April 21, 2024
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Special Needs, Special Contributions

Every member of society can contribute in some way. This could be the motto for Gedolim Bemadim, which the program translates to Special in Uniform. IDF Colonel (Res.) Ariel Almog, the founder and creator of the program, mentions this belief often when discussing Special in Uniform.

Special in Uniform which was previously featured in The Link (Greatness in Uniform) seeks to integrate those with special needs into the IDF. The special needs include autism, Down syndrome, physical disabilities, and more. These individuals serve as volunteers for three years. However if during the six-month training period the special needs person can demonstrate that he/she can do something valuable within their ability, has the proper behavior/motivation, and deserves to be a soldier, he/she can become regular members of the IDF.

Of the 201 special needs individuals in the program currently, 46 have made it to the army. The majority of the volunteers serve in roles such as kitchen staff, food servers, general office work, dismantling old computers, and simply helping around the bases. However, some special needs individuals have shown a capacity for more complex work. Almog pointed to one particular female soldier who is a high functioning autistic and has shown an “amazing talent in numbers. “She serves on the Palmachim Air Force Base and reviews the budget to spot any errors or inconsistencies. She has saved the base 100,000’s of shekels.” Some are trained to be part of an intelligence unit that study satellite maps. It has been found that some autistics have a special talent with sight and can spot minor differences.

Colonel Almog started this program ten years ago. However, the roots of the program go back further. During the 2001Intifadah, Colonel Almog was in an army vehicle up North at Sde Trumot junction in the Jordan Valley. He was behind a bus when he spotted a suspicious guy wearing a heavy coat trying to board the bus. He knew instinctively that it was a terrorist carrying an explosive device, and he reacted. “After a short struggle I was able to control him, and was astounded to discover three explosive devices on his body.” Despite neutralizing the terrorist, the threat was not over.

“Suddenly shots were fired at me from a nearby olive grove. Apparently another terrorist was hiding there in order to assist his comrade. I drew my personal weapon and started firing at the grove to neutralize the second terrorist.” Colonel Almog neutralized the second terrorist but not before he was shot in the head.

Colonel Almog spent over two months in the hospital recuperating. Colonel Almog felt thankful to God for his life and wanted to do something to show his thanks. He came to the idea of creating Special in Uniform due to a belief he holds. “If there is one thing the Jewish people have to offer humanity, it’s the notion that we are created in the image of God–that we are all partners–that is the way of the Torah.”

One reason he came to this decision was the exposure he had to people with special needs and disabilities while in the hospital. A second reason was his frequent visitor and friend: renowned Professor Reuven Feurstein, who did groundbreaking work in demonstrating that intelligence is not fixed but modifiable.

Feurstein who recently passed away was awarded the Israel Prize for Social Sciences and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012. “He never gave up on a child,” said Feurstein’s son, Aharon.

Colonel Almog and Professor Feurstein became friends after meeting at Yad Vashem. The Colonel was there with soldiers while Feurstein was there with special needs teens. Feurstein called the Colonel over because one of the soldiers was making fun of the teens. Feurstein asked the Colonel to speak to the soldier. Colonel Almog explained to the soldier why he was wrong and instructed him to write an apology letter to the special needs teen. Professor Feurstein was impressed with the way Colonel Almog handled the situation and the two kept in touch.

Feurstein served as a guide/mentor/advisor on how to run the Special in Uniform Program. A pilot program was begun with five special needs people. The goal was to clearly understand how to make it work and what needed to be done. The last three years have seen the program grow greatly. Colonel Almog hopes to see the program continue to grow. “I’d like it to be a national program and have the door open to everyone.”

Yossi Kahana, who joined the program at the invitation of Colonel Almog feels the same way. The father of a child with autism and long-time advocate for people with disabilities has a dream. “I want my son with autism to be able to be a soldier like his brother. Special in Uniform is a game change initiative and will give my son and thousands of youngsters with special needs the opportunity to fulfill a dream and to participate in and contribute to society.”

The biggest challenge to expanding the problem is money. Each 20-person unit of special needs persons costs $100,000. That includes recruiting and interviewing those who will partake in the program. The interviewed is done to determine suitability for the program. Then months are spent training the special needs person so that they know how to behave while in the army.

Some might wonder if this is all worth it. Colonel Almog knows there are challenges. “It is a challenge to find the best of each individual and bring them to full potential.” However Colonel Almog believes that IDF is the people’s army. The significance of this model is that beyond its military duty to ensure Israel’s security, the army serves as a melting pot inclusive of the sectors of Israeli society. “As a society, it’s our responsibility to do this.” That is Israel and the Jewish people who care and show compassion for the weakest in our society.

By Larry Bernstein

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