A smaller, lesser known unit of the IDF has recently been brought to the spotlight highlighting how the IDF makes sure to include all types of soldiers in defending the homeland. The unit, made up of teenagers with special needs, was founded in 2001.
G’Dolim B’Madim, which is Hebrew for “Great in Uniform,” was the brainchild of Lieutenant Colonel Ariel Almog. Almog was an eyewitness to an attempted terror attack on a bus in the Jordan Valley during the second intifada in 2001. He prevented a terrorist laden with explosives from boarding a bus in an attempt to blow it up.
As Almog boarded the bus, he grabbed the terrorist and his explosives and threw him off the bus, saving countless lives. Almog struggled with the terrorist and his partner for over twenty minutes. During the altercation, Almog managed to neutralize the terrorist with the bomb but was shot by the second terrorist, who was in turn short by Almog emergency security responders.
Almog was awarded a medal by the Chief of Staff as well as the Police Commissioner. However, he was injured in the attack and spent the next few months recovering in the hospital.
During his recovery in the hospital, Almog was exposed to many injured people as well as people with severe disabilities. It was then that he had the idea to create a project that would integrate boys and girls with disabilities into the IDF. Almog was able to realize his dream and began integrating young boys and girls with disabilities in the IDF.
The first unit was stationed on the main base of the IDF’s Home Front Command, which at the time was under Almog’s command. Very quickly, the young people became an integral part of the army and are recognized as soldiers in every respect.
“This was the beginning of a revolution that will bring about the integration of thousands of young boys and girls with disabilities, in the IDF in particular, and in Israeli society in general,” said Almog. “That is the dream.”
Almog was able to get the program rolling from the army side of things but did not have the ability to reach out to the youth and to their parents and get them to sign up for the program. For that he needed connections. And thus began a partnership with the organization “Lend a Hand to a Special Child.” This organization, run by Mendi Belinitzki, works with disabled children all across the country.
The forged partnership allowed Lend a Hand to reach out to the children and their families and introduce them to Almog’s project. “The parents at first had a hard time believing that this could work for their children,” said Belinitzki. “They feel that their children have been dependents their entire lives, and could not fathom sending them to the army. They had quite a lot of difficulty letting go,” Belinitzky explained to Breaking Israel News.
Currently the program consists of 50 participants. From its modest beginnings in 2001, the program is set to more than double in size when 74 more participants join and will be working on a base in the southern Negev region near Eilat.
G’Dolim B’Madim is a multi-year program in which the young teens start out as volunteers for one year and then those who are able to become full-fledged soldiers fortify their time in the army with basic training (one week only) and all.
Currently, the 50 students in G’Dolim B’Madim sleep at hostels provided by Lend a Hand and are learning to become independent as much as possible.
“Each hostel and each group of soldiers on base has a counsellor with them who oversees the soldiers and helps them when they need it. But the soldiers themselves are responsible for managing all of their own household affairs, and are learning how to become more independent. Most of the soldiers when they came to us could not take a bus on their own, now they can do far more than that. The amount of pressure that this takes off of their parents is tremendous and the parents have been incredibly thankful. We have a waiting list of almost 300 more parents who want their children to become part of the program,” says Belinitzky.
This project is not without its burdens though. Belinitzki told Breaking Israel News that each participant costs the organization $600 monthly. While the Israeli Ministry of Social Affairs has been helping out with covering the costs of the hostels themselves, the expenses are still astronomical.
A video release by G’Dolim B’Madim has created a groundswell of interest in the group and their activities. Breaking Israel News was able to visit the soldiers on base. Recently the soldiers of Lend a Hand were also visited by one of the higher ranking officers from the US military.
The parents of the soldiers are incredibly happy for the G’Dolim B’Madim program and those whose children will be part of the new southern group, have created a Whatsapp texting group to discuss issues that arise with the children as well as support each other. Their appreciation for Almog and what he is doing is quite intense. As is that of the participants themselves.
The soldiers all expressed happiness to be part of the program. They truly enjoy their work which differs depending upon the soldiers themselves. Those who have more ability to be independent work on fixing parts for various items such as helicopter chairs or other maintenance work. Those soldiers with slightly lower ability to be independent take apart computers and their components which the army then recycles and makes money on.
“The dream is that every base in the IDF will have a group like this,” said Belinitzki. “And what is truly great is that after they finish their service, we find them jobs and they stay in our hostel, which then can turn into a new home for them. While each hostel has counsellors who help the soldiers and alumni, the goal is to increase the independence of each participant, and their ability to do things for themselves, and we succeed across the board. It is not a home for soldiers we are creating, it is a family,” said Belinitzki while smiling from ear to ear.
“Very often youth with special needs feel left out because they cannot serve and they want to serve. They want to feel like everyone else, and yet they cannot get over the gap of being in the army. This program allows them to integrate and feel just like everyone else. To prove to themselves that they do have something to give to society, that they can be like everyone else and do the same things that others do. That feeling of empowerment, gives so much to each and every one of them. And it is a feeling which cannot be replaced by anything else. And they are, often they even excel and the jobs they are given and are more focused on their work than other soldiers are.”
To watch the soldiers at work and at play was something truly heartwarming and special. However, what is truly telling of the character of the Israeli army and how they have embraced this project on every level, is that other soldiers, even combat fitness instructors, are volunteering to take part and become counselors or work together with these disabled youth. And that is the truest sign of integration, being accepted by ones peers.
Over the years, this project has touched the lives of hundreds of families. What started out as as a story of one man’s heroism and recuperation, has spawned a story so big that it’s end is not even in sight yet. To the army that believes and cares about those less fortunate, and to those heroes who work everyday to make it so, we tip our hats.