Throughout 17 years of Air Force service, Major Oren H. has flown several models of helicopters in the course of facilitating Israel’s ground forces, making emergency decisions during combat, rescuing the wounded, and helping families and friends in their darkest hours. Yet he never expected to fly quite as high as he did days after being appointed deputy commander of Palmachim airbase, when outgoing commander Lt. Col. Moti pulled him aside.

“All he said was ‘I need to show you something special,’” recalls Oren.

The two officers crossed the sprawling complex, home to 3,400 elite airmen, to a quiet area where soldiers with varying special needs were engaged in diverse tasks. “For hours I spoke with these young soldiers,” says Oren. He saw their motivation and marveled at their commitment.

Something crystallized in the heart of the heroic commander that day. “The soldiers with special needs have realized their dreams,” he expressed. “But the real strength of character shines from the airmen who work alongside them.”

One of the soldiers whom Oren met that day was Omer Lahat, a teen with cerebral palsy whose father, a retired F-16 pilot himself, had long since despaired of seeing his son serve in the IDF.

“For Israeli teenagers, serving in the IDF is more than a national duty. It’s an absolute rite of passage,” father Orly Lahat explains. Like all teens with special needs, Omer received an automatic exemption, and—as his parents feared—was devastated.

Familiar with military protocol, the elder Lahat acknowledged with regret that his son would be left out of this defining experience of Israeli living. But Omer, the son, who refused to accept the decision.

“Some time ago, he sat us down and outlined his five-year plan to us,” Orly shares. “He said he was going to live independently, enlist in the IDF, and meet a girlfriend.”

When the Lahats learned about Special in Uniform, part of a growing movement to integrate citizens with special needs into the IDF, they couldn’t refuse Omer this chance. The determined teen enlisted, aced his modified basic training, and was assigned to Palmachim airbase.

It was at a computer station at Palmachim that Oren met Omer. The Major describes it as a “magic photo” moment: You see one thing first, then you look again and something new and brilliant appears.

“I learned about the unique and very personal journeys that brought Omer and others to officially enlist in the IDF. Dozens of wonderful stories!” Oren declares. “Then I finally understood whom I was seeing—boys and girls, no different from countless others who just want to be like their peers.”

Oren is quick to point out the benefits of this movement to Israeli society, noting that today’s soldiers are tomorrow’s architects, chefs, teachers and politicians.

“You’re packing safety kits with a soldier who might slur his words or have a tough time walking, but he packs at lightning speed, and with a huge smile every day. So would you pass over a job candidate in your future business based on physical difficulties alone? Not a chance. How about if you’re an architect tasked with building a public pool? You’ll always think of your army friend and ask yourself, how can she get in?”

For Orly Lahat, watching his son serve at an IDF airbase is the culmination of all he fought to defend 30 years ago. “You need people who look around and decide: I am here to make it possible for Omer—and thousands like him—to enroll in Israel’s institutions, enjoy its cultural offerings, enlist in its army.”

Special in Uniform, a joint program of Lend A Hand to A Special Child and the Jewish National Fund, has helped over 350 citizens enlist in the IDF and is a leading voice in raising awareness about inclusion for all Israelis. Other programs are similarly engaged, including Ro’im Rachok, which partners with the IDF’s satellite image analysis team, a detail-centric division that many teens with autism are uniquely suited to.

Now, after two years of active service, Omer and his dad are on a joint speaking tour to share how inclusion is a win-win-win for teens with special needs, the IDF, and Israeli society overall.

Of course, Orly assures audience members that his son is just getting started as an ambitious Israeli. “He lives in an apartment with friends and is in a relationship with his wonderful girlfriend Gili,” beams the proud dad. “He’s already informed us of his next goals: A college degree, job at a bank and marriage license.

“Who’s going to stop him?”