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Interview with Irene Trowell-Harris [Undated]

Brad Winchester:

What inspired you to go into the field of nursing?

Irene Trowell-Harris:

I was mainly inspired by my mother to become a nurse. I was also inspired to become a nurse by meeting a nurse in our family medical doctors' office. My most compelling reason for becoming a nurse was the desire to care for and help others. I reviewed the professional opportunities usually available to minority women in 1956 prior to graduating from high school. The options available were becoming a teacher, nurse or secretary. I decided to become a nurse, a profession my mother desired but was unable to attend school due to lack of fiinds' and the need for her to work and to help her parents' family survive. Her dreams were realized in the accomplishments of her daughters Mae and Irene, both nurses. One of my younger brother's had cerebral palsy, was blind and was unable to speak. The family members cared for him for 29 years until his death in 1969.

Brad Winchester:

What motivated you to make the transition from civilian nursing to the military?

Irene Trowell-Harris:

The desire to earn silver wings, join the military and serve my country started long before I became a registered nurse. The events were as follows for my transition from civilian to military nursing in 1963. I had a dream and a vision. In a cotton field in South Carolina in the 1950's, I saw an airplane flying over and I said to my 10 sisters and brothers - one day I will fly and work on an airplane - we all laughed - because we knew that was an impossible dream for a minority female! In spite of the barriers, I still wanted sliver wings. Ten years later, I proudly walked upon the stage and accepted my silver flight nurse wings at the Aerospace School of Medicine, Flight Nurse Branch, Brooks Air Force Base, San Antonio, Texas. This was one of my most cherished accomplishments. As a young woman in 1963, I took an uncharted flight from the cotton fields of South Carolina to the pinnacle of success as a registered nurse, mentor, role model and military officer. This flight made unscheduled stops, ran into turbulence, reached unexpected heights and traveled internationally. This journey was begun when my church. Mount Hill Baptist and high school, Martha Schofield united to share their financial resources with me by providing a scholarship for nursing school. When I graduated I invested in the human potential stock market instead of that sports car, new clothes, and a stereo. While working at New York Hospital in mid 1962,1 met two nurses whom were serving in the New York Air National Guard as flight nurses. They invited me to visit the Floyd Bennett Field Air National Base and check out the opportunities. I did visit the air base 6 months later and after inquiring about Air National Guard opportunities decided to join the Guard as a commissioned officer in April 1963.

Brad Winchester:

I note that your military career spans more than 38 years. What is the total number of years you have been employed professionally?

Irene Trowell-Harris:

I have been employed professionally for 43 years. I spent 38 years, 5 months and 26 days in the United States Air Force and Air National Guard. Some of the time was concurrent with my civilian job, for example part-time military duty in the Air National Guard.

Brad Winchester:

Why have you worked so long?

Irene Trowell-Harris:

I really enjoy working and making a difference in society. My wish to make positive social changes require vigilance and persistence. There is so much work to be done in society and I wish to be a part of the solution.

Brad Winchester:

Are you entertaining any thoughts of retiring soon?

Irene Trowell-Harris:

No thoughts or plans to retire soon. I intend to work a few more years, maybe 3, then complete my book (memoirs and an inspirational book to inspire others, especially young people) and travel for fun. I travel extensively for business and have been over the past 20 years.

Brad Winchester:

What are some of the most enjoyable aspects of being Director of the Center for Women's Veterans Affairs?

Irene Trowell-Harris:

Being in a position to help make positive changes and do outreach to make women veterans aware of their benefits and services (i.e. keynote speeches, media interviews, town hall meetings, veterans service organization conferences,, 25 most frequently asked questions, hitemet website, partnership with other agencies, etc). Seeing some of this Nation's 1.7 million women veterans (total veterans 25.6 million) receive VA benefits and services they so richly deserve. Working with the VA Advisory Committee on Women Veterans to maintain and help get legislation related to women veterans addressed on Capitol Hill.

Brad Winchester:

What are some of the challenges of your present position?

Irene Trowell-Harris:

I believe that we will be faced with some grave challenges in the future dealing with women veteran issues. My four major challenges are: Being able to care for the increasing number of veterans, especially the elderly. Dealing with budgetary restraints with competing priorities. Providing primary and gender-specific care for the increasing numbers of women veterans. Preparing for unknown illnesses or diseases from military deployments.

Brad Winchester:

Tell me a little about your personal life. Are you married? Do you have any children or grandchildren?

