Special in Uniform: The IDF’s Secret Weapon  

By: Chloe Baker  |  June 25, 2024

By Chloe Baker, Senior Opinions Editor

At the age of 16, teenagers across Israel receive a Tzav Rishon (first notice), a letter from the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) preparing them to enlist. Unfortunately, hundreds of teens with disabilities receive a different letter from the IDF, exempting them from their service. For many, this news is heartbreaking. In a country like Israel, being in the IDF is not just a way to serve one’s country, but it is also a place to form connections, be part of Israeli culture and society, prepare one for their future, and even receive career opportunities. 

For people with disabilities, going to the army was historically seen as a lost cause. However, Special in Uniform, a Jewish National Fund (JNF) backed initiative founded in 2001, has provided hundreds of Israelis with autism, down syndrome, and other physical and cognitive disabilities, with the opportunity to be part of the IDF and proudly serve their country just like everyone else. Now, some teens with disabilities get a Tzav Rishon giving them the opportunity to join the army via Special in Uniform and similar programs. 

Tiran Attia, Co-Founder of Special in Uniform, shared his story in an interview with the YU Observer, expanding upon how he came to work for this unit and why it is meaningful for him. “We are changing this paradigm that says ‘there is no place for you,’” Attia told the YU Observer

In the 2006 Lebanon war, Lt. Col. Tiran Attia was wounded while fighting Hezbollah. Rockets from the north rained on Israel constantly and attacked many military targets, one of which was the convoy Attia was leading that had supplies of all kinds, including ammunition. Then, one of the missiles hit his ammunition car. “I saw my soldiers jumping from their truck,” he explained. “I stopped mine and tried to help them.” 

Before Attia could exit his tank, another explosion went off near him, and he was thrown into a ditch, where he lay injured. “The next thing I remember is being in a very white room. I was sure I was in G-d’s hands,” he said. “I didn’t want to live as a paralyzed person.” 

Similar to the current war in Israel, in 2006 there were many volunteer missions to Israel, and lots of visitors from both outside and inside the country came to hospitals to spend time with injured soldiers. One of the groups who visited Attia were from Special in Uniform, but Attia could tell that they were not typical soldiers. “A soldier with down syndrome approached my bed and asked if she could hold my hand,” Attia said. The soldier leaned in and grabbed his left hand tightly. Her eyes began to open and close, and she said lovingly to him “hakol yihyeh beseder (everything will be alright).” 

After that, Attia made a vow that if he got out of his current situation and was able to walk again, he would dedicate the rest of his life to helping those with special needs. 

Three months later, after very hard work, Attia was able to walk again. Eight years later, in 2014, he was fully discharged from the IDF. “I knew exactly what to do. I started working in business but things kept bringing me back to work with [people with] special needs.” It was then, in 2014, that Attia joined Special in Uniform as a Co-Founder of the program. Shortly after, during the 2014 Israel-Hamas war, Special in Uniform had their first induction ceremony. 

The program started with only 40 participants, but now is leading more than 900 soldiers across 50 bases. The program isn’t just changing the lives of the individuals with special needs, but also changing the lives of their parents and siblings. “These parents would have never dreamt that their kid would be inducted into the army,” Attia said. The program lifts a weight off of these parents’ shoulders because their children are finally being accepted and valued like everyone else, and their lives are a bit more mainstream. 

The program doesn’t just impact the lives of its participants. On many bases, neurotypical soldiers serve with Special in Uniform soldiers, and oftentimes this boosts the neurotypical soldiers morale, making them think outside of themselves and worry less about their own personal problems. “They all become friends with each other. It’s an endless win for all of them,” Attia said.  

In the throes of the current war, Special in Uniform has developed a new program which pairs a wounded soldier and a Special in Uniform soldier together to receive dog therapy. “There are a lot of emotional issues that can be tended to with dogs,” Attia said. “It’s a unique trio.” The project is coming to life with the help of psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers. This project not only helps wounded soldiers, but also tremendously improves the life-skills of those with special needs. 

According to Attia, since Oct. 7, the motivation amongst these Special in Uniform soldiers has increased immensely. “It [their motivation] used to be at a 10, and now it is at a 20,” he stated. Additionally, the soldiers’ maturity has increased and they are more than eager to step up and help. “They want to fight and be in combat.” 

Attia cherishes and feels pride in all of his soldiers, and even highlighted that two of his graduates worked in the Iron Dome laboratory. Additionally, he explained that for many, after they have graduated from the Special in Uniform program, they get hired by Israeli high tech companies and the Israeli defense industry. “There are people who were told at 16 that there is no place for them and are now making large salaries at these companies,” he explained. Touchingly, Attia shared that two autistic soldiers who married after graduating Special in Uniform promised to name their firstborn child after him. 

While Special in Uniform has amassed immense accomplishments and changed the lives of so many, there is still much more to be done. “My dream is that the army won’t need Special in Uniform anymore,” Attia emphasized. “The soldiers will be evaluated generally and the army won’t need us to mediate this type of work.” 

However, Attia doesn’t see that happening in the near future. In the coming years, Attia hopes to expand the program to offer even more sophisticated jobs to his soldiers, and gain even more support on his mission. “We are changing the State of Israel and we see this change,” he said. “It’s one step at a time.”