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Twins take different paths to protect Israel

One became a soldier in the army's unique 'Special in Uniform' unit – the other celebrates her sister’s victory
The story of Maayan - Special in Uniform

Israel is widely condemned, even for offenses it didn’t commit. It rarely receives plaudits for good things it does. One example is its “Special in Uniform” (SIU) program.

Amid much pomp and emotion, Emanuel Olgin and seven other “special needs” young people, were inducted into the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) as SIU soldiers, during a March 17 ceremony. Her twin sister Maayan, who serves in IDF’s medical corps, shared the joy.

Maayan and Emanuel were born prematurely. Mayan had a “typical” childhood, said their mother Miri Gettenyu, including boyfriends and prom dresses. Emanuel’s childhood was different. She had cognitive difficulties, memory issues and anxiety. A medical condition necessitated amputation of her left foot when she was a year old.

When they were sixteen, both girls simultaneously received letters from the IDF. Maayan’s was an order for military service; Emanuel’s a military exemption.

Military service is part of Israeli culture. In addition to protecting their homeland, the IDF brings together people from all sectors of Israeli society. It’s the gateway to careers, lifelong friendships and belonging.

Emanuel desperately wanted to join the IDF. Miri experienced a “whirlwind of emotions” on reading both letters, and her heart ached for Emanuel.

Most SIU soldiers are identified by staff at a school for students with special needs and disabilities, but Emanuel’s quest to become an SIU soldier began when Miri saw an “inspiring” Facebook post about SIU.

Young people who want to be considered for SIU take tests assessing their skills and potential for military success. Due to resource limitations, not everyone is accepted. Those who qualify include people on the autism spectrum, those with developmental delays or hearing and vision impairments, and individuals with a wide range of other cognitive and physical issues.

SIU’s core belief is that everyone belongs and should have the chance to reach his or her full potential. The program focuses on each individual’s unique talent. Emphasizing abilities instead of disabilities, it finds ways for young Jewish, Bedouin, Druze and Arab citizens to contribute to the IDF.

SIU soldiers undergo extensive training, including a focus on life skills and independence. Not surprisingly, there is always a waiting list to get into the program.

Sergeant Major Rami Hasan, Commander of the Emergency Supply Unit in the Home Front Command – Dan District, has been the leader and beloved “father figure” to SIU soldiers on the Arad military base for many years.

Before the ceremony, Hasan, who is a member of the Druze community, showed family and friends around the main warehouse where “his” 17-21-year-old SIU soldiers pack, replenish and label military kit bags, assemble food supplies and check weapons to ensure no parts are missing. He stressed the importance of these jobs and praised the SIU soldiers’ careful and diligent work ethic.

On 50 military bases throughout Israel, SIU soldiers undertake a wide variety of other jobs. Some watch drone monitors, analyze data or prepare food, while others repair vehicles and tanks or missiles that intercept enemy rockets.

The IDF is the only military in the world that employs soldiers with special needs and disabilities. In February, the thousandth SIU soldier was inducted with great fanfare.

But when the program began ten years ago, significant concerns included questions about its value, feasibility and cost. After many ups and downs, SIU has become a valuable asset to the IDF. IDF officials recognize the soldiers’ commitment, reliability and attention to detail, and that their meaningful contributions often free “typical” soldiers to perform other tasks.

The presence of these special soldiers also boosts the morale of other soldiers, who see SIU soldiers’ hard work, how proud they are to serve – and know that Israel is making every effort to leave no one behind.

SIU is a joint effort of the IDF and Jewish National Fund-USA (JNF). Private companies also “adopt” SIU units and provide financing, employment opportunities and training after SIU soldiers have completed their military service.

I attended Emanuel’s induction ceremony on a sparkling, sunny day. Joy and pride radiated from SIU soldiers’ faces, and from the faces of parents, family, friends and teachers who crowded the outdoor arena.

Putting aside war for the moment, military officials spoke glowingly about the inductees. Strauss-Group’s CEO proudly shared that his company was “adopting” this unit.

SIU’s military band of “special needs” soldiers sang from their hearts: “… to dance, to march forward, to be whole among people … and maybe a day will come and we’ll become equals … you’ll be a stream to me and I to you … and we’ll flow together endlessly.” 

Emanuel sang the moving, aspirational song Maayan wrote for her: “… the street outside is a bit crazy – a dangerous and threatening jungle. But you’re strong like a lioness and you’ll know how to fight. You are a queen, and it doesn’t matter what others say. Go now, shine like the sun. You have wings, fly far.”

There wasn’t a dry eye.

Emanuel and her fellow SIU soldiers will face steep challenges throughout life. But now they have the opportunity to fulfill their potential and fly.

About the Author
Dvorah Richman is a lawyer, free-lance writer and, currently, the President of Jewish National Fund - USA's (JNF) Greater Washington Board and a member of its Special Needs and Disabilities Task Force.
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