Moving Forward In honor of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, we met Lieutenant Colonel Yuval Wagner, who founded the “Access Israel” Foundation. Wagner, a former “Cobra” pilot who was put in a wheelchair as a result of an accident, talks about the decision to stay in the Force and encourages integrating handicapped people in the military world

Mai Efrat | Translated by: Karen Tocatly

Today Lieutenant Colonel Yuval Wagner sees things differently. More than 20 years have passed since that accident, in which Squadron Commander, Lieutenant Colonel Tzion Bar-Or, was killed.

Lieutenant Colonel Wagner, who was severely wounded, was put in a wheelchair but decided not to give up and continue his service in the Force. Since, he has stopped flying, started a new career and even founded the “Access Israel” Foundation which’s goal is to assist people with disabilities in assimilating into society.

“While you’re serving, you don’t think that you might get hurt”, remembers Lieutenant Colonel Wagner when asked about the decision to stay in the Force. “Only after I got injured and was in the hospital did I discover that there’s a very strange procedure according to which whoever is severely injured in the military, is specified as an IDF disabled person and released from service. I had a lot of luck in that the then Head of the Adjunct Branch offered me to stay. He said that a lot had been invested in me and that maybe we could find things for me to do”, he says, “I wanted to return and it seemed like the right thing to do”.

What were you offered to do?
“I was offered to get to a Computer Unit. I didn’t know much, back then we didn’t have computers in every home. In the beginning, a representative came and loaned me some books and said that if it’d be a fit we’d continue on. After the first page I already said: “I don’t understand anything, no thanks”. But the Commander of the Unit, who was and still is charming, was able to convince me. In the beginning I came for an hour, then for two and eventually returned full-time. I began a new career as a programmer and not a pilot. I later became a project manager which is a line of work that suits me more”.

Was it hard to say goodbye to the flight world?
“Very hard”, confesses Lieutenant Colonel Wagner. “I miss flying even now. I had it particularly hard because as a pilot I served in a squadron at “Palmachim” Airbase and my new unit was also in the same place. So every day I saw my guys continue to fly. I’m down here, looking up at them taking off into the sky”.

Looking back, are you happy with your decision to stay in the Force?
“I’m happy I was offered to stay in the military and continue to contribute. I’m also very happy with the opportunity I was given, those were interesting and challenging years”, says Lieutenant General Wagner. “I think they need to change the system to allow every injured soldier to continue to serve. Returning to work and having a routine really helps to continue life after an accident. Especially today, when stigmas are changing, we need to do everything so people can continue to serve”.

From your experience, did you feel that the IAF is accessible and encourages integrating disabled people?
“Integrating disabled peoples in the business and military worlds begins with the managers and commanders. The minute a person decides that he wants to employ people with disabilities, it will happen and it’ll be perfect. It’s all a matter of awareness. When there are no preconceived notions-it is obvious that people with disabilities can do the work like everyone else and even more-it speaks for itself.

The IAF is very open to youngsters who want to volunteer to the Force, but can easily employ many more people. It’s important that whoever is interested in volunteering gets in touch as soon as possible, so the process of planning and arranging their drafting process and assimilation in various units is organized. Integrating people with disabilities in the Force is successful and wonderful”.