In the summer of 1982, in the midst of Operation Peace for Galilee, Golan Heights settlements faced the disastrous prospect of losing their entire agricultural crop. The majority of able-bodied settlers had been called up for army reserve duty and entire farms, with crops already ripened, were left unattended, due to the acute manpower shortage. Dr. Aharon Davidi (z”l), the former head of the IDF Paratroopers and Infantry Corps, was then directing the Golan Heights community and cultural activities. As a result, in the Spring of 1983, “Sar-El” — The National Project for Volunteers for Israel — was founded as a non-profit, non-political organization (“Sar-El” is the Hebrew acronym meaning “Service for Israel”). When I become the Sar-El commander in 2005, volunteers from other countries came to partake in the project, and to date, Sar-El is represented in over 30 countries worldwide.

One day, Colonel Ariel Almog, commander of the home front command base came to visit me and told me about his project to include volunteers with disabilities in the IDF, I must to admit, I didn’t understand how it was going to work. “I don’t believe that these youngsters can contribute to the army,” I thought to myself. “Let’s give them a good feeling of belonging, and allow them to volunteer, but without a proper framework to ease them into the challenges of military life, so we can say, we did it.” After all, the IDF is known as the “people’s army” because it goes well beyond military duty to ensure Israel’s security, playing an important social role. It is a melting pot that brings together all sectors of Israeli society.

But it was more than that. Over the years, this approach has led to the formation of several IDF units for at-risk and delinquent youth as a method of rehabilitation. The most famous unit, known as “Raful’s Boys,” was established by the late Chief of Staff Lt. General Raphael Eitan. Research shows that once integrated into the military, these boys are embraced by their communities and the job market. The army is a gateway for young people of all backgrounds, enabling them to successfully join society. This program provides those who serve with valuable professional and social life skills.

Later, I was asked to be part of a steering committee for a new program called “Ro’im Rachok,” or “seeing into the distance,” to assist Israelis who are on the high functioning side of the spectrum of autism, and who wish to enlist in the military. (High functioning meaning they have above-average intelligence, but may have difficulties with social interaction and communication.)

What I have learned is that it’s not enough to have good will; we need to train these recruits and prepare them for the army, as well as continue with them throughout their time of service.

In 2014, I left the army and joined Lt. Col Ariel Almog and, together with the Yad Layeled organization (and in partnership with JNF-USA) , we founded the “Special in Uniform” program. The program integrates thousands of young people with disabilities into the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and, in turn, into Israeli society.

We see the inclusion of people with disabilities in the army as a way to help usher them into a self-sufficient life once they are discharged from the army. Our belief is that everyone belongs and has the right to reach his or her full potential. Special in Uniform focuses on the unique talents of each individual participant to help each one find a job that is a perfect fit for the individual’s skills within the IDF. The attention is on the ability, not the disability, of each individual, encouraging independence and integration into society

special-in-unifom-this-week-2The program begins with a process of evaluation and assessment by our professional team, followed by a three-month course of life skills and occupational skills training. The approach of this life and occupational skills curriculum is to blend academics, daily living, personal/social, and occupational skills into integrated lessons designed to help the students learn to function independently in society.

Training also includes social interaction through a variety of interesting activities and workshops, such as drama, sewing, cooking, sing-alongs, and nature hikes. Under the guidance of a psychologist, youth engage in meaningful discussions pertaining to societal interaction, with a special emphasis on normative behavior, personal independence, positive self-image, and combating personal over-sensitivity.

Military service begins with a 10-day pre-induction training program course, including group formation led by professionals. Afterwards, the soldiers are integrated into a variety of jobs as part of the military manpower.

Throughout the program, the soldiers are mentored by a team of experienced and dedicated professionals, who invest all their energy in the soldiers, providing them with warmth and love. The team consists of a psychologist, a social worker, and instructors with professional training.

Today, Special in Uniform programming goes beyond the walls of IDF bases. It helps its graduates find employment and assists them in integrating into the workforce as well as in other aspects of Israeli society in meaningful ways.

One day, perhaps, this will not be seen as newsworthy or surprising, but rather for what it is: a tested truth that inclusion of individuals with disabilities benefits all who participate.special-in-uniform-jnf