’t worry. Smile! You’ll get back to yourself; trust me.’

“At the time, there was nothing that seemed farther from reality. But there was something surreal about the experience. There I was, lying in bed and unable to move, and here a kid with special needs was encouraging me and motivating me to try.” 

When the children left the room, Attia was left feeling decidedly empty inside and began pondering the girl’s words. The more he thought about them, the more he realized that she was right. “I can do it! I can!” He repeated this mantra to himself over and over. From that day on, the doctors saw a continual improvement in his condition that resulted in a complete recovery.

Several months later, Attia resumed military service, returning as a commander for Sar-El, the National Project for Volunteers for Israel, a program open to foreign Jews who want to participate in a service program akin to National Service without enlisting in the Israeli Defense Forces. The program, which has received volunteers from over 30 countries around the world, the majority hailing from the US and France, is designed to promote the continuity of the Jewish people, cultivate cross-culture relationships and education between Israeli and Diaspora Jews and advance aliyah. 

“All along, I never forgot that young girl with Down syndrome who visited me when I was at my rock bottom and gave me a goal to strive for. Over the next months and years, in the back of my mind, I knew that I wanted to do something to facilitate the lives of people with special needs and give back to this girl who saved my life,” he explains.

Getting involved with Special in Uniform

Several months later, in the course of Operation Cast Lead, Attia was exposed in a concentrated setting to Special in Uniform (SIU), which was still in its developing stages. Created as an integral part of the Israeli agenda to foster inclusion in the workforce, Special in Uniform is a pioneering JNF-USA affiliate designed to incorporate youths with autism, special needs and disabilities into the IDF.

Awed by what he saw as a fledgling program with boundless potential for growth, Attia requested a switch to the military’s logistics department, where he began working together with Special in Uniform, filling numerous roles in the field – in Lebanon, Judea and Samaria, and any place where he was needed.

In 2014, Attia was promoted to director of Special in Uniform. During his first year as director of the organization, he oversaw a group of 40 young men and women. Since then, the project has grown by leaps and bounds and currently encompasses over 900 young people with autism, special needs and assorted physical and mental disabilities. 

“In the past, none of these 900 kids would have had a chance to do anything significant in life because there were so few options for mainstreaming or inclusion. But today, we are proud to have placed hundreds in the military and the workforce, which guides these wonderful kids to attain incredible personal and professional accomplishments that begin in their service in the IDF,” he says proudly.

“There are so many special, cherished and emotional moments in my work with Special in Uniform,” Attia enthuses. “One particularly unforgettable story is that of Ronny, who was always lingering on the side and barely opened his mouth to communicate. The day he got his uniform, he became a new person, and the change was simply astounding. Day by day he began to open up, and within a few weeks he was completely one of the gang. Wearing his uniform and beret instilled in him confidence and pride that he’d sorely lacked in the past. He underwent a complete transformation to become a young man who communicates and expresses himself, his desires and his aspirations.”

Another inspirational story Attia shares is that of Sgt. Akiva Parsoff, a soldier on the autistic spectrum who at the age of 16 received an automatic exemption from the army. If life had taken its natural course, he would have in all likelihood ended up in an assisted employment center, but he insisted on joining Special in Uniform, which was a turning point in his life. Today, Parsoff serves as one of the key technicians in the IAF’s Iron Dome laboratory weapons maintenance center, and his dream of becoming a commissioned officer is on the verge of being realized.

In July, US President Joe Biden visited Israel and toured a Defense Ministry display of Israel’s multi-tier air defense systems, which included a multi-layered system capable of intercepting everything from long-range ballistic missiles in space to short-range rockets. It also featured a high-powered laser interception system dubbed Iron Beam, which is still in its developmental stages and designed to work in tandem with systems like Iron Dome and shoot down smaller projectiles. The soldier chosen to accompany the president on his tour and explain the system was Sgt. Parsoff.

Attia’s handsome face breaks into a broad smile as he describes the love and gratitude that the young men and women who participate in SIU shower upon him – a love that he returns in countless ways as he actively seeks new means for “his kids” to express their talents, discover the greatness inside them and realize their full potential. One of his recent brainstorms was the Special in Uniform Band, which recruits singers and talented musicians from the special-needs corps to perform at various military and political events. One of the band’s recent performances, which went viral, was at the annual torch-lighting ceremony on Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl which marks the transition from Israel’s Remembrance Day commemorating fallen IDF soldiers and victims of war and terror to the commencement of Independence Day festivities and celebrations around the country.

Israel’s Special in Uniform concept has benefited from worldwide recognition and acclaim. Its model of inclusion is being studied and adopted by countries, armies and public bodies around the world, such as the US’s Armed Forces and Fire Department.

As Attia puts it: “Special in Uniform is a colossal achievement for the kids, their parents and Israeli society as a whole. On the other hand, we’ve still got a long road ahead of us before we can congratulate ourselves and honestly assert that we’ve done it because there are still hundreds of young men and women eagerly awaiting the opportunity to join the IDF. 

“I have no doubt that with the support of our faithful partners worldwide, most notably the IDF and the Jewish National Fund-USA, there will come a day when every Israeli citizen, regardless of physical or mental disability, will know that he or she is of equal value to his or her fellow citizens. There will come a day when every Israeli, disabled or not, will be empowered with skills and confidence to realize his or her dreams of acceptance into the IDF and Israeli society.”  ■