CRANSTON, R.I. (WPRI) — Last year, Col. Sharon Harmon made history when she became the first Black person to achieve the rank of colonel in the Rhode Island National Guard.

But for Harmon, the beginnings of her military career were less about following her own dreams and more about living out her father’s.

“Back then, my father used to always talk about how he wanted to join the military and he had me watching westerns and military movies all the time,” Harmon said.

Her father, who raised Harmon with his parents in South Carolina, wasn’t able to enlist because of a medical condition.

“One of the things I thought about pursuing is maybe pursuing one of his passions, because he, at the time, was like my hero,” she said.

In 1984, Harmon moved to Rhode Island, and enlisted in 1985. Her father’s passion quickly became her own. She completed basic training at Fort Jackson in South Carolina and then returned to Rhode Island to serve. Eventually, she decided to become an officer.

Harmon transferred to the Rhode Island National Guard and attended the military academy, then went to school to become one.

In 1995, Harmon was assigned as a chemical officer with the 103rd Field Artillery Brigade in Providence. After five years, she moved on to become an education officer.

In 2011, she was deployed to Afghanistan and was forced to leave her young family behind.

“That was one of the things that I really took real hard during my time in the military,” she recalled.

But after her deployment, she was promoted.

“I became the Joint Force Headquarters Commander, and I held that position from 2012 to 2014,” Harmon said.

Harmon climbed the ranks, from second lieutenant to first lieutenant to captain.

Unfortunately, her father only got to see her become Captain Harmon. He passed away in 2004.

“That’s about all he really needed to see, because I remember when we used to watch some of the shows on TV, the highest rank we did see an African American was a captain,” Harmon said. “I don’t even know if he’d know there’s anything that goes beyond that.”

From captain, Harmon became a major, then a lieutenant colonel, which she describes as a pivotal moment.

“I was very happy when I made that rank,” she said. “I knew I was getting ready to make history in the Rhode Island National Guard as being the first female African American to be promoted to lieutenant colonel.”

Harmon then had to attend the Army War College for two years to achieve the rank of colonel. Thinking back to those years, she had trouble finding the words to describe the experience.

“It was two years of intense learning. I’ll stick with that,” Harmon said. “Those were some brutal, brutal two years.”

She pulled through, and in August 2022, she made history again, becoming the first Black person in the history of the Rhode Island National Guard to become colonel.

“There was so many times I wanted to quit. I was at that brink where I was like, ‘I’ve had enough of this,'” she said. “All I kept thinking was that those who had gone before me were able to finish it … so I need to keep giving an extra push. Knowing there was going to be a reward and opportunity at the end, that’s what got me through those two years.”

Now, Harmon is in her favorite role so far. She leads the Rhode Island National Guard’s Family Program and oversees seven different departments that work directly with the families of service members.

She’s now able to give back to the program that helped her own family when she was deployed.

“I enjoy doing this job. I have a passion for helping the service members and their families,” she said. “When the soldiers go on deployments, and they know we are back here to help their families, support their families, I think they are able to concentrate better at the mission at hand that they need to do at that time.”

When it comes to diversity in the guard, Harmon said there are times when she finds herself to be the only Black person at the table.

According to a 2020 report from the Department of Defense, African Americans make up just 16.8% of the U.S. military.

“There’s been many of times that I’ve walked through these hallways or sit in at a meeting or something and I would be the only African American there,” she said.

But Harmon said she’s never felt excluded or out of place, though she does feel a weight on her shoulders with this new role.

“The pressure’s there,” she said.

As she enters her 38th year of service, Harmon said she’s focused on paving a path for Black people coming up the ranks behind her.

“Right now, my main goal is just to be a good role model or a good mentor,” she said.