Keeping safe in the IDF amid coronavirus

Roy Shifman is a proud soldier. He also has cerebral palsy and is confined to a wheelchair, but that doesn’t stop him from his duties.

Arutz Sheva Staff ,

Roy Shifman
Roy Shifman
Special in Uniform

Roy Shifman, 23, is a proud soldier in the Israel Defense Force. He also has cerebral palsy and is confined to a wheelchair, but that doesn’t stop him from carrying out his duties in the Palmachim Air Base infirmary with passion and resolve while ensuring that his fellow soldiers stay safe and healthy during this gradual transition out of the coronavirus pandemic.

Following the outbreak of coronavirus in Israel, soldiers from the IDF’s Special in Uniform project, many of whom are considered high-risk for infection, were sent home from military bases around the country for their physical protection. Yet alongside the easing of government-imposed restrictions following the decline of the virus in Israel, they were recalled to their bases to continue serving their country and defending their nation.

In Israel, military service is a rite of passage of sorts for high school graduates, as well as the gateway to a successful career. While young adults with disabilities were traditionally excluded from Israel’s conscription, much has changed since the founding of Special in Uniform.

A revolutionary project of the Israel Defense Forces in conjunction with Lend-A-Hand to A Special Child and JNF-USA, Special in Uniform incorporates young people with mild physical and mental disabilities into Israel’s military, offering them training and skills that empower them to integrate long-term into Israeli society and the workforce. The program accentuates the unique talents of each participant and places him or her into an appropriate setting within the IDF. Breaking down societal barriers and fostering widespread acceptance of social diversity, Special in Uniform focuses on the ability, not disability, of each individual, and encourages independence, inclusion and full integration into society.

In the past decade, thousands of young citizens with physical and mental disabilities have contributed their part to Israel’s military. Over the years, the program has increased by a thousand percent, expanding from 50 to 500 participants in 35 army bases around the country, with a long waiting list. Its passionate leaders are ambitiously planning to ramp up enrollment to 1,000 participants by 2023.

At the start of the coronavirus outbreak in Israel, the Ministry of Health in conjunction with Home Front Command recruited Special in Uniform soldiers to its Emergency Logistics Center to prepare and sort Covid-19 testing kits and dispatch them to hospitals and MDA centers around the country. The soldiers’ experience preparing emergency and crisis kits made them priority workers for the job. Specifically during a period of national crisis, the capabilities, skills and talents of these remarkable soldiers rose to the fore as they demonstrated their capacities and exemplary dedication to their people and nation. Lt. Col. Kobi Malka, who commands the Special in Uniform group stationed in the Home Front Logistics Center, went so far as to say that his soldiers were able to accomplish the crucial task better and more industriously than others due to their conscientious, assiduous nature, and their patience and persistence at a job that requires long hours of meticulous, repetitious work.

All this stopped short, however, when the virus spread out of control and the death toll began to rise in Israel. Since many Special in Uniform soldiers suffer from assorted medical issues that categorize them as high-risk citizens, the administration set a blanket rule ordering all SIU soldiers to return home to their families or joint residences and remain there until it was safe enough to return to base.

With the government’s recent lifting of coronavirus-related restrictions, which enabled the reopening of stores, businesses, and schools and imbued hope into a country and economy ground to a standstill, Special in Uniform soldiers were recalled to their bases. There, they were warmly welcomed back by their army buddies who told them how much they were missed.

Roy Shifman, 23, was born a preemie and diagnosed with cerebral palsy and permanent motor disabilities at the age of 7 months, yet his parents were determined that he would achieve his maximum potential. When he was a toddler, they laid him on his stomach in the sandbox so he could play with kids his age, feel the sensory pleasure of the sand, and yes, even eat it! When he got a little older, they mainstreamed him into a regular classroom, and as a teen, he participated in the counselor-training course of Working and Studying Youth (NOAL) with the help of two wheelchairs, a caretaker, and two devoted parents as his cheerleaders.

Toward the end of high school, Roy began speaking frequently about the dream he’d nurtured his entire life—serving in the IDF and defending his country and nation. The Shifmans contacted General (res.) Ariel Almog of Special in Uniform who facilitated Roy’s acceptance into the program and integrated him successfully into the Air Force Base in Palmachim where he works as a logistical manager in the infirmary. Roy loves his job, the military environment, and is proud of his contributions to his country.

The gradual return to normalcy and people’s desire to move on has instigated a worrisome trend in which many Israelis—civilian and non-civilian alike—are throwing caution to the wind and dispensing with the continued Ministry of Health guidelines and recommendations. While the world is certainly witnessing a decline in the spread and deaths caused by coronavirus, all experts profess that the pandemic is not over yet, not by a long shot. Millions of innocent are still at risk, and citizens in countries around the world must take responsibility for the health of others by acting cautiously.

Tzlil Goldstein, medical doctor at the Palmachim Air Base’s infirmary, is closely acquainted with Roy. On her very first day on the base, he introduced himself, and since then, they’ve been friends. “Roy is a huge asset to the infirmary. His presence is always felt, and he creates such a positive atmosphere here. Even when I’m inside an examination room with a patient, I can often hear bits and pieces of conversation floating inside as Roy greets the soldiers who come in, asks how they feel, and makes everyone feel like a million dollars.

“In the past weeks, starting around the time that Roy returned to base after being furloughed at the height of the pandemic, we began noticing an erosion of coronavirus discipline on base. People are taking liberties, hanging out too closely, not doing what they should. Roy has been invaluable in helping us maintain coronavirus discipline in the infirmary—making sure that people keep to a safe social distance and wear masks, which are both vital tools in fighting the spread of infection. Now that people are getting back to routine and paying less attention, Roy has taken the initiative to fulfill this very important role of reminding his fellow soldiers to stay safe.”

Not only does the presence of soldiers with special needs on military bases increase their own quality of life, but it also benefits the entire army—and by extension, the nation. Their genial natures, their capacity and eagerness to work hard and, above all, their perseverance all foster a positive atmosphere on base that motivates their fellow soldiers.

“I think that when we see soldiers from Special in Uniform on base, in the Air Force and everywhere in the IDF, we internalize that they’re equals. They’re just like us,” says Goldstein. “There’s no reason to be intimidated by the fact that they’re in a wheelchair. The conversation is the same conversation; the curiosity is mutual. The person is a person, and even more, it’s really a lot of fun working together with them.”