MAYFLOWER — It may not have been a Hollywood movie set, but there was a video camera and a recorder in place when retired Arkansas Army National Guard Col. Mary Francis “Frankie” Sears sat down to be interviewed as part of the Library of Congress Veterans History Project.
Poised in a comfortable chair in the sunroom of her home in The River Plantation subdivision just south of Mayflower near the Arkansas River, Sears told her life story, which included the 21-plus years she spent in the Arkansas Army National Guard. It was not strictly a formal interview, but more like a friendly visit between two friends.
Sears was interviewed by another Arkansas Army National Guard veteran, retired Col. Anita Deason of Conway, who now serves as a military and Veterans Affairs liaison in the Little Rock office of U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark. Marlee Bird of Lawrence, Kansas, a 19-year-old sophomore at Hendrix College serving an internship in Boozman’s Little Rock office, assisted Deason.
“I wanted to interview Frankie,” said Deason, whose job in Boozman’s office sometimes includes interviewing veterans for this project. “I have a real appreciation for women who served [in the Arkansas Army National Guard] before me and cut the path for me. I have a real desire that they know they are so appreciated for all they have done. … Frankie is a fine example.”
In a prepared statement, Boozman said, “The Veterans History Project is a unique collection of the memories of our veterans. These firsthand accounts add valuable information and insights to the permanent record from which future generations will learn.
“I’m proud of the work my office does to promote this program across the state and the veterans’ stories we’ve been able to preserve. I’m pleased to see the enthusiasm across Arkansas to join our efforts and honor the histories of our veterans.”
Sears, 79, retired from a nursing career of almost 50 years in 2008, and from a military career of 21-plus years in 1997. Her military career included six months in Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Storm/Desert Shield, where she served as the chief nurse anesthetist with the Army National Guard’s 148th Evacuation Hospital.
She was the first woman to serve as president of the Arkansas Army National Guard. In fact, she was the first woman to serve as president of any state Army National Guard association. She was also the first woman in the Arkansas Army National Guard to graduate from the U.S. Army War College.
During her military career, Sears was appointed to the Arkansas Governor’s Commission for Veterans Affairs. She was also appointed to serve on the Advisory Committee for National Cemeteries and Memorials. She served as chairwoman for both committees.
Sears is a native Arkansan.
“I was born in Hot Spring County at home, not in a hospital, on June 10, 1937,” she said. “I was the firstborn of three children to the late Ernest Anthony ‘Bud’ Wallace and the late Vallye Geneva Stacy Wallace of Malvern.”
Sears’ brother, Ronald
Wallace, lives on the family farm in Malvern, and her sister, Patricia Ann Corless, lives in San Clemente, California.
Sears was raised in Malvern and graduated from Malvern High School in 1955.
“I graduated on a Friday night, and on Sunday, I entered Arkansas Baptist Hospital School of Nursing in Little Rock at age 17. I graduated in 1958 as a registered nurse,” she said.
“I worked in several places in Little Rock. I worked for 18 years in nursing and joined the Army National Guard in 1976,” Sears said.
“I got recruited. A fella I worked with was a recruiter. He was an X-ray technician. I didn’t know he was a member of the Guard, too,” she said.
“I filled out the paperwork, but they had frozen the induction process and were not accepting anybody. I put the paperwork away, and three years later, he called me again, and said, ‘Do you still have that paperwork?’” she said.
“I did. I got it out, … and the next thing I knew, I was signing on the dotted line,” she said.
“By then, I was a single mother with a daughter. I was looking for a way to make additional money. That was in March 1976. I was commissioned as a first lieutenant because of my schooling and my 18 years of nursing experience, so I didn’t have to go to boot camp. They called that ‘constructive credit.’
“I laugh and say I was the oldest first lieutenant in the Army. … I was 39.”
That same year — 1976 — Sears entered St. Vincent Infirmary School of Nurse Anesthesia in Little Rock to become a certified registered nurse anesthetist.
“I joined the Guard in March, did my annual training in May and in October, entered anesthesia school — and I
had a young daughter,” she said.
“I worked until I was 71 years old, the last 10 years at Conway Regional in outpatient surgery,” Sears said. “I worked for Conway Anesthesia Associates.
“Before I retired from work, they kept asking me what I was going to do as a retiree besides sit on the porch. I said I’d just change ends of the porch.”
Sears said she “did all the regular stuff in the National Guard. … [I] punched my ticket and was promoted after four years to major. Then in my fifth year, I was a lieutenant colonel, then a colonel. When I went to Desert Storm, I was a lieutenant colonel,” she said, adding that she was promoted to colonel in 1993.
“Our whole unit — the 148th Evac Hospital — was activated 21 Nov. 1990. Went to Fort Polk, Louisiana, for training. Left Polk 30 Dec. 1990, for the desert (Saudi Arabia),” she said.
“We had a 400-bed ‘tentage’ evac hospital. It was one of seven evac hospitals in the combat zone,” Sears said.