Irene Trowell-Harris:

I was married for many years, no children, now divorced. However, I have 32 nieces an nephews of which I have assisted financially with college and business ventures. I also shared my resources with 10 sisters and brothers to help them get their college degrees or with small business ventures. One went to medical school and became an Air Force Flight Surgeon, another a pilot, others completed degrees in nursing and social science, and three are successful small business owners in Aiken, South Carolina. Family values, unity and support from the entire community clearly empowered us to become successful. It truly does "take a village."

Brad Winchester:

How old are you?

Irene Trowell-Harris:

I am 63 years old and love every minute of life!

Brad Winchester:

What are your hobbies or leisure activities?

Irene Trowell-Harris:

I enjoy Opera, theater, military concerts, Broadway plays, and sightseeing while traveling with family members and friends. I am an adamant physical fitness person who enjoys biking, the treadmill, jogging and playing racquetball.

Brad Winchester:

Other information from speeches that maybe useful.

Irene Trowell-Harris:

The Air National Guard helped me realize my dream to fly. Guard leaders mentored me, nurtured me, educated me, and offered me many challenging opportunities. I had the opportunity to serve my country as a flight nurse examiner, chief nurse executive, commander, advisor to the Chief, Air Force Nurse Corps, for Readiness and Nursing Services, Office of the Surgeon General, and Assistant to the Director, Air National Guard for Human Resources Readiness. I retired as a major general in September 2001 after serving in the Air Force for 38 years, 5 months and 26 days. My civilian career has been just as fiill and rewarding. 1 had the opportunity to serve as nurse manager, supervisor, chief nurse executive, university professor, senior policy specialist. Director, Northeast Region, Office of Healthcare Inspections, Office of Inspector General, Department of Veterans Affairs, Washington, DC. Currentiy I serve as Director, Center for Women Veterans, Office of the Secretary, Department of Veterans Affairs, Washington, DC. In this position, I serve as a White House political appointee. Even though my dream was realized, like many others, I have had my share of challenges, obstacles and disappointments. Just like others, I did house work, delivered newspapers and worked in fast food restaurants. There have been many good times and a few bad times - however, in the bad times I am reminded of Maya Angelou's poem, which inspired new hope in many Black Americans, she said: "History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived; but if faced with courage, need not be lived again." Follow Your Dream: Your whole life comes alive when you have the courage to follow a dream, to create change, to do what is right over what is easy, and the courage to value tomorrow as much as you do today. Eleanor Roosevelt stated this point succinctiy when she said: "The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams." In order to become successful and remain successful - You must remain vigilant and never give up: If I had given up on my dream to fly, I would not have a star above my wings. If I had given up when I was told I would never progress beyond the rank of major, I would not have 2 stars today. If I had given up when I was denied admission to the first nursing school to which I applied, I would not have a master's degree fi-om Yale and a doctorate from Columbia. If I had given up when my doctoral committee drilled me for hours; I would not have been inducted into the Teachers College, Columbia University Nursing Hall of Fame on 8 October 1999. If I had given up I would not have been honored by the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health (EPH), Yale University School of Medicine, June 1, 2001 for outstanding dedication to public service and inducted into the EPH Public Service Honor Roll. If I had given up on my professional goals, I would not have been awarded the Dr. James D. Weaver Alumni Society award in November 2002 for leadership, mentoring, readiness and diversity. Advice for Young People: Whether you are beginning your career, advancing your career or looking for a career change. First, you must take care of yourself and maintain a balance, that is physically, mentally, socially, economically, politically and spiritually - and don't forget to pray. Next, in order to become successful, you must get a good education. Education was the hope of the past and it is surely the hope for the future: Education is a tool that empowers people to be better performers, communicators, supervisors, managers, and citizens. Education is the great liberator! Remember education is a journey, NOT a destination. - Third, do your very best in the job that you have. You may not be able to change the world, but you can shine a light where you are! - Fourth, you must visualize the future and dare to be a part of it! As high tech moves us through the 21st century - say to yourself - my contributions are important and I will be a part of this great nation's future. The question is - how can we systematically help the masses of young women and men in order to inspire them to reach their potential? I know that one answer is that we must care about young people because they are our future leaders. Dr. Martin Luther King said that we must care about each other because: "We are bound together in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly." To the young people in the 21st century - I offer my living legacy to you: I offer my stars as a beacon for you to follow as you climb the opportunity ladder - dependent only on your individual talent and diligence. I offer my silver wings for you to fly over obstacles as you soar like an eagle to even greater success, and finally I offer my doctorate for you as a bridge over troubled waters as you sail through the 21st century. In spite of numerous roadblocks, my goal was to turn obstacles into steppingstones and move up the career ladder - because I had a roadmap to follow for my family, my community, my state and my country.

 
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  October 26, 2011
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