The inspirational ‘Special in Uniform’ IDF soldiers

This Thursday, Israel celebrates 70 years of independence by spreading the word of inclusion and acceptance of social diversity * Israeli Paralympic gold medalist wheelchair tennis player and former IAF helicopter pilot Noam Gershony, who was seriously wounded in action during the Second Lebanon War, will light the torch on Mt. Herzl.

Special in Uniform, a joint project of the IDF, Lend-a-Hand to a Special Child, and the JNF, integrates youth with physical disabilities into the IDF, enabling them to function independently and contribute positively to society, is an expression of societal advancement.

This Thursday, Israel celebrates 70 years to the founding of the State. The country’s current population numbers 8.68 million, more than ten times its population seven decades ago when Israel first waved her blue-and-white flag. Noam Gershony, who will light the torch on Mt. Herzl, kicking off the official Independence Day celebration, represents 1.6 million Israeli citizens with disabilities. Yet far beyond that, he is a hero, a man who symbolizes the ability to surmount the odds, succeed in life and contribute positively to society despite extreme physical limitations.

At the climax of the Second Lebanon War, IAF helicopters were dispatched by the Command Center to assist ground forces that had infiltrated Lebanon. In the dead of night, an attack helicopter Boeing AH-64 Apache flown by Noam Gershony and Major Ron Kochva, z”l, awaited the signal ordering them to cross the northern border into enemy territory. While hovering in the air, two helicopters collided and crashed in an open field near the Yesha Junction. The accident claimed the life of Major Ron Kochva, z”l, and left the other three squad members, including Gershony, seriously wounded. Noam suffered numerous bone fractures and injuries in all four limbs and is since confined to a wheelchair.

In 2007, after undergoing intensive physical rehabilitation, Gershony joined the Beit Halochem Sport Center for Disabled Veterans in Tel Aviv and began training in wheelchair tennis under the guidance of Coach Nimrod Bichler.  His efforts and talents paid off, and Noam was awarded international recognition in December 2010, when he won first place in Quad Singles at an international tournament for wheelchair tennis in the Czech Republic. At the same tournament he also shared first place in the Quad Doubles with a French competitor. After this event he was ranked 29th in the world.

In September 2011, Gershony qualified for the US Open finals, and in November 2011 won first place in the Tennis Masters Series in Belgium which featured the four top players in the world. This was the first time that an Israeli player qualified for the Quad Singles finals in that tournament.

In January 2012, he won first place in Australian Open events for wheelchair tennis in Sydney, after beating David Wagner, who was ranked second in the world.  Three months later, in April 2012 he beat the gold medalist from the 2008 Summer Paralympics and won the Pensacola Open event. Later that year he participated in the 2012 Summer Paralympics, winning a gold medal in Quad Singles. He was chosen to be Israel’s flag-bearer at the 2012 Summer Paralympics closing ceremony. Parallel to his sports career, Gershony also volunteers at Makom Acher, a hostel for at-risk youth in Tel Aviv, and teaches mathematics to teenagers.

Noam Gershony, a former soldier, is an inspiration and hero to thousands of Israelis with physical disabilities, living proof that one can succeed at anything if one only tries.  Military service in Israel is one of the focal points of Israeli teens’ lives and an essential stop on the road to integrating into the workforce. Many employers give precedence to army veterans who amassed special skills and vocational experience in the course of their military service. On the other hand, citizens with physical disabilities receive automatic exemptions from the army, although this ultimately does not necessarily benefit the recipients, many of whom — like their peers — nurse a lifelong dream of joining the IDF.

The exclusion of persons with disabilities from military service results in a double loss: The youths forfeit the opportunity to acquire skills, advance, and contribute positively to society; while the nation loses out the benefits that these young men and women could have willfully contributed. But in the past decade in Israel, a change has taken root. This change is rapidly spreading, inspiring Israelis, young and old, to embrace its disabled members and transforming the fabric of Israeli culture by helping to create a more caring and inclusive society.

Special in Uniform is a pioneering project of the IDF, Lend-a-Hand to a Special Child, and the JNF-USA that enables youth with disabilities to volunteer in the IDF. The program imbues these volunteers with pride in themselves and their abilities and teaches them to function independently and contribute positively to society in spite of their special needs and physical challenges.  Special in Uniform’s focus is on ability, not disability, upon utilizing and emphasizing talents and capacities of people with disabilities in order to foster independence and integration into mainstream society.

In the framework of the project, adolescents, who were long resigned to staying at home while their peers served their country valiantly, reveal new opportunities and quality of life in the framework of Special in Uniform as well as a potential career to follows their army service.

This upcoming Independence Day, as Noam Gershony lights the torch on Mt. Herzl, he will be hailed by millions of his fellow Israelis and hundreds of Special-in-Uniform soldiers  whom he taught by personal example that with effort, understanding, and shared commitment on everyone’s part, Israel can become a model society that fosters inclusion and acceptance of all.

About the Author
Lt. Col. (Res.) Tiran Attia is the director of Special in Uniform, a very unique program, operating in partnership with Jewish National Fund (JNF) to integrate young people with autism and other disabilities into the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and, in turn, into Israeli society. Tiran was born in Israel in 1967. During a distinguished 28 year career in the IDF, he was IDF tank commander, commander of the IDF's Technology and logistics forces training program for army logistics cadets. His last position in the IDF was as a Commander of the Sar-El program for army volunteers.
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