Bayli Dukes, who recently won the Israel Defence Forces’ Award of Excellence for the Southern Command of the IDF, was a biology student at York University in Toronto less than two years ago. Tired of sitting on the couch and posting on Facebook about the situation in Israel, she decided there was more she could be doing.
“I kept hearing about all these horrible things that are happening, all the terrorists attacks, and it was just making me feel so helpless and like I couldn’t help, and all I wanted to do was help and make things better,” she said. “I really wanted to be in the thick of it. So that’s why I decided to move.”
So she made aliyah in December 2016 and joined the IDF three months later. Dukes, 22, is a combat soldier in the co-ed Caracal battalion. For most of her service, the battalion has been patrolling the Egyptian border, although it moved to the Ayosh area north of Jerusalem five months ago and will return to the Egyptian border in a few weeks.
Before she could start serving, Dukes had to complete basic training. Training is difficult for anyone, but it was even tougher for Dukes, who was learning Hebrew at the same time. Aside from her language and military training, Dukes learned special skills like operating the M203 grenade launcher and the Mavic Pro surveillance drone.
Basic training is also when Dukes first showed the dedication and grit that would eventually earn her the Award of Excellence, said her squad commander, Ron Peretz. As Peretz recalls it, Dukes threw a grenade that caused her gun to ricochet backwards and hit her in the head. She had a huge bruise around her eye and the medic wanted to send her home, but Dukes insisted on stay in training.
“Most people would leave. It’s a tiny thing that happened way back in training, but it shows what kind of person she is,” Peretz said through a translator. “She gives from herself and looks out for her friends. She cares about the people around her, Israeli society and the country itself. She’s a good soldier and a giving and caring person.”
Dukes said that by the end of the training, her unit felt like a family. And they would only become closer, doing recon missions in which they would sit on top of a mountain for eight hours at a time, with only each other as company.
“All you have is the snacks you brought, and the view that you’re looking at and the people you’re with. So it’s a great opportunity to really get to know the people in my squad,” Dukes said.
Even though she has shown commitment to her service since the start, she had no idea that an Award of Excellence was coming her way. In fact, when she first received the call, she thought it was a prank, until her commanders confirmed it three weeks later. The officer who gave her the award in a ceremony on Sept. 16, Maj.-Gen. Herzl Halevi, is in charge of the entire Southern Command and only ranks below the head of the entire IDF.
Dukes said she has learned a lot about herself since joining the IDF. She has learned how far she can push herself, both physically and mentally. She knew training would be hard on her body, but didn’t realize how lonely being a lone soldier would feel at times, when other members of her unit would return to their family and friends for breaks.
Even so, she said that, “It’s such an amazing experience. And I think that it is worth it, for sure, a hundred million per cent. But people also have to realize that these are things that they’re going to have to deal with if this is something that they’re going to do.”