“Special in Uniform” Allows Special-Needs Youngsters to Join the IDF—and It’s the Army and Society Who Benefit

May 19, 2015 by

Clipart_GoldbergSeveral years ago, when an Israeli commander was asked about the place for special-needs individuals in the IDF, his response was that the army was not “a social-service agency.” Lieut.-Col. Tiran Attia does not necessarily disagree, but, he said, soldiers with disabilities are increasingly playing a role that not only makes the IDF better and stronger, but is also changing the way Israelis in general view those with special-needs.

“It’s not usually discussed, but former Prime Minister Golda Meir had a grandchild with Downs Syndrome at a time when special-needs children were shunted aside so as not to shame the family. She always said she had a dream that, one day, disabled Israelis would be part of the general Jewish community. It is my decision to fulfill that dream,” he said.

Mr. Attia made his remarks last month at the Young Israel of Fort Lee as part of a Lunch-and-Learn program.

Officially, the program he now heads is called “Special in Uniform.” Funded through the Special-Needs Task Force of the Jewish National Fund, the program is often referred to in Israel as the IDF’s “Great in Uniform.”

Its purpose is to allow youngsters with special needs to volunteer to serve in the IDF for four years, integrating them into the army with the ultimate goal of preparing them for an independent life in Israeli society.

A Chain

Mr. Attia, who served for 30 years in the IDF as a commander of Sar-El, an official army program through which volunteers engage in non-armed support tasks, retired a few months ago. He had already earned degrees in law, logistics, and marketing, leading to an MBA, but he knew he wanted to spend the next phase of his life doing something “to help the six million Jews in the Middle East face our 250 million neighbors, many of whom are not so fond of us and ready to do their best so that we will no longer be there.”

He said it occurred to him that the Jewish people as a whole is “very much like a chain in which every member throughout the world is a link.”

“It starts in Israel and radiates to all parts of the globe, and then finds its way back to the Jewish state. Some links are very strong; some a little weaker; but for the whole to survive, each part must be as sturdy as possible. I decided to devote my life to strengthening that chain,” he said.


His decision to do this by working with special-needs youngsters who want to join the IDF was based on an incident that occurred in the summer of 2006. During the Second Lebanon War, he was hospitalized after a car accident. Lying in bed, in severe pain, he did not want any visitors until a group of special-needs youngsters came to the hospital on a bikur cholim mission to visit the sick.

“I had asked to be left alone, but one young girl asked if she could rub my leg. I told her no, but she did it anyway. It seemed as if she was trying to absorb my pain,” he said.

Although his doctors had told him not to expect to walk for another six months, three weeks after the visit of the special-needs delegation, he was out of the hospital and biking again.

“Maybe it was a miracle, but I realized my project had to be including these special-needs youngsters into the IDF. I saw the love and sympathy they gave to injured soldiers, and I realized they have so much to give,” he said.

His next step was to start advocating for special-needs youngsters to be able to join the Sar-El program.

Focusing on Abilities

At the Young Israel, he was quick to point out that the IDF benefits greatly from their presence, and not just from intangibles, such as building compassion and forging unity among the soldiers, but also from tasks the special-needs soldiers can accomplish.

“We focus not on disability, but, rather, on ability. Special-needs soldiers are often capable of taking on tasks that regular soldiers cannot do as well,” he said.

For example, he recalled that during Operation Protective Edge last summer, autistic special-needs volunteers sat for hours in front of electronic maps, sent by satellites and drones, checking for the minutest changes that led the IDF’s Satellite Intelligence Unit to determine the location of Hamas missiles.

“This helped Iron Dome perform better. They saved lives. Many special-needs youngsters have abilities others lack, such as the patience to stay with a task, doing the same thing repeatedly. It becomes very important,” he said.

Important Jobs

Some special-needs soldiers manned the copy machines, producing flyers to be dropped from planes over Gaza to warn Palestinian civilians to leave an area. Special-needs soldiers routinely clean the components of gas mask kits, arrange batteries, and dismantle computers and separate the parts. They work in supply rooms, dining rooms, and print shops.

“Before they come to us, many of these kids were in special-education schools. When they turn 18, and everyone in their neighborhood goes to the army and they can’t, they feel like failures. This project allows them, in fact, to join the army, to contribute, and to give of themselves, just like everyone else,” said Mr. Attia.

The result, he said, is an increase in self-esteem and dignity for everyone.


For the individual soldiers, the program begins with a week of basic training that includes team-building and evaluation of skills. For some of these youngsters, this is their first time ever away from home. They learn to sleep away from their families and deal with life on a military base.

During those early weeks, they receive job training and spend time learning the values of the IDF, especially “v’ahavta le reyacha kamocha,” love thy neighbor.”

Just like their regular colleagues in the IDF, at the end of basic training, the Special in Uniform soldiers engage in a beret trek. Wearing orange caps and green fatigues, they march through the country, carrying Israeli flags, saluting when appropriate, and greeting well-wishers along the way. Some march on their own, others use crutches and braces. Some are pushed in wheelchairs. All express pride in what they are doing.

