United States Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and former Chairman of the U.S. President’s Advisory Committee on People with Disabilities Chris Neeley, visited the Palmachim Air Force Base this week together with a delegation from the Jewish National Fund (JNF) Task Force on Disabilities.
They went to observe and learn how the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) incorporates 50 young men and women with assorted disabilities into military life through the program Special in Uniform. The long-term goal is to adapt the program for soldiers in the United States Armed Forces.
“A year ago, I read an article on the internet about Special in Uniform, and I’m overjoyed that I now have the opportunity to see it up close,” Neeley said in a statement. “It’s an incredible program by any estimation and we look forward to introducing a sister program back home in America.”
Special in Uniform focuses on ability, not disability, helping participants to find a role within the IDF that encourages them to contribute to Israel’s military and help keep their citizens safe. The program is funded through JNF through the organization Lend A Hand to a Special Child.
“It’s our moral obligation to ensure that each and every Israeli enjoys a life of dignity, belonging, and purpose,” JNF President Dr. Sol Lizerbram said in a statement.”
Currently 400 youth with special needs in 30 bases participate in Special in Uniform across Israel. According to the statement it was rare, if not impossible, to meet a soldier with autism or Down’s syndrome only a few years ago, but now they are incorporated in many bases in Israel and valued as integral members of the IDF with each soldier contributing his utmost to defend the country.
One of the soldiers Friedman and Neeley met was Roi Schiffman, who has cerebral palsy. Schiffman works in the Palmachim infirmary where he prints and issues documents.
“I’ve visiting many army bases and observed the arms and brain of the IDF. Today, I see the heart of the army,” Friedman said in a statement.
Chairman of Lend A Hand to a Special Child and one of the founders of Special in Uniform Lt. Col. (res.) Gabi Ophir shared through a statement that she joined the project 27 years ago when her daughter Ronit, who has William’s syndrome, was integrated into the Anatot Base.
“I was fortunate and blessed to observe the incredible changes that it made in her life, yet I never dreamed how far it would go or how it would transform the fabric of the IDF and nation itself,” Ophir said. “I’m proud of our military and Israel which is the world’s pioneer of inclusion.”
Israel is currently the only country that integrates citizens with special needs and disabilities into its military.