First Black Woman to Become Arkansas National Guard Colonel Receives Lifetime Achievement Award

Nine Arkansans who’ve positively impacted the state will be recognized during the King Kennedy Awards Saturday.

Retired Col. Erica Ingram in her uniform speaking to a white man
Retired Col. Erica Ingram at Camp Robinson Maneuver Training Center in North Little Rock. Photos courtesy of Arkansas National Guard.

Life rarely takes a straight path, but Retired Col. Erica Ingram has always trusted that God has a plan. Her journey to the military was surprising, but it eventually led to her becoming the first Black woman to be promoted to colonel in the Arkansas Army National Guard in 2018. 

Ingram retired Feb. 1 and currently serves as the chief of staff for the Arkansas Department of Veterans Affairs. Following more than 26 years of service, she will receive the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 18th annual King Kennedy Awards Feb. 19. 

“I am incredibly humbled. I really am,” Ingram says.

Hosted by the Arkansas Democratic Black Caucus, the awards were established in 2005 to recognize individuals who have made significant contributions to their communities and the state. Nine Arkansans will be honored this year and a portion of proceeds will support two scholarships for students at the state’s four HBCUs. 

Only 49 years old, Ingram is surprised to be receiving a lifetime achievement award and says she’s not sure she’s worthy to be on the same stage as past recipients; however, she credits family and friends for helping her get to this point. 

“I know I accomplished something as a first, but it was not all on my own. I completely had a village that I go back to,” she says. “I really think it’s just about timing because there’s nothing incredibly special about me. I think I’ve just had the opportunity and I’ve always had people supporting me.”

The opportunity to pursue a military career began when Ingram was a student at Wilmar High School and her principal invited her to speak with a professor of military science at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. Back then, Ingram was a “prissy” cheerleader who enjoyed having her nails painted and didn’t see herself as the military type. 

The professor told Ingram about a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps scholarship, which she applied for thinking she wouldn’t get it because of her lack of ROTC experience. When she did receive the scholarship, Ingram decided to take it for a year so she could pay for an off-campus apartment.

She eventually got talked into completing four years of the program while pursuing a degree at UAPB. Ingram had her eye on becoming a businesswoman when she entered college and she graduated from UAPB in 1995 with a degree in business management. Being involved with the military was never supposed to be a lifetime career, but every time Ingram planned on leaving, she ended up staying.

Three months after graduating college, Ingram received her commission as a Second Lieutenant in the United States Army. After serving four and half years on active duty, she joined the Arkansas Army National Guard in 1999. She later started working at Camp Robinson Maneuver Training Center in North Little Rock. Her first day on the job was Sept. 11, 2001 and Ingrams recalls someone running across the drill hall floor to alert them about the Twin Towers falling in New York City.

“That’s why I’ll never forget my first day of work,” she says.

Retired Col. Erica Ingram in her uniform standing in front of the U.S. flag

During her career, Ingram won several awards and decorations including the Meritorious Service Medal with eight Oak Leaf Clusters, Joint Service Commendation Medal, Army Commendation Medal with one Oak Leaf Cluster, Army Achievement Medal, Army Reserve Components Achievement Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Army Service Ribbon, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, Arkansas Emergency Service Ribbon and Arkansas Service Ribbon. 

In 2014, she became the first Black woman to become a battalion commander in the Arkansas National Guard, an organization established in 1804.

“That really just floored me because even though I knew that there weren’t a lot of females before me at that rank and there weren’t currently a lot, it still just never dawned on me that there had never been a Black female that was battalion commander,” she says.

After that, Ingram says it wasn’t about being the first, but rather working harder to prove that she earned her rank on her own as opposed to the organization just giving it to her to make a statement. 

Ingram went on to become the first Black woman to serve as president of the National Guard Association of Arkansas and the first female Camp Robinson Post Installation Commander. She was also the first Black woman to be promoted to colonel; however, she was not the first minority woman to reach that rank. Previously the Arkansas National Guard had promoted one Hispanic woman, Col. Tina Lipscomb, and one Native American woman, Col. Mary Gardner. Both were in the Air National Guard.

“If I had to do it all over again, I would,” Ingram says. “I had some experiences, not all were good, but at the end of the day, the bad was worth the good that happened out of it.”

Camaraderie was one of the best parts of the military for Ingram who says she’s made friends who have become family. Some of the worst parts of her experience were dealing with difficult situations because of her race or gender, as well as the abuse experienced by some of her soldiers.

“I’ve been in positions that because 90 percent of the people are not female or not minorities, it makes a difference to some people and that’s just reality because the military is a reflection of society,” Ingram says. “And then I’ve had things that have occurred in my soldiers’ lives. It was like they were family or they were my kids.”

For women of color contemplating their own career in the military, Ingram advises them not to be afraid of trying something new and to remember they can change their minds. They don’t have to have the same career forever.

“Have faith that you can do really what you want to do, and there’s going to be hard times, but I think that that’s the same no matter what career you choose,” she says. “There’s going to be times in your life when you think you’re outnumbered or you don’t think that you’re maybe good enough to compete, but hard work does eventually pay off and dedication.”

Retired Col. Erica Ingram will be presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award Saturday during the King Kennedy Awards at the Venue in Windsong in North Little Rock. Tickets and more information are available here

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is an Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts for NPR affiliates as well as print and digital publications since 2007.