As Lt. Col Tiran Attia lay in a hospital in Israel, his leg torn apart from an explosion during combat in the 2006 Second Lebanon War, he noticed a young girl with Down syndrome among a group of volunteers who had come to visit injured soldiers.
“She didn’t stop smiling,” he said. “She was coming from the light so I saw a halo surround her and thought, ‘Maybe she is from the angels?’”
It was the kindness and comfort from this “angel,” Attia told a March 15 gathering at Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth, that brought him to an epiphany — that individuals with disabilities have a place in the Israel Defense Forces.
It was a complete about-face for him. Months before, when he had been tasked with implementing a program to integrate individuals with special needs into the military, he said, his first thought was, “They are a burden.” After his encounter with the “angel,” he asked himself, “‘Who am I to decide they are a burden?,’” and began working to fulfill that mission.
He is now executive director of Special in Uniform, a program run in partnership with the Jewish National Fund that aims to integrate individuals with disabilities into the military. The program’s objective is to build self-esteem and provide these soldiers with skills that can be used to find jobs and a place in Israeli society.
During the program, sponsored by the temple and the Raritan Valley chapter of Hadassah, Attia spoke about how Special in Uniform is now a flourishing program that has helped to transform Israeli society into a welcoming place for those with special needs.
Attia’s 28-year IDF career includes serving as commander of its technology and logistics forces training program and, from 2004 through 2014, as commander of the Sar-El program, which brings volunteers from more than 30 countries for short stints of service.
Special in Uniform provides training in such tasks as assembling battery packs, keeping track of equipment, serving up meals in the mess line, and disassembling computers, whose parts can be sold for profit. Attia said the soldiers the Special in Uniform individuals serve with consider them an integral part of their units, learning valuable lessons about dedication and discipline from them.
The special soldiers, he said, often develop “way beyond the potential” that even their families envisioned for them, with some being sought out after leaving the service by such companies as IBM and Intel.
The program also brings in young people with autism, some with savant syndrome. “Some of them are brilliant, but don’t know how to express that brilliancy,” said Attia. Using map-reading skills as an example, he noted, “These kids can see things we can’t.”
The prospects for the program’s continuation once looked dim, Attia said. Two years ago, financial cutbacks had reduced the program to only 50 soldiers.
“I felt a failure,” admitted Attia, who said it costs $5,000-$10,000 for each Special in Uniform member. He tried to get additional funding, but in 2014 the Gaza conflict broke out, making fulfillment of such a request virtually impossible.
However, in a fateful coincidence, last summer a JNF delegation from the United States happened to be visiting the base where the families of the Special soldiers had gathered for their ceremony marking their induction into the IDF.
Afterward, the delegation was shocked to learn they had witnessed what was to have been the last ceremony because the program had run out of money. Sensing their dismay, Attia said, he offered to send them a plan to continue the program.
“Two weeks later I got a call on my cell phone from area code 212,” said Attia. Answering, he heard, “Congratulations, you have a partnership with JNF.”
“At that moment I was the happiest person on Earth,” said Attia. “At that moment I knew we could make a difference for the kids, their families, and for the country.”
Michael Zimmerman, JNF senior campaign executive for central New Jersey, said, “If Israel is to be a light unto the nations, we feel this sets the bar for that. It amazes me how the special-needs community has become part of Israeli society because of Special in Uniform.”
Attia said there are now about 250 Special in Uniform soldiers. Others, after leaving the IDF, have moved into four homes built for them “in the best places in Israel.”
“They are in the best places because that’s where they belong,” he said, “not in a backyard or in the forest, but the best places in Israel.”