Israeli military open to volunteers with medical issues
JERUSALEM — Pvt. Tali Goft, an Israeli soldier serving on a base in northern Israel, didn’t know Erez Orbach, one of the four soldiers killed in a truck-ramming attack here Jan. 8, but she felt a kinship with him.
They both volunteered to serve in the military despite medical conditions that ordinarily would exempt them from Israel’s mandatory service.
“It was really hard to hear about his death, very emotional. I know what it is to serve with a medical problem, and how difficult it is,” said Goft, 19, who had a benign spinal tumor removed five years ago that left her with neurological damage and chronic pain.
Unlike other armies, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) encourages young adults with a wide range of medical disabilities — from diabetes and cystic fibrosis to Asperger’s and cerebral palsy — to volunteer for active duty.
The U.S. military, in contrast, disqualifies almost everyone with a disability or chronic medical condition from active duty. But a federal mandate states U.S. military bases must have 10% of their civilian workforce composed of individuals with disabilities.
“To my knowledge, Israel is the only country in the world that enables young people with disabilities to successfully serve their country in a military capacity,” said Jennifer Laszlo Mizrachi, president of RespectAbility, a disability empowerment organization based in Washington, D.C. “It allows people with autism, mobility issues and even cancer to serve in the IDF.”
Some Israelis like Goft and Orbach, who had a potentially life-threatening blood disorder, apply directly to the IDF’s volunteer division, while those who need extra help to serve apply to specialized partner programs.
The IDF annually accepts 850 volunteers with serious medical conditions. About 300 of them, ages 21 to 24, are in a program called Special in Uniform that places them in military jobs “compatible with their abilities that prepare them for the labor force,” said Yossi Kahana, director of the Task Force on Disabilities at Jewish National Fund, which helps operate the program.
In Israel, where military service is a mandatory rite of passage for most Jewish men and women at age 18, “those who are exempt feel frustrated. They are suddenly outsiders. Being able to volunteer helps people with disabilities integrate into society, and society benefits,” Kahana said.
Lt. Col. Yael Fisher Weiner, who works in IDF recruitment, said the Israeli military “wants to provide an opportunity to anyone who wants to and is capable of serving, provided they do not pose a danger to themselves or others.” Those who serve “become better citizens.”
Weiner acknowledged that accommodating someone’s needs can be complicated, and not all applicants are accepted. “Do they need to be near a clinic or go home every day? Do they need a base with elevators because they use a wheelchair?” Weiner said.
Cpl. Vladislav Polivoda, who serves as assistant to the vehicle licensing officer, is exempt from lifting heavy objects because he has cerebral palsy. “Other than that, I can do everything my commander orders me to do,” he said.
Polivoda, 21, said he hopes the skills acquired as a soldier will help him find a good job when he completes his nearly three years of service.
“I’ve learned how to be organized, interact with people and go on a job interview. A couple of days ago, when I spoke with our battalion commander, I realized the importance of being focused and succinct,” Polivoda said.
Goft, like other medical volunteers, is able to consult with her own specialists rather than military doctors, and she can wear regular shoes instead of army boots. “I can’t stand or walk for long periods of time, but otherwise I’m fine,” she said.
Some volunteers, like Orbach, are so outstanding that the IDF inducts them as regular soldiers. Orbach, 20, an American-Israeli officer-in-training, was killed along with three female cadets when a Palestinian truck driver rammed into their group while they were touring Jerusalem. Police called it a terror attack.
Yechiel Schlesinger, Orbach’s personal physician, said the young man challenged the IDF’s initial refusal to accept him, even as a volunteer.
“He had a severe hematological condition that caused recurrent anemia and crises, but he had the self-image of a healthy person. So when he asked, I wrote letters to the army explaining that he was capable of being a volunteer and then an officer cadet,” the doctor said.
After Orbach’s death, Schlesinger said he felt a momentary twinge of regret.
“If those of us who helped him get into the army hadn’t helped, he might still be alive,” Schlesinger said, “but he was so proud and he wanted to serve. This was his dream.”