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Lil Ingram: A Spouse’s Loyal Service

The wife of the former director of the Army National Guard shares advice on marriage, deployments and the importance of communication
Lil Ingram and LTG (Ret.) William Ingram, who live in Manteo, NC, have been married for 34 years. Photo by Rich Coleman
Lil Ingram and LTG (Ret.) William Ingram, who live in Manteo, NC, have been married for 34 years. Photo by Rich Coleman

Behind many great National Guard Soldiers are supportive spouses who serve alongside them. Lil Ingram married her husband, Lieutenant General (Ret.) William Ingram, when he was a first lieutenant. She’s been there for multiple deployments and a long Guard career, including stints where her husband served as the adjutant general of North Carolina and most recently the director of the Army National Guard. This interview is the first of two parts. Here, Lil describes dealing with their first deployment, her growth as a Guard spouse and how that experience strengthened their marriage. 

When your husband first told you that he was deploying to Bosnia for a year and a half [in 1997, their first deployment together], I imagine that was a very powerful conversation. How did you approach that conversation with your children?

Well, our two older sons, Matt and Walker, were away at school and [our youngest son] Turner was home with us. He was in the conversation with us just because we knew this was a family decision. He’s always been a very mature young man anyway, so we sat down and he had a lot of good questions: “Are you going to be safe? What’s going to happen to you? Is this really how long you’re going to be gone? Will I see you again?” I mean there were just a lot of questions. But we did include him on the initial conversation.

That’s one thing that we’ve always tried to [do], keep those lines of communication open and talk about it. Anything that I was unsure about I asked, and so did Turner. And then my husband would tell. It was new for him too, so we were kind of figuring this out as we went along. Everyone is so afraid of the unknown. But if you can just talk about things to the best of your ability, that’s so important. And then realize that things change and situations will change. You’ve got to be flexible, and you’ve got to be able to adapt. But if you’re going through it together, I think it’s so much easier than having to face things all by yourself.

When your husband had to travel for deployments and training, how did you overcome those challenges and support him through this? What were some of  the lessons you learned that might have strengthened your marriage in the long run?

I learned to have faith in myself, that I was stronger than I thought I was, and to get out of my comfort zone and to be willing to take on new challenges and tasks. Not be afraid to do that. And things that happened, I had no choice but to handle it because I was by myself and I couldn’t call him or talk to him about it. So I became more self-reliant, more self-confident. That also helped me to become more involved, to a greater extent, in what he was doing and to be part of his world.

We did look at deployments as [his] job and my job.  And my job was to take care of our family, keep everything going, keep everything running. And it was kind of fun for me, too, to be able to say, “OK, I’ve got this. I can do this.” I really did see the importance of, “You focus on what you have to do.” I really did see that it was important for me to step up and just do what needed to be done. And I wanted to. I wanted to make things as easy for him as possible.

One thing I did learn—and I’m sure everyone knows this now but in ’97, [deployments were] a new thing—when something would happen at home or at school or anything else, my first instinct was to tell him, whether it was a phone call, email or whatever it was. I noticed if I did that, then he wanted to fix everything. It took his focus away from what he was doing there, what he needed to do. So I quickly learned if it’s not a life-and-death emergency, just handle it myself and go on. 

Do you feel like your marriage, along with how you and your husband relate to each other, has changed over the years?  

I think we’re stronger, and I think we’re a team. I really am very grateful for that, and I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity to have participated and been involved to the extent and level that I have been. I’m glad he wanted me to do those things, and [when] opportunities did arise, I’m so glad I said “yes” to all of the things that were coming my way. I’m glad I decided to just jump in and do whatever I possibly could, maybe to make a difference in someone else’s life. But I think we depend on each other more than we ever did before. And there are just certain things he feels comfortable [asking], “Could you handle that?” 

What advice would you have for Guard spouses on how to support their Soldier and nurture the relationship, particularly for newlyweds?

Be as involved as you can. I realize lots of spouses are working and time is limited. But please get to know your state Family Program director and see who’s the FRG [Family Readiness Group] leader for the unit. If you can participate, that’s wonderful. If you can’t physically be there, there are Facebook pages, texts, emails, all kinds of ways you can stay connected. You might be really good at doing something technically as opposed to actually going to the meeting. There’s always a little niche for somebody if you choose to be involved.

Also, if time permits, become involved with organizations in the community that support Guard Soldiers, military families, Veterans groups, the USO or the Red Cross. There are all kinds of things you can do. And to the extent your schedule allows, learn more about what your spouse is doing, because [the Guard] is an organization that’s so much larger than [individuals] and one that truly gives back. It’s an honor and a privilege to be a part of the National Guard family.


CONNECTING WITH KIDS

In 2007, Lil Ingram helped establish Operation Kids on Guard, a nonprofit organization in North Carolina that lets Guard children interact with one another and learn more about their parents’ service. To illustrate the importance of communication at that age, she shares this story about “drill day,” an event giving Guard kids a chance to dress in camouflage and ask questions. During the event, a drill sergeant was leading about 50 kids through a slideshow.  

He started with, “This is what the desert looks like. This is what the tents look like. This is where your mommy and daddy sleep. This is where your mommy and daddy eat.” I mean they were zoomed in. They didn’t say a word—because they didn’t know. They just didn’t know what their parents were doing. So they were totally, just totally fascinated.

And all of a sudden, this little bitty boy with his camouflage uniform and his hat just timidly raised his hand and he said, “My daddy is a good guy, right?” And the drill sergeant said, “Yeah, your daddy’s a good guy.” And then [the boy] said, “Well, there are bad guys there.” [The drill sergeant responded] “Yeah, there will be some bad guys.” And he just looked at him and said, “Who will put on my daddy’s Band-Aid if he gets shot?” And we all just stopped and this drill sergeant—oh my heart just ached for him—but he looked at him and said, “I promise you there will always be somebody to put the Band-Aid on and there will always be somebody to take care of your daddy.” And the little boy just had the biggest smile, and it was, “OK, what’s next?” What if we hadn’t given him an opportunity to ask that question in this safe environment? [After that], we knew we needed to be together and answer their questions as honestly as we could.


MORE ON INGRAM

To read LTG (Ret.) William Ingram’s reflections on his own career, click here.