A Blessing

In a film shown by Mr. Attia at the Young Israel explaining the program, it is clear the trek and the program itself is a blessing especially for the parents of the special-needs youngsters.

“It’s hard to believe,” said Ronit Aviv as she watched her son march with the others. “We’ve waited for this moment a long time, and I’m glad we made it.”

When Ravit Ashkenazi’s son finished the trek with a proud, “I finally did it,” his mother called the program “a real gift for these kids.”

“It makes them feel like equals,” she said.

Winning a Beret

After the trek, each of the special-needs soldiers receives a beret. Then their everyday work in the IDF begins. They are placed on bases participating in the program, including the Air Force base at Palmachim, Naval base in Eilat, and Home Front Command bases at Ramla and Bilu, where they receive jobs compatible with their abilities.

In the film, entitled “Great in Uniform,” Major Motti Dayan, commander of the Rehav’am base, characterized the special-needs soldiers as “part of us.”

“They are here as an inseparable part of our unit. They eat with us in the mess hall, work with us on everything, and contribute to everything, just like regular soldiers,” he said.


Others noted the deep relationships that develop between the two groups of soldiers.

“The soldiers get to know them, to love them, to accept their differences, and appreciate them. Slowly but surely, they become an integral part of the unit, and the soldiers wait for them to arrive every morning,” said Liat Lugassi.

Einat Dabush, manager of a technical equipment storage unit on a base that participates in the program, said she is glad the IDF includes special-needs soldiers.

“We love them and enjoy being with them,” she said.

Beyond the Army

In his quest to work for special-needs youngsters, Mr. Attia serves also as the head-manager of the non-profit Yad Layeled HaMyeuchad (Lend a Hand to a Special Child). In the film, Rabbi Mendi Belinitzki, CEO of Lend a Hand, said that while Special in Uniform begins with the army, “it doesn’t end there.”

“We could clearly see how afterwards, it leads to better integration into society, the community, and the work force,” he said.

Mr. Attia agreed, “In Israel, army service is the gateway to successful integration into society and the workforce,” he said.

He pointed out that the Chevrat Chashmal Electric Company, located near the home front command base in Ramle and the logistics base near Kiryat Malachi, where special-needs soldiers are frequently stationed, now has 260 special-needs employees.

“Ripple Effect”

He called the increased work opportunities as well as the reaction of regular soldiers “the ripple effect.”

“Other soldiers on the base think less of their own problems and regard the soldiers with disabilities as role models. Discipline problems on bases that include special-needs soldiers have decreased dramatically,” he said.

Many people involved in the program say regular soldiers who work with the special-needs volunteers will never regard a disabled individual as anything less than a fellow citizen worthy of respect.

Two Tracks

At the end of the special-needs soldiers’ tours of duty, they receive substantial release grants and are integrated into the work force.

As of June 2014, the program had integrated 80 soldiers into two tracks, depending on the individual’s capabilities. After an eight-hour day at the military base, those in the community-based track, which works in collaboration with the Ministry of Social Affairs, return to a communal residence which houses 20 special-needs soldiers with full-time counselors. Each soldier receives an individually tailored plan of therapy, entertainment, classes, culture, and recreation geared to promoting personal advancement and group interaction.

The home-based track is for those special-needs soldiers who are unable to be away from their families overnight. This program allows these soldiers to be bused every day from their homes to their bases and back. After work, they are bused to special centers offering programs for them, including dinner, and then are returned home.

At the Young Israel, Mr. Attia was joined by Yossi Kahana, co-founder of Special in Uniform and Director of the JNF Special Needs Task Force, which funds the special-needs IDF program.


Not surprisingly, Mr. Kahana said, the special-needs program is expensive. To date, 100 special-needs youngsters have been through the program, benefitting from its training in life- and work-skills. According to Mr. Kahana, there are 2,000 special-needs youngsters who now want to join.

Because there are large state subsidies for the program, it will cost donors $100,000 to adopt a Special-in-Uniform unit of 20 soldiers, covering all their expenses for a full year. Mr. Kahana is hoping Jewish communities throughout the world will see fit to participate in this program.

Other sponsorships are also available, such as the cost of a Special in Uniform life-skills and occupational-training program ($50,000), the community home for Special in Uniform soldiers ($36,000), and a mechina program to prepare special-needs youngsters to join Special in Uniform ($25,000).

For more information on these projects as well as the Special in Uniform program, Mr. Kahana can be reached at the Jewish National Fund, 888-JNF-0099. Mr. Attia can be reached at tiran.attia@gmail.com.

Mr. Attia had his reason for wanted to help special-needs youngsters; Mr. Kahana has his: He has an older son who serves in the IDF, and a nine-year-old son, Gershon, who is autistic.

“My dream is that my younger son will one day join his brother in the army,” said Mr. Kahana.