Marsh Neeley is a five-year-old boy with Down Syndrome. His father, Chris, is starting an American version of Israel’s military inclusion program, Special in Uniform, so that young adults with intellectual and physical disabilities can serve their country.
“I want Marsh to know that when he’s old enough he can wear the American flag on his shoulder, just like his older sister and brother,” says Neeley.
The South Carolina resident is a U.S. Army and Navy veteran, a major in the U.S. Army National Guard, a special-education administrator and chair of the President’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities.
Neeley and his wife, Janie, came across Special in Uniform in March 2018 when researching inclusion programs around the world.
“One place people with disabilities haven’t been included is the military,” says Neeley. “When I saw what the Israeli Defense Forces did to include them among their ranks, I realized this innovative approach could be a model for the United States.”
Neeley contacted Special in Uniform’s director, Major (Ret.) Tiran Attia, through Facebook.
Attia connected Neeley with Yossi Kahana, who oversees Jewish National Fund-USA’s task force on disabilities. JNF-USA supports Special in Uniform and three other disability affiliates in Israel: LOTEM, Red Mountain Therapeutic Riding Center and ALEH-Negev.
Less than a year later, Neeley accompanied the task force to Israel. He visited some of the 28 bases where about 450 Special in Uniform soldiers are stationed.
“I was blown away,” Neeley tells ISRAEL21c.
“I talked to the commanders about how the integration has helped relieve some of the garrison responsibilities like logistics, food services, medical services, transportation and administrative jobs so you can move soldiers without disabilities to the frontline. I saw how the IDF trains young people with autism to read satellite imagery and see things you and I can’t see.”
Neeley forged a close friendship with Attia and left Israel determined to launch a sister program back home, called Corps of Honor.
“That was the name of a unit George Washington created for people with disabilities during the Revolutionary War. The Corps of Honor was last active in the Civil War,” he explains. “We’re launching it again in the United States based on the model of Special in Uniform in Israel.”
The Corps of Honor will begin at the South Carolina Army National Guard.
While Special in Uniform soldiers serve for a limited time like other Israeli soldiers, the National Guard is a part-time auxiliary supporting anything from traffic control to emergency evacuation. Therefore, Corps of Honor participants can serve indefinitely, while leveraging their new skills in the civilian workforce.
“No one wants to give internships [to people with disabilities], nor do they want to hire them without internship experience,” notes Kahana, the father of a child with autism.
“This could be the solution: An internship where they really can feel they are contributing to society and that will make it easier for them to get a real job. So we will help Corps of Honor in any way we can.”
Source: Abigail Klein Leichman, “Israel’s military inclusion program inspires US Corps of Honor,” Israel21c, (October 6, 2020).