The story goes that one day during the 1950’s, as this young African-American girl from Aiken, South Carolina was out in the cotton fields with her ten brothers and sisters, she looked up and claimed that one day, she would be up in an air plane. Like the cotton fibers which filled her childhood, she twined her dreams into a filament of education and that filament into a cord of nursing skills and that cord into a banner of distinguished military service. This little girl is now the Director of the Center for Women Veterans. Her goal, as stated in her address to the 75th Anniversary of National Business Women’s Week & Business and Professional Women USA in 2003 is “to ensure that the nation’s 1.7 million women veterans know about and receive the VA benefits, vocational rehabilitation, housing and business loans.”
All gardeners know that things grow in three stages. The first stage, it sleeps, the second stage, it creeps, and the third stage it leaps. The first stage of Trowell-Harris began slowly while she took root in education and experience:
1959 Columbia Hospital School of Nursing
April 6, 1963 Commission in New York Air National Guard as First Lieutenant
Dec. 12, 1964 promoted to Captain
1968 Squadron Officer School
Then her career began to flourish:
1971 Air Command and Staff College
1971 Bachelor of Arts in Health Education Cum laude, Jersey City State, New Jersey
1973 Masters in Public Health, Yale, New Haven Connecticut
Sept. 2, 1973 promoted to Major
Sept. 2, 1980 promoted to Lieutenant Colonel
1981 National Security Management Course, distinguished graduate
1983 Doctorate of Health Education, distinguished alumni, Columbia University, New York NY
March 1986 Commander of 105th USAF Clinic, Newburgh, NY – first nurse in ANG to command a medical clinic
June 16, 1988 promoted to Colonel
1990 – Air War College
The last two decades have seen Trowell-Harris not only thrive but produce bountiful harvests.
Oct. 24, 1993 promoted to Brigadier General (first African American Female General of the National Guard)
August 1998 first female in history to have a Tuskegee Airman, Inc. Chapter named in her honor (Major General Trowell-Harris Chapter, Newburgh, NY)
Sept. 1, 1998 promoted to Major General
June 1, 2001 Honored by Dept. of Epidemiology and Public Health, Yale University School of Medicine for “outstanding dedication to public service.” And inducted into EPH Public Service Honor Roll
2001 Retired from the military
Oct. 2001 Appointed as Director, Center for Women Veterans
2006 received Women’s eNews to “21 Leaders for the 21st Century Award”
Her time spent as the National Air Guard Assistant to Director for Human Resources Readiness, Washington DC resulted in a 20% increase in access to health care for women in the military. She is the recipient of Dr. James D. Weaver Society Award and the Eagle Award from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University for contribution to aviation, as well as being honored by Dr. Mae Jemison Foundation of Excellence for contributions to aviation and mentoring. Plus, she has helped her siblings and nieces and nephews go to college and begin businesses.
Decorations & awards include Senior Flight Nurse Silver Wings, Legion of Merit, Meritorious Service Medal, Air Force Outstanding Unit Award, Air Force Organizational Excellence Award with one oak leaf cluster, National Defense Service Medal with service star, Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal, Air Force Longevity Service Award Ribbon with 7 oak leaf clusters, Armed Forces Reserve Medal with hour glass, Small Arms Expert Marksmanship Ribbon, Air Force Training Ribbon.
Looking at all of the “firsts” in her life: first nurse in ANG to command a medical clinic, first African American Female General of the National Guard, first female in history to have a Tuskegee Airman, Inc. Chapter named in her honor, one gets a silhouette of the character, backbone, and fortitude of this veteran. Trace character, backbone and fortitude’s definitions and you will find fiber. Trace fiber back and you will find cotton. Remember the cotton field in which young Irene once dreamed? She wasn’t just dreaming; she was working. Like that cotton, she is woven into the fabric of the United States and we are a greater nation because of her.