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Israel Defense Forces: Special Needs Soldiers

Special in Uniform*

Special in Uniform began in one army unit in 2014, founded by Attia, Major General (Res.) Gabi Ophir and Lt. Col. Ariel Almog. A year later, JNF-USA got involved.

“The program focuses on the unique talents of each individual to find a job within the IDF that is perfect for that person’s abilities and provides support, therapy and counseling throughout the participant’s time in the program.”

Today, JNF-USA contributes about $1.5 million a year, 60 percent of the Special in Uniform budget; the rest comes from the Israeli government and corporate and private donors.

The newest Special in Uniform unit has volunteers from Israel’s Druze sector serving in the logistics department of a Galilee military base. The first to join this unit was Tarc Tuba, 24, a Druze man with Down syndrome.

“About 1,000 Israelis with intellectual and physical disabilities have been through Special in Uniform as real soldiers getting a salary and benefits. It’s revolutionary,” says JNF-USA National Vice President Alan Wolk.

“These kids watch their siblings go off to the IDF at age 18 and they feel excluded. Special in Uniform turns that around to a message of inclusion and they are filled with pride to serve in uniform.”

Roim Rachok

The Roim Rachok program in the IDF was designed to integrate those with special needs, such as autism or other learning disabilities, into the IDF. The initiative, whose name means “Seeing Far” in Hebrew, aims to capitalize on the strengths of these individuals, namely their extreme focus and meticulous attention to detail. Soldiers with autism can easily detect paterns and maintain focus on one item for long periods of time, making them ideal candidates for data analysis and mapping jobs. One out of every one hundred Israeli children is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, and the Roim Rachok program has 50 participants as of December 2015. These people would have been given frustrating, monotonous jobs in the IDF in the past, but they are now being utilized to their full potential and helping keep Israel safe and secure.

Some Roim Rachok participants are soldiers who serve in combat units, oftentimes as the only person in their unit with a spectrum disorder. Their peers undergo training on working with people with autism and meet weekly with a counselor to discuss the group dynamic.

Unit 9900

Unit 9900, the IDF’s secretive “Visual Intelligence Division,” began a program in 2013 to incorporate young people with autism into the military. This joint venture of the IDF and Ono Academic College gives autistic youth an opportunity to volunteer for service while the military benefits from their enhanced patience and ability to decipher aerial and satellite visual intelligence down to the smallest details.

The program is extremely selective; of the dozens of applicants in 2017-18, only 12 were accepted. Altogether about 100 volunteers have served in the unit. Once the three-month training is complete, they enlist for one-year increments, rather than the standard three years.

Many of these young people wish to serve their country, but previously had no opportunity to do so. In addition to the military service, the program helps these youths mature and become more prepared for life after the military. The structured environment of the IDF is welcoming to those with autism and it helps them prepare for the time, their 21st birthday, when nearly all government aid to those with mental disabilities is terminated.

The soldiers of Unit 9900 provide an example to Israeli society and the world of what those with autism are capable of achieving. 

Sources: Ben Sales. “Soldiers with autism take on key roles in IDF,” Times of Israel (December 8, 2015);
Yaakov Lappin.  The IDF’s Unit 9900: ‘Seeing’ their service come to fruition, JNS, (May 4, 2018); 
Shira Rubin.  The Israeli Army Unit That Recruits Teens With Autism, The Atlantic, (January 6, 2016); 
Roim Rachok, Wikipedia;
*Abigail Klein Leichman, “Israel’s military inclusion program inspires US Corps of Honor,” Israel21c, (October 6, 2020).