“I was the chief nurse anesthetist,” she said. “My job was to get the anesthesia department up and going. We had some logistics problems but finally got it going. We were there when the bombing effort started.
“We saw over 1,000 outpatient visits and assisted in 58 operations. The war didn’t last long. We had one death. We had 280-plus patients altogether in the seven weeks we were there.”
Sears spent six months in Saudi Arabia.
“I came back in May 1991. Bill Clinton was still governor. He called the adjutant general and said he was looking for someone to appoint to the
Governor’s Commission for Veterans Affairs,” she said.
“You do what the general suggests, so I became a member of that commission,” Sears said.
“After that, I got a call from the director of the Advisory Committee for National Cemeteries and Memorials (which is part the National Cemetery Administration of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs), so I worked with that a little while,” she said.
Sears said she was later appointed to the committee that worked with the Arkansas Legislature to create a state veterans cemetery in North Little Rock.
“I said, ‘Just get off your duff and get busy. … We have got to have another veterans cemetery in Arkansas,’” she said.
“We have three national veterans cemeteries in Arkansas — Little Rock, Fayetteville and Fort Smith — they are all out of land,” she said. “We now have two state veterans cemeteries — one in North Little Rock and one in Birdeye — they will be full in just a few years.”
In 1994, Sears participated in a medical readiness training exercise in Central and South America, providing medical services to the underserved.
“I came back and wondered, ‘Why can’t we do that at home?’ So we set up a similar situation — a large field hospital — in Earle, Arkansas.
“We set up on the school grounds in Earle and saw 1,200 to 1,300 people in two weeks,” she said. “We gave immunizations, did breast-cancer screenings … did a lot of good stuff.
“Then in 1995 and 1996, we partnered with Baptist Health, the veterans homeless center and others in Operation Care, where we set up in tents and provided free medical care to those in need,” she said.
“We did Operation Care for two years in a row on the North Little Rock side of the Arkansas River,” she said. “I coordinated with my units, and we worked with different agencies to make it happen. People donated clothes, food. … We provided haircuts; showers were set up. … It was a big deal.
“We did it. Don’t tell me it can’t be done. … It can be done. … You just have to make up your mind to do it.
“Aside from going to Desert Storm, that was the highlight of my Guard career. It was so worthwhile. The VA did job counseling, … worked with people on their medicines. … It was really a great thing.”
Sears retired from the Arkansas Army National Guard in June 1997.
“It was a great experience,” Sears said of her military career.
“I met Don (Don Sears, her second husband) through the National Guard. I met him through the National Guard Association. We have now been married 35 years,” she said.
“We have a blended family of three children,” Frankie Sears said. “My daughter, Roni
Bowman, works for the Arkansas Department of Correction and was a member of the Air Force and Air National Guard; Don’s son, Todd Sears, is an attorney, takes care of the family business and also served with the National Guard; and Don’s daughter, Nichole Williams, works for an electric company. We have five grandchildren.
“I spent 21 years, a few months and some days in the National Guard. After retiring, the first weekend I didn’t have drill, Don asked me what I was going to do. ‘I might go fishing,’ I said, adding that’s what people always say when they retire. He laughed and said, ‘You have never been fishing,’ … and I haven’t been fishing yet.”
Prior to the taped interview, Frankie Sears shared another part of her life’s story — she and Don lost their home in the tornado that hit the Mayflower area in 2014, as did their son, Todd.
“Part of me died when the tornado hit our house. We were home, … sitting there by the bay windows, reading the newspaper. Todd lived next door but was not at home,” she said.
“He called us and told us a tornado was headed our way and to go get in his storm shelter. We did. In less than five minutes, it was over. We lost everything. Forty-two homes out here were destroyed or damaged,” Sears said.
“We looked at property in Maumelle and Faulkner County,
trying to decide what we were going to do. We decided to rebuild right where we were. Where else can you have that look of Pinnacle Mountain right outside your back door? We decided to take a chance and rebuild here,” she said.
“Someone had found our original house plans one or two days after the tornado. I had stored them in an old Fed Ex box, … one of those triangular boxes, upstairs in a closet. They were not even wet,” she said. “We took them to an architect, who tweaked them a little, and here we are.
“It was a big decision for us to rebuild here. … We wrestled with it for several days.”
Now that she has retired, Sears works for the family business — they own several retail businesses in Maumelle and Jacksonville. “I pay the bills,” she said, smiling.
“We love to travel,” she said, “but we haven’t done too much since the tornado. We just recently cruised the Great Lakes.”
She said Don retired from the Arkansas National Guard after 39 years of service and was never activated.
“They had a going away party for me, just Guard people,” she said. “I was the only girl in the group. … I told them, ‘They sent the mama’ to Desert Storm. All the guardsmen in my unit were kids. … They called me Col. ‘Mama’ Sears. … I held them in my arms when they got Dear John letters and when the one patient died.
“I highly recommend a career in the National Guard. You can see the world.”
For more information about the Veterans History Project, visit www.loc.gov/vets or call Boozman’s Little Rock office at (501) 372-7253.