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Sunday, October 20, 2019

(Courtesy of Special in Uniform) Ori Salmon, one among 120 exemplary soldiers and commanders to receive this year’s Presidential Medal of Excellence, is a young woman who surmounted all odds in her quest to serve in the IDF—including blindness.

Hundreds of youths with physical and mental disabilities are successfully integrated into the IDF’s Special in Uniform project, a groundbreaking initiative of the IDF, Lend-a-Hand to a Special Child and JNF-USA that integrates youth with disabilities into the IDF and facilitates their acclimation into general society.

In a momentous, heartwarming commencement ceremony that took place on the Ramat David Airbase in northern Israel, Special in Uniform volunteer recruits were warmly welcomed into the program and IDF and praised for their determination and perseverance. As a joint project of the IDF, Lend-a-Hand to a Special Child, and JNF-USA, Special in Uniform is a revolutionary program incorporating youth with disabilities into the IDF. Throughout the years, the program has taught hundreds of young people with physical and mental disabilities new skills and abilities while imbuing them with pride in themselves and their abilities and enabling them to function independently and contribute positively to society.

Among the speakers to welcome the volunteers to the base was noncommissioned educational officer Sergeant Ori Salmon who was born blind, yet insisted on joining the army and serving her nation—and triumphed. Salmon is one of 120 men and women from IDF units around the country who was awarded the Medal of Excellence for Exemplary Soldiers, Non-Commissioned Soldiers and Officers. The award is delivered annually by Israel’s president in a special Independence Day ceremony attended by the president, prime minister, minister of defense, chief of staff, IDF generals and dignitaries.

Sergeant Salmon emotionally described to the young volunteers how she was raised on tales of Israeli heroism and love of Israel, and how her parents emphasized the importance of unconditional giving and sharing in the burden.

“Both my elder brothers, parents and extended family all proudly served the IDF, and they all recall this period as a very special and wonderful time in their lives,” related Salmon. “I never perceived my blindness as an obstacle to joining the IDF. I never imagined that I wouldn’t be able to give what I yearned to share with my country and people.

“When I first arrived on base, though, I did secretly harbor a fear of the unknown. I wondered how I would be accepted by my peers, and if I would be suited to a military framework. Today, after a year and a half of military service, I can say with confidence that it is not only an excellent opportunity to contribute one’s utmost to society, but also an opportunity for personal growth. I was accepted on base with open arms, and I really enjoy the service and opportunity to meet people. I’m gaining incredible life experiences, and I bless you all that you should enjoy the same comfortable acclimation and meaningful, enjoyable service.”

Sergeant Ori Salmon is a powerhouse, a young woman who never allowed her disability to faze her. She attended a mainstream high school, took her Bagrut matriculation exams like all her peers, hiked alongside her classmates on their annual field trips and even joined them for the roots trip to Poland!

“When people see me acting normal instead of pitying myself, they also treat me as an equal,” she said.

Ori explains that “Initially, the army needed time to digest the fact that I was introducing new concepts that had never previously existed here—like programs in Braille. The army isn’t familiar with such programs, because they’re essentially civilian programs, and so it took time before I was able to receive a computer with the software that I required. There are always challenges and hardships; life isn’t a piece of cake, but we need to be optimistic and look ahead. If there’s ever something that frustrates or aggravates me, I still do my best not to reach the point of self-pity. It’ll be hard—that’s for sure. But it’s still possible to cope with any challenge.” Among the many behind-the-scenes steps that Ori took to ensure her smooth acclimation to military life was practicing the route from the bus stop closest to her home directly to the airbase entrance.

Today, hundreds of youths with physical and mental disabilities are successfully integrated into the IDF’s Special in Uniform and other similar projects, shared program director Lt. Col. (Res.) Tiran Attia. “These youths are strongly motivated to serve, and they invest their maximum capabilities to the army. A significant number eventually enters the army as full-fledged soldiers, as well, which is a magnificent achievement both for them and for Israeli society.”

Yisrael Malka is a young man on the autistic spectrum who made the leap to become a full-fledged soldier. His mom shared: “When our family learned about Special in Uniform, we understood that this was a singular opportunity for Yisrael to fill a significant role and contribute authentically to our state in a strong, supportive environment.”

The program endowed Malka with all the knowledge and skills necessary to fill his role in the military, and much beyond that, as well. Throughout his volunteer stint, he was empowered by first-rate commanders and a military team who knew exactly how to coach and motivate him; a warm, inclusive and accepting social environment that enabled him to grow, strive and flourish; and most importantly, he gained confidence in himself, his strengths and his abilities to succeed. The combination of these positive factors made Yisrael’s transition into the military smooth and natural.

“By his induction ceremony, Yisrael already felt so at home on base that we were bursting with pride,” continued his mother. “It wasn’t just his newfound leadership abilities, diligence or the maturity that he gained from the long months spent in the program, but also the road that the IDF itself journeyed in acquiring the compassion and understanding to make necessary adjustments in order to facilitate the contributions of those who genuinely aspire to serve.”

When Yisrael dons his uniform, he does it with pride. He rises every day at 6 a.m. to ensure that he arrives at his base on time, and he never once complains or requests leniency or favors. He knows what his responsibilities are as a soldier, and he doesn’t want to do away with any one of the responsibilities—or the privileges—that it entails.