Israeli teen with Cerebral Palsy Beat the Odds to Became an IDF soldier

Omer with Major General Amir Eshel,Commander in Chief of the Israeli Air Force. Photo courtesy JNF.

By Donna Breitbart

Orli Lahat a deputy commander and F-16 pilot in the Israel Air Force didn’t imagine how his life would change when his first son, Omer, was born with cerebral palsy.

“Every aspect of our lives is shaped by the over thousands of hours a year it takes to bring Omer to more than 200 appointments with nine doctors and five therapists; find needed equipment and services; do therapy with him at home; address his behavioral issues; spend extra time on his school work; supervise almost everything he does to maintain his safety and maximize his independence; and make the extra time for him to do things other kids do so quickly and easily,” said Omer’s Father. “It means staying where we have supportive family and have learned how to navigate systems. It has forced us to acquire new skills and re-focus our lives. It has made us intentional parents who constantly think about how we can keep our son’s needs from taking over our family while making sure his sisters’ needs are also met. It has brought us closer together as a family, taught us the value of family and community, and helped us learn to cherish every little thing about our children.”

Although cerebral palsy is a disorder that can impact any and all aspects of a person, it does not define who that person is. He or she still wants a high quality of life and parents of kids with cerebral palsy want the same thing for and to do the same things with their kids that other parents want.”

Omer’s life milestones may have been delayed, but one by one he continues to achieve them all! Every day he is one step closer and he motivates us to work hard for what we want, and to never give up hope when the “going gets tough.”

“His sweet spirit is simply the best and he rocks our world in the best way,” says Orli Lahat.

By the time Omer reached adulthood at the age of 16, he started to talk about serving in the Army. His dream was to be a soldier and his family gently attempted to dissuade him so he wouldn’t get let down. They even accompanied him to army registration where they received the doctor’s verdict that he was exempt from army service, but Omer wasn’t deterred, “I want to serve in army. I want to wear a uniform!”

In Israel, the vast majority of typical high school graduates serve in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) but, thousands of young people like Omer with cerebral palsy, autism, and intellectual disabilities were turned away from service. These individuals had been turned away from proudly serving their country until Special in Uniform opened the door for them. Now operating in partnership with Jewish National Fund (JNF), Special in Uniform is a very unique program which integrates young people with autism and other disabilities into the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and, in turn, into Israeli society. The organization’s core belief is that everyone belongs and has the right to reach his or her full potential. Special in Uniform focuses on the unique talents of each individual participant to help them find a job within the IDF that is a perfect fit for their skills and in helping keep Israel safe and secure.

“Participants in Special in Uniform attend a three-month course and receive training for their army service and an introduction to army life,” said Tiran Attia, director of the program and a former commander of IDF’s Sar-El program for overseas army volunteers for 10 years, and in that capacity, witnessed firsthand the dedication and high work ethic of volunteers with disabilities.

Omer’s family heard about the program and reached out to Special in Uniform where he started as a volunteer and entered the IDF with complete confidence and the motivation to succeed. After one year of volunteering Omer was accepted as a fully enlisted soldier and received his choger, the army identification card.

“Mothers for a child with a disability sometimes feel alone and invisible,” said Haddas Lahat, Omer’s mother. “By giving our children the opportunity to be part of the Army, you give us hope. And you promote the equal rights of man and women while serving in the Army.”

Deputy Defense Minister Eli ben Dahan said “The IDF is known as the ‘people’s army’ because it goes well beyond military duty to ensure Israel’s security, playing an important social role. It is a melting pot that brings together all sectors of Israeli society. We are encouraging and support the idea of inclusion in the IDF because everyone belongs.”

One day, perhaps, this will not be seen as newsworthy or surprising, but rather for what it is: a tested truth that inclusion of individuals with disabilities benefits all who participate.

Donna Breitbart is a team member of JNF’s Task Force on Disabilities.