Special in Uniform, a pioneering military inclusion program developed by Lend a Hand to a Special Child and sponsored by JNF-USA, has changed the fabric of Israeli society and is now a model of inclusion for the world.
United States Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and presidential aide Chris Neeley visited Israel and Palmachim Air Force Base where they met soldiers with autism, physical and mental disabilities, with the long-term goal of adapting the project to meet the needs of Americans in the military.
(Courtesy of Special in Uniform) Michael, a Canadian native, was 3 years old when his parents noticed that their son was developing differently from his peers. Following a battery of tests and evaluations, Michael was diagnosed with autism.
Michael’s mom, Loreen, explained, “There is growing awareness about autism, but much misinformation remains. Many people, even family members, may not know what autism means or possess limited, skewed or stereotypical beliefs of how it expresses itself.”
Undaunted by the challenge, Michael’s family invested supreme effort and means in order to facilitate and support their son’s development and personal advancement. When Michael was 11 years old, his family made aliyah. In Israel, Michael and his younger brother, Tzachi, were raised with a strong sense of responsibility and passionate love for their country and people. Both dreamed of joining the IDF and serving their country with pride. While Tzachi was able to enlist as a regular soldier, Michael’s joy turned to disappointment when a recruiting officer informed him and his parents that he was exempt from military service due to his autism.
Yet even rejection could not deter Michael, who remained faithful to his dream of serving his country. He reapplied to the IDF in the framework of Special in Uniform and was accepted. A groundbreaking initiative supported by Jewish National Fund-USA, Special in Uniform integrates Israeli youth with disabilities—mental and physical—into the IDF. This program—the only one of its kind in the world—ensures that the army is a place for everyone.
Two aspects that make this program so appealing to individuals with special needs and/or disabilities, explains Loreen, are that Special in Uniform soldiers acquire essential life skills and lessons throughout their years of service, and also benefit from career assistance and job placement after being discharged from the army and resuming civilian life.
When Michael was accepted into Special in Uniform, the entire family was ecstatic. Following a year as a volunteer, Michael was invited in April to the Bakum Base outside Tel Aviv to begin processing with all the other new soldiers and receive his dog tag and ID cards. Waving his brand-new ID card, he and brother Tzachi, also in uniform, embraced.
“It’s a win-win situation for the country and the soldiers,” said Michael. “It’s also a win-win situation for me. This is the right thing to do at the right time.”
Tzachi, 19, recently enlisted in the paratroopers unit and is proud of his brother, who defied all odds, including navigating the many challenges of a new country, foreign language and above all, his disability, to become a soldier in the IDF.
“I can say from experience that it’s going to be hard on him,” remarked Tzachi. “It’s going to be challenging just being in a military environment, but I know that he’ll make it through, and I believe in him. With support from all of us, the family at home and his new IDF family, he’ll make it through. He’ll learn a lot from the army and come out better for it.”
Michael will serve alongside other Special in Uniform soldiers at the Palmachim Air Force Base, which remains a well-guarded Mediterranean Sea installation and key center for Israel’s technological advancements in the field of air defense. The base is famous for countering an array of threats from hostile rockets and missiles.
To date, Special in Uniform has integrated 400 Jewish and non-Jewish youths with disabilities in several IDF bases across the country. The program is mutually beneficial to the army and the soldiers themselves. For these ambitious young people, Special in Uniform is an entry into a central aspect of Israeli culture and society that would otherwise be closed to them. And for the military, it’s an opportunity to harness the unique skills that often come along with autism.
Service can last several years, but the experience doesn’t end there. Program alumni enter the workforce having gained invaluable skills and expertise that often motivates companies to seek them out. Moreover, Special in Uniform’s effects are felt far beyond Israel, opening the eyes of the world to an inspiring new perspective on autism—one that empowers both those on the spectrum and others around them.
Last February, United States Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and Chris Neeley, who serves as chairman of the U.S. President’s Advisory Committee on People with Disabilities, visited Special in Uniform at the Palmachim Air Force Base along with a delegation from the USA. The purpose of their visit was to observe and learn how the IDF has successfully incorporated young men and women with assorted disabilities into military life on base, with the long-term goal of adapting the project to meet the needs of Americans in the military.
Lt. Col. Tiran Attia (Res.), project manager of Special in Uniform, managed the IDF’s Sar-El program for overseas army volunteers for 10 years, and in that capacity, witnessed firsthand the dedication and high work ethic of volunteers with disabilities. “Special in Uniform has shown itself successful at breaking down societal barriers. Partly as a means of reducing this stigma, we point to our soldiers as models of what young people on the spectrum and/or with special needs are capable of achieving when surrounded by suitable support systems. When the whole neighborhood sees their neighbor, a guy on the autism spectrum, coming home on Friday in uniform and hears that he’ll be continuing in his field in the civilian workforce, it has an enormous impact,” expressed Attia.
Since Jewish National Fund-USA began partnering with Special in Uniform, the program has expanded from its original 50 members to 400 participants with a long waiting list. The charismatic and passionate Attia has big visions for the program and hopes to increase its enrollment to 1,000 participants within two years. “Obviously, there is both a need and challenge, but we’re the solution.”