PALMETTO -- One after another, members and guests of Palmetto South Elks Lodge 2449 came up to U.S. Army Lt. Col. (retired) Carol Barkalow after she spoke Sunday and presented her with a donation toward her dream: creating safe, affordable furnished living quarters for military veterans in need of housing.
"I'm in awe at their generosity," said Barkalow, a St. Pete Beach resident who made history in 1976 when she joined 118 other women who broke the gender barrier at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
Of those 119 women, 62 graduated four years later in 1980, including Barkalow, who was born in Freehold, N.J., and grew up in Clifton Park, N.Y.
Barkalow wrote a book about her West Point experience called, "In the Men's House."
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"There were three types of people we encountered as the first women at West Point," Barkalow said. "There were those who didn't want us there and were very vocal, those who didn't care and those who were supportive."
She took the hazing, played on the women's basketball team and went on to a 22-year Army career after graduation, which culminated with her appointment from 1998 to 2000 as a battalion commander in Korea.
"I was in charge of everything that entered the country from the port to its final destination," Barkalow said.
The basketball team helped convince opponents that women belonged at West Point, Barkalow said.
"We were scrappy and we put it all out there, which everyone could see," Barkalow said. "I think some of those who opposed us ended up cheering for us."
After she retired from the Army, she came to Florida in 2006 to be close to her mother in Venice and to help homeless vets.
Moments before Barkalow spoke about her organization, the members of the Elks 2449 had already reached deeply into their pockets, donating $7,549 for Army of Hope, which provides economic assistance to families of deployed military personnel.
"Army of Hope is something that is cherished by every Elk," said Jim Lamb, coordinator of Sunday's Army of Hope Southwest District Tribute.
The Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks also pay for medical and dental emergencies not covered by insurance, minor home repairs and maintenance for families of active military personnel, Lamb said, in addition to clothing, shoes, school lunches and phone cards.
Barkalow said she was awed by the donations received after her keynote speech, and by Elks traditions, which include a 21-gun salute, reading the names of deceased veterans, presenting military flags from every branch of service and singing "God Bless America."
At West Point, women now make up 15 percent of the student population. It was not so when Barkalow's initial class blazed a trail,
"All of us gathered at Michie Stadium that first day," she said. "Parents went one way and we went the other. We got fitted for uniforms, learned how to salute, learned how to march and that was all the first day. The press was everywhere so there wasn't much in the way of hazing. I would describe those first days as trying to sip from a fire hose."
The hazing and derogatory comments would come, but none of it was as hard to take as the training.
"West Point took me to my limit and beyond," Barkalow said. "I soon realized I didn't know what I could do."
Her experience at West Point and in the Army led Barkalow to believe women can fight alongside men if they are well trained. Right now, women aren't stationed on the front line with weapons or in armored units.
"I think all a soldier wants is that the soldier beside him or her is as well trained as they are," Barkalow said. "When it comes right down to it, a soldier is fighting for the soldier next to him or her. That's their buddy. I don't think it matters who that buddy is.
"Women are already fighting beside men," Barkalow said. "The women are in intel or police but they are right there and I don't think there is that much difference."
Barkalow said 100 percent of money she collected Sunday will go toward Heaven on Earth for Veterans Inc., the organization she co-founded with Sheila Mutascio and Laura Berkowitz.
Heaven on Earth for Veterans now provides rents of $400 to $600 per month for 21 needy vets who live in five houses the women have purchased in Pinellas County.
Heaven on Earth for Veterans has a sixth house being prepared for vet renters, Barkalow said.
Information: Heaven on Earth for Veterans, heavenonearth4veterans.com, 727-490-9441.