Developing Exceptional Leadership: From Ukrainian Orphanage to AFMS Airman

  • Published
  • By Kevin M. Hymel
  • Air Force Medical Service History Office

SrA Yana Ingram enjoys helping people. As a Pharmacy Technician for the 97th Medical Group at Altus Air Force Base, Oklahoma, she spends her days filling prescriptions for active duty military service members, retirees, and their dependents, as well as filling orders for the hospital. By walking back and forth in the pharmacy, she averages three-to-five miles a day. She knows—she bought a Fitbit. Her customers might find it hard to believe this enthusiastic Airman came to the service from an orphanage almost 6,000 miles away.

Growing up in Ukraine, Ingram never knew her father, but her mother’s troubles with the law sent her to an orphanage as a kindergartener. The orphanage housed children from first-through-eleventh grades in one large building.

Life in the orphanage was austere and regimented. Ingram shared a room with twelve other girls. She ate all her meals in a dining hall and showered in a communal bathroom. After classes, she and the other children would prepare meals and, after dinner, clean the kitchen. Before bedtime, the children were allowed to play outside. “It was good at the time,” recalled Ingram. “We had food, we always had stuff to do with no cares in the world.”

When Ingram turned 11 in 2004, an American family brought her to their Connecticut home for part of the winter. “They were just really American,” she said. “They had a big house and a big car.” They considered adopting her, but nothing happened and she returned to the orphanage.

That summer, while Ingram and the other orphans attended a summer camp, American Dr. Peter Leininger and his daughter Whitney spent time with Ingram as part of their Christian mission. Whitney, who was living with her mother, Rebecca, and Rebecca’s new husband, Charles Ingram, told the Ingrams that she felt that God would make the orphan her little sister. After a year of writing back and forth with the orphan, in 2005, the Ingrams flew to Ukraine and brought their new daughter back to the United States.

Family life in the United States was a shock for young Ingram. The local grocery store’s aisles and aisles of food amazed her. Raised on pickled, boiled, and fresh food, she found American meals greasy and too heavily seasoned. She ate a lot of hot dogs. “That was one of the few foods I knew how to say,” she explained.

Language, of course, proved a barrier. In the orphanage, Ingram had learned some basic English, like the days of the week. Once in the United States, she communicated through hand gestures. “I was like a kid trying to learn to talk all over again,” she said. To help her adjust, her parents held her back a year in middle school.

After high school graduation, Ingram attended Pike’s Peak Community College in Colorado and lived with her Aunt Rene and Uncle Chuck Smith, a retired Air Force chief master sergeant. He told her the Air Force was a great experience and would pay for college. He also helped her select an Air Force vocation. Encouraged by his advice, Ingram joined the Air Force on November 4, 2014. She chose to go into medicine.

Ingram found Basic Military Training (BMT) similar to the Ukrainian orphanage. Unlike recruits who were unaccustomed to the rigors of military life, Ingram felt at home in the BMT’s regimented atmosphere. “The military is like an orphanage,” she said.

After attending technical school at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, Ingram served at Royal Air Force Lakenheath, England, where her supervisors took notice. MSgt Kristine D. Butler was impressed with Ingram’s leadership development from day one. TSgt Jermaine Harris considered her a go-getter who, when given a task, would “knock it out of the park.”

“The in-patient pharmacy needed someone and she took charge,” said Butler. Ingram, one of two Airmen selected for the task, set the baseline standard for the new inpatient schedule, the training timeline, and workload tasks. “She turned a crazy pharmacy into a smooth-running shop that allowed me to do more work,” added Harris.

That wasn’t all. Ingram developed a guidance for compliance inspectors. “She went to the different medication areas and a built specific guidance for each,” explained Butler. The result: Pharmacy Services went from zero inspector guidances to 23. “She tackled it,” said Butler. “We have even added to it.” Finally, when the Emergency Room station moved its Pyxis automated drug dispenser, Ingram designed its new layout for 65 medications. “The ER was fully stocked due to her efficiency,” said Harris. For all her hard work, Ingram earned Airman of the Quarter for her squadron.

Ingram departed Lakenheath in May of 2018 and reported to the pharmacy at Altus AFB. When discussing dosages and other prescription-related information she makes sure to repeat herself so her patients clearly understand her.

While still new to Altus, Ingram has found the same helpful spirit she experienced in Lakenheath. “My coworkers push each other to be better,” she said.

Ingram aspires to earn a nursing degree and an Air Force commission to become a nurse anesthesiologist. Her fellow Airmen and supervisors have encouraged her along the way. She often reflects on TSgt Harris’ advice: “work one rank above,” said Ingram. Her old section chief at the Lakenheath still sends her information on the commissioning program and nursing school. “She keeps up with me.”

The Air Force has taught Ingram about leadership. “I am more assertive now,” she says of her own development. “I am more confident at work and at being in charge.” She stresses that the Air Force has shown her how to put herself “on the line and trying to be better.” She has grown in understanding her duties and is always looking for better ways to run things.  

While Ingram survived the orphanage alone, she has grown, developed, and now thrives with two families: The Ingrams and the Air Force.