Maj. Gen. Irene Trowell-Harris

There have been many firsts in American history but few as noteworthy as the signal achievement of Maj.Gen.Irene Trowell-Harris. In October 1993, this woman who began life on a small cotton farm in Aiken was selected to become the first female African-American general in the 357-year history of the National Guard, the military’s oldest branch. Trowell-Harris knew what she wanted to do from a very young age. As she picked cotton with her 10 brothers and sisters on their parents’ farm in Aiken, she watched planes as they passed overhead and dreamed that someday she would fly for a living. Her mother, however, wanted her to be a nurse. After graduation from high school, she earned a nursing diploma from the Columbia Hospital School of Nursing. Her dream of flying would not die. In April 1963, Trowell-Harris was commissioned as a first lieutenant in the New York Air National Guard. She enrolled in the Aerospace School of Medicine, Flight Nurse Branch, San Antonio, Texas and graduated as a flight nurse in February 1964. Her position required specialized training in the care of military personnel, their families and diplomats during national and international flights. She remained on flying status for 11 years, traveling all over the world. Trowell-Harris advanced quickly in the ranks, earning promotion to flight nurse instructor in 1966, flight nurse examiner and to chief nurse a few years later. “During a transport, the nurse is the senior medical person on the plane,” she explained. “Along with the medical team, you decide who goes on the plane and who doesn’t. It is very important to make that judgment properly.” Her stellar career in the Air National Guard allowed for a perfect combination of her love for airplanes and her commitment to nursing. During her 38 years with the Air Force and Air National Guard, Trowell-Harris has excelled at academics, beginning with nursing school then graduating cum laude with a bachelor’s degree from Jersey City State College in 1971. She earned a master’s degree in public health from Yale University in 1973 and a doctorate in health education from Columbia University in 1983. In 1986, she was appointed commander of the 105th USAF Clinic in Newburgh, N.Y., making her the first Air National Guard nurse to command a medical clinic. 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.  Gen Trowell-Harris was the Air Force representative to the Committee on Women in the NATO Forces Conference held in Istanbul, Turkey. A recipient of the Air Force Distinguished Service and Legion of Merit awards, Dr. Trowell-Harris was the first African-American female in the history of the National Guard to be promoted to general officer.  She is also the first to have a mentoring award named in her honor and to have a Tuskegee Airmen, Inc., Chapter named in her honor.  In addition, she is the recipient of the Dr. James D. Weaver Society Award, named for the distinguished Pennsylvania Congressman and Air National Guard Flight Surgeon.  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.  Dr. Trowell-Harris was recently honored as one of the “21 Leaders of the 21st Century” by Women’s eNews.  She is a Distinguished Alumna of Yale University and Columbia University.  Dr. Trowell-Harris received the Eagle Award from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University for her contributions to aviation. Her final assignment, before leaving active duty, was as an assistant to the director of the Air National Guard for human resources readiness. While on active duty, she designed and conducted a worldwide survey of the unmet health needs of women in the military, ultimately resulting in a 20 per cent increase in access to health care for women. She also served as a military representative to DACOWITS. In 1993, Maj. Gen. Trowell-Harris left active duty and chose to come work for VA instead of taking a more lucrative job working for a defense contractor. She retired from the Air National Guard in 2001. Several people had told her there were still issues in the military and veterans systems that needed attention, and she decided she wanted to help fix them, she told U.S. MEDICINE in an interview last month. She had that chance as director of patient care inspections and program evaluation with VA’s Office of the Inspector General and later in the IG’s office as VA director of the Washington, D.C., Office of Health Care Inspections. Maj. Gen. Trowell-Harris said her IG experience was helpful because it gave her skills to immediately identify an issue, generate solutions and follow through to be sure the solutions were implemented. Maj. Gen. Irene Trowell-Harris, USAF (ret.), RN, EdD who has held leadership posts at VA, the Air Force and the Air National Guard, was appointed director of the Center for Women Veterans in October 2001. She was nominated to be Director of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Center for Women Veterans in June 2001 and approved by the White House on October 2, 2001.  In this role, she is the primary advisor to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs on programs, legislation and issues related to women veterans.  Congress created the Center for Women Veterans in 1995, when it elevated the department’s women veteran’s program office. Dr. Trowell-Harris spoke and participated in the Fédération Mondiale des Anciens Combattants, World Veterans Federation, Standing Committee on Women Meeting, Paris, France, 19-20 November 2008.  She represented The Honorable James B. Peake, Secretary of Veterans Affairs and spoke on the “Department of Veterans Affairs experience in dealing with issues related to women veterans.” Meeting participants also discussed current issues affecting women veterans worldwide.  The conference was hosted by President Hamid Ibrahim, Fédération Mondiale des Anciens Combattants, World Veterans Federation,17, rue Niccolo, 75116 PARIS, France.