How an Israeli with Cerebral Palsy Beat the Odds and Became an IDF Officer
In honor of the UN’s International Day for People with Disabilities, we bring you the moving story of Captain Yehonatan Cohen, an IDF officer who dutifully serves his country despite being physically disabled since birth.
Captain Yehonatan Cohen is noticeably different from other officers in the Israeli army. As a result of a severe disability, he is bound to a wheelchair and unable to move his hands. He needs help with most day-to-day functions, including eating, drinking and bathing. With significantly impaired vision, he relies on others to read aloud to him. Cohen was born two months premature, and because oxygen was cut off from his brain at birth, he developed Cerebral Palsy, a condition that left him physically disabled.
Despite his physical limitations, Cohen’s exceptional intellect and determination have allowed him to succeed. “My parents are people who didn’t give up on me along the way,” he says, joking that his use of the phrase “didn’t give up” may be an understatement. “They really taught me that I’m capable, and I grew up with that feeling.” At his parents’ insistence, and driven by a deep desire to integrate into Israeli society, Cohen attended high school with non-disabled students and graduated with honors.
A struggle to serve his country
Like many Israeli teenagers, Cohen eagerly reported to the IDF enlistment office, determined to join the military and serve his country. “When all of my friends received their orders to enlist, I decided that despite everything, I wanted to enlist too,” he recalls, explaining his devotion to the IDF and the Jewish state. “The truth is that it’s something that’s been with me since childhood. We are a family that believes that the State of Israel is above everything. Before everything else, you have the State of Israel; this is something that was very important in our education and in the values of our family.”
Accompanied by his medical aide, he approached an officer in the enlistment office, but was immediately told that his condition would prevent him from serving. “In my family, there was no such thing [as not enlisting],” Cohen says. “We enlist – no matter what. It’s true that I wasn’t obligated to enlist in a formal or legal sense, but from an ethical and Zionist standpoint, I certainly was.” Although the IDF exempted him from service, he insisted that the army accept him as a volunteer.
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