Irene Trowell-Harris was the first black woman to attain the feat of a general officer of the U.S Air National Guard when she was a Colonel.
She rose to that rank in October 1993 in the 357-year history of the National Guard, the military’s oldest branch.
“I was in shock, I thought Colonel was probably going to be the top rank for me,” the 79-year-old told ConnectingVets.
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It all started when Trowell-Harris was picking cotton along with her siblings on their farm. She saw an airplane through the cotton field, and she said them, “one day I’m going to teach and work on an airplane.”
Even though her mother wanted her to be a nurse, as she picked cotton on their farm in Aiken, she watched as planes flew over the farm and she dreamt of flying for a living someday.
She graduated from high school and earned a Nursing Diploma from the Columbia Hospital School of Nursing. Trowell-Harris was commissioned as a first lieutenant in the New York Air National Guard in April 1963.
She later enrolled in the Aerospace School of Medicine, Flight Nurse Branch, San Antonio, Texas and graduated as a flight nurse in February 1964.
She administered care for military personnel, their families and diplomats during national and international flights.
Trowell-Harris combined her love for airplanes and commitment to nursing, earning her promotions, first, to a flight nurse instructor in 1966 then later flight nurse examiner and subsequently to chief nurse.
In her military career, she went on to serve as an advisor to the Air Force Nurse Corps and worked in the office of the Air Force surgeon general on medical readiness and nursing services.
For 38 years, she served with the Air Force and Air National Guard including serving as a flight nurse instructor. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Jersey City State College in 1971, a master’s degree in public health from Yale University in 1973 and a doctorate in health education from Columbia University in 1983.
She became the first nurse to command an Air National Guard medical clinic, the 105th USAF Clinic in Newburgh, N.Y. She also became the first African American woman to serve as a general officer in the National Guard and retired as a major general in 2001.
Trowell-Harris also became the first to have a mentoring award and a Tuskegee Airmen, Inc., Chapter named in her honor. She has chalked so many awards including being a distinguished Alumna of Yale University and Columbia University.
She was inducted into the Columbia University Nursing Hall of Fame and the Yale University School of Medicine Honor Roll for her dedication to public service.
She was honored as one of the “21 Leaders of the 21st Century” by Women’s eNews in NYC. Dr. rowell-Harris was the primary advisor to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs on legislation, programs, and issues related to women Veterans in her capacity as the former Director of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Center for Women Veterans.