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WASHINGTON- U.S. Senator John Boozman (R-AR) recognized the groundbreaking path Command Sergeant Major (retired) Deborah Collins paved in her 39 years of service with the Arkansas Army National Guard in ‘Salute to Veterans,’ a series recognizing the military service of Arkansans. 

Collins, born in Booneville and raised in Russellville, graduated from Russellville High School. She is from a family with a history of military service and it was her aunt, who served in the Arkansas National Guard, who encouraged Collins to join.

“I’d been out of high school about one year. I was working because college wasn’t in my future. I just kind of needed some direction and wanted to do something different,” Collins said. 

She joined the Arkansas National Guard on July 30, 1975. Collins recalled how women who enlisted in the Arkansas National Guard at that time were required to join for three years and have a high school education, but men didn’t have the same education mandate.

After serving for nearly four decades in the Arkansas National Guard, Collins laughed thinking back to how three years seemed like a long time when she was 18-years-old. She remembered how her first annual training put her on a path to a successful career. 

“They put me driving a vehicle, first out, in a convoy. They didn’t tell me they were going to stop at a rest area,” she laughed as she talked about how the convoy stopped and she continued on to Fort Chaffee. The battalion commander and the sergeant major knew she was on her way and were at the gate when she pulled in. “The sergeant major didn’t just chew me out. He was decent to me and it did two things. It made me figure out real quick that I wasn’t going to be put in the position that I didn’t know what was going on again and number two, I might want to be a sergeant major someday.”

Collins was on the way to making that a reality and along the way changed the status quo.

The first award she received was for her work to get a WWII-era RATT RIG (tactical radio teletype station) to operate, which other soldiers had given up on long before. The challenge of pinning the medal to women’s fatigues was evident. “The field jacket didn’t have chest pockets like the male field jackets did. It just had flaps” Collins said recalling how the commander took the edge of the flap and gingerly raised it up to pin on the medal. 

When the Arkansas National Guard was in the process of establishing a noncommissioned officer academy at the Arkansas Military Academy, Collins was selected as an instructor, making her one of two women on the NCO Academy staff. 

While she worked alongside a few women in uniform, she was charting a new course for future generations of women and holding positions previously held only by men, including serving as the first female State Command Sergeant Major for the Arkansas National Guard. 

Despite breaking the glass ceiling, she remains humble. “I know there are soldiers out there who have opportunities because of what I did,” Collins said.

Collins calls herself a “by the book soldier” which earned her the nickname ‘Iron Britches.’ “If something is said about Iron Britches, they know exactly who you’re referring to,” Collins joked.

Her list of accomplishments is long, but there is one that stands out for Collins - the development of the Arkansas Military Funeral Honors program. 

“I did it because there was truly a need,” Collins said. “The soldiers who volunteered for that program were awesome. They just gave so much to do that service,” Collins said.

“I am grateful for Deborah Collins’ dedication and sacrifice to our nation. Her leadership made a tremendous difference in the Arkansas National Guard and throughout the National Guard. Her perseverance shows us all that you can be anything that you want to be. Preserving her memories is a fitting tribute to her successful career,” Boozman said.

Boozman will submit Collins’ entire interview to the Veterans History Project, an initiative of the Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center to collect and retain the oral histories of our nation’s veterans.