'Women Have What It Takes'

Carol Barkalow, 32, born in Clifton Park, N.Y., is a 1980 graduate of West Point. She has commanded an air-defense platoon in Germany and a truck company at Fort Lee, Va., and is author of "In the Men's House," a book about her life in the military. Last week Barkalow spoke with NEWSWEEK'S Ginny Carroll at Fort Leavenworth, Kans.:

I realized I wanted a military career when I was 16, the summer between my junior and senior years of high school. I had been very active in athletics. I enjoyed the discipline, the comradeship, the physicalness of sports, helping other teammates. I also wanted to serve my country. For me, the answer was the Army. My guidance counselor told me that West Point was starting to accept women. I was in the first class.

As plebes, we were required to greet the upperclassmen "Good morning, sir." Too often we'd hear back, "Mornin', bitch." I was naive, I guess. I thought my classmates wanted the same thing I wanted. I thought they would just accept me for that. By the time we graduated, the men's attitudes had begun to mellow somewhat. The women's attitudes had changed, too. If we weren't feminists when we went in, we were when we came out. I went back for my 10-year reunion in October 1990. There was a big difference. My male classmates had changed tremendously. They recognized us as peers. I realized they had been going through their own growth a decade ago, the hell of being a cadet. The reunion was the best time I ever had at West Point.

But some of those old attitudes still linger when the question of women in combat arises. It's a generational issue for the most part. Most of the senior leadership had little opportunity to work with women as peers. Many see us as a mother, a wife, a daughter - especially a daughter. They always say they wouldn't want to see their daughters in combat. What I ask them in return is, would you really want to see your son in combat? And isn't it the daughter's choice? One lesson our society learned in the Persian Gulf is that it is no more tragic to lose a mother, a sister, a daughter than it is to lose a father, a brother or a son-and no less so.

I volunteered to go to the gulf. I was attached to the 24th Infantry Division, the unit that spearheaded the end-around attack. Our support outfit was in just as much danger as the combat element. The Iraqi weapons had just as much capability of hitting us as the men in front. The difference was that we didn't have the capability to defend ourselves like the combat troops.

One question that is always raised is whether women have what it takes to kill an enemy face to face-whether we can handle that particular brand of stress. After my book came out last year, a Vietnam vet named Bill Hanake came to see me. He had a leg and a foot blown off in Vietnam. I think Bill's experience is an eloquent answer to the naysayers who think women don't have what it takes for combat. Both times his unit was overrun in 'Nam, he said, it was the Viet Cong women who were the more disciplined, the tougher, who were the most willing to make sure their enemy wasn't going to come back at 'em.

Then there's the argument that men will be overprotective of women. When men are overprotective of men, we give them awards for valor. In May, our country awarded an Air Force pilot its second highest medal for leading a nine-hour rescue mission for a fallen flier. That wasn't looked upon as overprotective. Would it have been so if the downed flier had been a woman?

Some believe females would interfere with male bonding. In Saudi, I saw a new type of relationship forming between men and women, one that has traditionally been described among men. It was a nurturing relationship based upon respect, based on sharing the same hardships. The big worry before Vietnam was that blacks couldn't bond with whites. When the bullets started flying, that went away pretty fast. The same type of relationships developed in the gulf between men and women soldiers.

Do I believe women should be allowed to serve in the infantry? Yes, if qualified. The training and physical-strength standards should be uniform. We have standards that we must keep. Our military readiness should never suffer. But I saw a number of physically strong men very scared in Saudi Arabia. It's not just a matter of physical strength. It's mental and emotional strength as well. I think God knew what he was doing when he allowed women to bear the children and gave us the ability to handle that mental and emotional stress.

Pregnancy? The military doesn't have a good handle on the question. When the military looks at pregnancy, it sees it as nonavailability. We had more injuries and nonavailability among men than women in Saudi. Too often, the women are the only ones held responsible for pregnancy, not the men who helped get them that way.

No normal person wants to go into combat. Soldiers are the last people who want to. But we've volunteered. We understand our commitment. Everybody raises a hand, male and female, and swears to support and defend the same Constitution. Women are competent, capable and committed. We are an integral part of the best-trained military force in the world. The services should have the flexibility to assign the best-qualified person to the job, regardless of gender. That's the bottom line.