The Israeli Air Force flight course is considered one of the most prestigious courses in the IDF. It lasts for three years and is held largely in the Hatzerim Airbase near Beer Sheva. Graduates of the course receive the rank of lieutenant and a BA from the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. After their training, the graduates must undertake mandatory military service of nine years. On average, only one out of nine students completes the course successfully.
The graduation ceremony, in which the new pilots and navigators receive their wings pins, is conducted in the presence of the cadets’ families, senior government officials, Prime Minister, as well as top air force and army leaders. At the ceremonies, an impressive air show is presented by Air Force helicopters and planes; the crux of the ceremony is the end of the long journey that is the IAF Pilot Course, one of the most prestigious and longest courses in the IDF.
During my 28 years of service in the IDF, I had the privilege of attending graduation ceremonies, there was nothing but excitement and sense of pride to be part of it, but last week the ceremony was very special, it was a welcome not only for the new pilots, but also for the new soldiers of Special in Uniform.
What was even more special last week is that among the soldiers who attended the ceremony was Omer Lahat, a young man born with cerebral palsy whose father served as a combat pilot in the Israeli Air Force and whose dream was to become a soldier.
Omer recently joined the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), becoming the latest example of the Israeli military’s prioritization of the inclusion of people with disabilities. Omer drew his inspiration to serve in the military from his father, “is something that was very important in our family,” he told me.
Oxygen was cut off from Lahat’s brain when he was born two months early, leading to his development of cerebral palsy. But physical limitations did not hold him back from attending high school and graduating with honors, after which point he pursued his dream to serve in the IDF through the “Special in Uniform” program—a partnership between the IDF, the Israeli Ministry of Social Services and the Jewish National Fund that works to integrate youths with disabilities into regular units in the military and ultimately into Israeli society. Omer was the program’s first-ever wheelchair-bound participant.
After first integrating into the Palmachim Air Base, Omer enlisted as a full IDF soldier in late December following a Special in Uniform letter-writing campaign that made the case for his military service to various IDF officials. To date, Special in Uniform has facilitated the voluntary enlistment of about 50 Israeli soldiers with autism and other disabilities.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, spoke at the graduation ceremony, underscored the IDF’s spirit of inclusion.
“A strong nation is one that does not leave its most vulnerable members behind,” Netanyahu said. “Israel is the only nation in the world that has a strong army with the ability to include people with disabilities.”
For the new pilots, for the strong leaders, and for the soldiers of Special in Uniform- the future is hopeful and the sky’s the limit…