Capt. Carol Barkalow shares her Army experiences to inspire others to follow in her bootsteps


October 29, 1990|By Randi Henderson | Randi Henderson,Sun Staff Correspondent

ARLINGTON, VA. — The face gazing out from the cover of Carol Barkalow's new book "In the Men's House" is stern and challenging. There is not a whit of softness in the blue eyes or blond curls, not a hint of compromise in the firm set of the lips.

Indeed, says Captain Barkalow, challenge is just what she intended to convey by putting this portrait of herself on the book cover.

"I was saying, 'Go ahead, read it. See what it's about,' " says the U.S. Army officer who was among the first group of women to graduate from West Point in 1980.

But the face of Carol Barkalow on the back cover of the book is gentler, the curls falling to her shoulders rather than pulled back behind her ears. On the back cover she is wearing a white blouse and gray jacket, on the front her uniform. On the front her shoulders are set with military precision, on the back she leans forward, her chin resting against her hand.

This is a military officer and this is a woman, the two pictures are saying. And if the two concepts seem to conflict -- well, yes, they sometimes do, but Carol Barkalow, 31, wants you to know that they are not irreconcilable.

What I hope is that young women, civilian and military, who want to do something in their lives, whatever it may be, can understand from this, that we ourselves are the only limiters," she explains earnestly. "We limit ourselves and no one else can. I sincerely believe that. And I want other women to know that they can do whatever they want.

"It sounds corny, but the Army's motto -- 'Be all that you can be' -- it's something to live by. And I've tried to live by that."

She is sitting in a courtyard at the Pentagon, her words punctuated by the frequent air traffic to nearby National Airport. Captain Barkalow, who lives in Columbia, has worked here for the past 21 months as staff officer for the Army Chief of Staff. Her work involves assisting civilian agencies with anti-narcotics efforts and with "strategic mobility" -- getting forces where they need to be.

Unmarried, she shares a house with her sister and speaks somewhat regretfully of having had to sacrifice personal for professional life. In the 11 years since she graduated from West Point, she has served as an officer at a nuclear missile base in Germany and commanded her own company at Fort Lee, Va.

These experiences are documented in her book (written with Andrea Raab), but the main focus of "In the Men's House" is what it was like to be part of the first group of women to venture into what had been an all-male domain for generations.

West Point, along with the other military academies, was mandated by a law passed by Congress in 1975 to admit women. Carol Barkalow was one of 119 women who entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point on July 7, 1976. She stuck out her four years to become one of 62 women graduates in May 1980.

Growing up in upstate New York, her interest in the military grew out of her participation in team sports. "I thought about the

camaraderie and the team building and being a leader, and thought it would be a natural extension in the military," she recalls.

Applying to a number of colleges for ROTC scholarships, she didn't even know where West Point was (it's about 65 miles north of New York City on the Hudson River) but decided to apply when her guidance counselor told her the academy would be taking women.

"As it turns out, West Point accepted me and I didn't get any ROTC scholarships," she says. "I'm a fatalist, and I do believe things happen for a reason."

Starting at West Point, "I was bright-eyed and naive enough not to know what I was getting into," she remembers. It didn't take long, however, to come up against ingrained prejudice that couldn't be eradicated by congressional mandate, to learn the realities of how underclassmen were hazed, to discover that she would have to dig deep within herself to find the resources to make it through.

"One of the greatest things about West Point," she says in retrospect, "is that it takes you to what you think your limitations are, then makes you go further. It does this daily, so the sky's the limit."

The idea for a book about her experiences grew out of a 1985 magazine piece in which she and a female graduate from each of the other military academies were interviewed.

"An agent called me and suggested a book," she says, "and I said, 'maybe.' As I thought about it, I thought this would give me an opportunity to give the American public an understanding of what women do in today's military."

At first she had concerns, she says, "that the decision to write it, to open myself up" could have a detrimental effect on her career. She put such doubts aside, deciding "the contribution of writing it would offset any personal problems it could cause." If the general reaction is anything like the reaction of her commanding officer, she made the right decision.

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