Tamhra Hutchins-Frye decided to join the Arkansas Air National Guard in 1984 to fly fighter jets, but she was told no.
The Air Force at the time barred women from flying in combat.
She joined anyway, and a rich, distinguished career followed, culminating Saturday when the Lavaca native received an unprecedented honor: The Arkansas Air Guard, for the first time in its history, pinned a general's star on a woman.
"She's making her mark in history," said Maj. Gen. Mark Berry, adjutant general of the Arkansas National Guard.
The accomplishment isn't lost on Hutchins-Frye, who now serves as the Arkansas Guard's director of joint staff, but she downplays the cultural significance.
"I'm an airman," she said from her military- and Razorback-themed office at Camp Robinson in North Little Rock. "Yeah, I'm a woman, but I'm more of an airman."
In addition to being an airman, Hutchins-Frye, 55, of Hot Springs Village also is a mentor to young women.
She is co-chairman of the steering committee for Girls of Promise, an organization that aims to encourage young women to pursue careers that require high levels of education in science, technology, engineering and math. Among the girls she has inspired is a high school senior from Smackover who will attend the Air Force Academy next fall.
The state Guard first promoted a woman to the rank of brigadier general on the Army side in 2012. Hutchins-Frye's promotion marks the first time the joint Guard has women in general officer roles on both the Air Force and Army sides.
Her promotion comes less than six months after U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter opened all military jobs to women, who have traditionally been barred from combat roles. The announcement was contentious, but for Hutchins-Frye, it was exciting.
Few women were in the Guard when she enlisted, and the numbers remain low today. Only about 20 percent of the state's Air Guardsmen are female.
A 1943 issue of Life Magazine adorns the wall of Hutchins-Frye's office. Shirley Slade, one of the first women to fly U.S. bombers, graces the cover.
For Hutchins-Frye, her promotion reaches beyond the fact she's a woman.
"It breaks a barrier," she said. "But it's 2016; everybody should know there's someone at the top that looks like them. Diversity goes so far beyond gender and race."
Hutchins-Frye readily calls herself a country girl, and some phrases reveal a thick country accent born in rural Sebastian County just down the road from Fort Chaffee. As a child there she played ball with older boys, who treated her no differently because of her gender. She feels those early years prepared her mentally and physically for a military career.
"We were just tough," she said. "I'm sure it helped me in the military, such a male-dominated field."
Hutchins-Frye graduated from college in 1984 and went to work teaching. She worked multiple jobs because her $13,000 teaching salary wouldn't cut it.
She spent the summer of 1984 as a lifeguard at a public pool, watching jets take off and land at nearby Fort Chaffee. The beauty of those flights led her to an Air Guard recruiting office the next fall.
It would be almost 10 years before women were allowed to fly in combat, but the military's appeal lured the 25-year-old teacher. She enlisted and made it her goal to become an officer.
She volunteered at the base relentlessly, and received her officer promotion in five years.
Saturday, she achieved the goal she set next -- to become an Air Force general.
Goal-setting is a theme of Hutchins-Frye's career. She sets goals and pursues them tirelessly.
"That's how wars are won," she said.
It's one of the many things the 55-year-old hopes to instill in those she mentors. Krisanna Reynolds, 17, of Smackover met Hutchins-Frye at Girls State last year. The relationship the two formed served as a foundation for Reynolds' appointment to the Air Force Academy in the fall.
Hutchins-Frye's career proved to the high school student her dream was reachable.
"Seeing her [get promoted], I want to be like her," Reynolds said. "She's inspired me to, hopefully, be a general one day. I look at her and see what she did, and that lets me know I can do it, too."
From bottom to top, the new general has spent most of her career in personnel. It suited her well. She's a conversationalist and effectively relates to people of any background, friends and co-workers said.
"She's prior enlisted," said Berry, the adjutant general. "She's been there and knows the life of our young folks well enough to be able to understand the struggles of relationships and finances to have their best interests at heart."
Something was missing from her 30 years of service, though -- an overseas deployment. So in 2013, she volunteered to deploy to Kabul, Afghanistan, where she served as the chief of staff on a NATO task force commissioned to ease the Afghan government into sovereignty.
She sat in meetings with high-ranking generals from all over the world, including Gen. Joseph Dunford, a four-star Marine general who is now the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. The first time Dunford spoke to her, Hutchins-Frye jokes, her voice raised about five octaves.
The deployment was the "pinnacle" of her career thus far, she said. It showed her how truly incredible the U.S. armed forces are and revealed something about herself.
"I could be successful on a world stage -- a little country girl from Lavaca, Ark.," she said.
She talks with a faint smile and often drifts from the topic at hand, but those brief asides never seem without purpose.
As she described her deployment, Hutchins-Frye told a story about the first time she left the NATO compound in Kabul. Men with assault rifles roamed the artillery-battered streets. Mothers walked their children to school down sidewalks pocked with bomb craters.
"The kids wore uniforms just like they do here in Arkansas," she said. "I couldn't even imagine walking my kids to school in those conditions. That 2-mile walk kind of changed my life. I know what being an American is, but it really sunk in that day."
Hutchins-Frye hopes her career holds at least one more deployment, and she'd love to get two stars on her uniform. Even if those goals aren't achieved, she's satisfied and thankful.
"I couldn't have dreamed this up," she said. "I've had a great career."
NW News on 06/05/2016
Print Headline: Arkansas Air Guard gets first female general