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Major General Irene Trowell-Harris: Breaking All the Barriers

From the cotton fields of South Carolina to a major general in the Air National Guard, Irene Trowell-Harris has defied expectations her whole life.

By Barbara Frankel


Irene Trowell-Harris vividly remembers the day her life changed. One of 11 children who grew up on a small farm in Aiken, S.C., she worked the cotton fields with her family. One day, she looked up and saw an airplane.

"I said that someday I was going to be up there, teaching and working in an airplane. I never even knew anyone who had been in an airplane but I just wanted it so much," she recalls.

After earning her undergraduate degree at Jersey City State College (now New Jersey City University; she was awarded an honorary doctorate by NJCU in May), she finished nursing school and went into the military to become a flight nurse. She served 38 years in the U.S. Air Force/Air National Guard, becoming the first Black woman to be promoted to general officer. Now retired, she continues to focus on helping others, remembering her own remarkable journey.

Helping Hands

Irene's told this story many times but it's a lesson in the good of philanthropy that bears repeating. While she was still in high school in South Carolina, she mentioned one Sunday at church that she hoped to go to nursing school—a rarity for a poor, Black girl at that time. The church immediately took up a collection and raised $60 in nickels and dimes, enough to help send her to school.

"I want young people to understand that no matter where they are coming from, they too can be successful. They have to really focus—and stay in school," she says.

Since her earliest days, Irene has mentored others. She works with the Tuskegee Airmen (and is the only woman to have had a chapter named after her) to get young people into flight school. And she gives scholarships to the very church that helped her so many years ago.

"I've been working for every institution that touched me when I was coming along to get scholarships for low-income students. I've been donating my entire career," she says, noting that Columbia University named a scholarship after her and that she's been actively involved in establishing scholarships for nursing students.

Breaking Military Barriers

Irene's career is so remarkable because of all the barriers she broke in the military as a woman and as a Black woman.

"I wanted to serve my country because I had two uncles in the Army in World War II," she recalls. The military has changed dramatically since she started. She notes that until 1967, the military had a ceiling that only 2 percent of the armed forces could be women. From 1969–1972, the reserves opened up considerably for women and people who weren't white, she says.

The issues of quality of life and family demands for women were top of mind for her, as she served on numerous high-level committees and worked with the Department of Veterans Affairs to improve women's experiences in the military.

"When I first started, if a woman became pregnant, she had to get out of the service," Irene recalls. Today, she sees the greatest challenge to a military career for people from all underrepresented groups as not having the right qualifications, both educationally and personally.

"The military wants college-educated people in good health, who are not overweight, with no history of any criminal problems. Once you get in the military, you are required to maintain the weight status and perform your job with excellence. It's a strict culture with all different kinds of regulations," she says.

Good Mentoring Advice

She advises young people entering the military "to think before you speak and don't put your career in jeopardy." She recalls her own mentors, a flight nurse and a base commander, both white. The man, General Paul Weaver Jr., former Director of the Air National Guard, "let me know the politics of the military." He also sponsored her, recommending she become a lieutenant commander and that she pursue her education.

For now, she's encouraging nurses to think about leadership and advocacy, working with veterans and writing her second book of memoirs. "I want to help and touch as many people as I can in my life," she says.

MAJOR GENERAL IRENE TROWELL-HARRIS

Previous Positions

• Retired Director, Center for Women Veterans, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

• Assistant to the Director for Human Resources Readiness, Air National Guard

 

Education

• Ed.D., Columbia University

• M.P.H., Yale University

• Bachelor's Degree, Jersey City State College (New Jersey City University)

• Nursing Diploma, Columbia Hospital School of Nursing

 

Honors

• First Black woman in history of National Guard to be promoted to general officer

• First Black woman to have Tuskegee Airmen chapter named after her

• Numerous military awards, including Legion of Merit, Air Force Organizational Excellence Award, National Defense Service Medal

The Conversation

New Comedy Series is Based on the Life of a Gay Man With Cerebral Palsy

The series is written by and starring Ryan O'Connell, author of "I'm Special: And Other Lies We tell Ourselves."

Ryan O'Connell/ YOUTUBE

With "The Big Bang Theory" winding down, Jim Parsons, better known as "Sheldon," is taking a role behind the scenes as the executive producer of the new series "Special."

The show, set to debut on Netflix on April 12, is loosely based on the upbringing and experience of Ryan O'Connell, a gay man living with cerebral palsy. O'Connell authored a 2015 book called "I'm Special: And Other Lies We tell Ourselves."

O'Connell stars in the series, along with Jessica Hecht, Punam Patel, Marla Mindelle, Augustus Prew and Patrick Fabian. He also wrote the show and will executive produce with Parsons, Eric Norsoph and Todd Spiewak.

Both Parsons and O'Connell took to social media to celebrate:

O'Connell tweeted:

O'Connell has a long resume filled with stints on some prominent writing teams. He has written for MTV's "Awkward" and the reboot of "Will and Grace."

At this time, being gay is more acceptable than having cerebral palsy, he said.

"Being gay is chic now," he told NBC Out. "Cerebral palsy will never be chic."

But, hopefully "Special" will make being disabled cool just like "The Big Bang Theory" made being a nerd cool.

O'Connell has never been politically correct about his disability referring to himself as a "gimp."

"Honey, I've walked in these orthotics for 29 years. I own the f—ing right to say 'gimp,'" O'Connell said.

O'Connell's disability affects his fine motor skills and causes his muscles to be stiff.

Having a disability when you are gay is difficult, according to O'Connell. He used to refuse to go to the bathroom when he was on a date in fear that his date would notice his limp. He would avoid walking in front of people and eventually took to drugs as a way to cope with his disability.

"I had the choice to turn [my disability] into this big giant monster, or it could be this ant on the ground that I saw with a magnifying glass. And I chose to make it into a big monster," he said.

He has made that big monster morph into his ticket to stardom as he will be the main character in "Special."

Through this show, O'Connell hopes to give the unheard a voice.

Viola Davis Stands Up for Black Women in Speech

"I was tired of seeing movies without me in it and I don't mean me—Viola—I mean, me, as a Black woman."

TWITTER

After winning a leadership award this week, Viola Davis used her time on stage to speak her mind, and she brought her A game. Not often are Black women given a platform. We usually take it, or create it for ourselves and for others. A video clip of her speech is going viral with more than 500,000 views.

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Using Undocumented Immigrants for ​Labor is the Norm at Trump's Golf Club

"We are tired of the abuse, the insults, the way he talks about us when he knows that we are here helping him make money," said a woman working at Trump National Golf Club.

As President Trump sends troops to the U.S.-Mexico border to "defend" (white) America against the caravans of Brown people and bar some from asylum in the U.S., the history of hiring undocumented workers at his properties in New Jersey and Florida continues to come to light.

Trump has a problem with undocumented immigrants seeking asylum, but not when they are hired to wash his clothes or make his bed.

Victorina Morales, an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala, reportedly crossed the border in 1999 and has worked at the at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J, since 2013, The New York Times reported Thursday.

According to a spokesperson for his business organization, she would be one of tens of thousands of people to be employed by Trump, and would be terminated if she was undocumented. Sandra Diaz, 46, from Costa Rica was another.

Both Morales and Diaz, during their stints, washed the Trump family's clothes in a special detergent, made beds and dusted.

"There are many people without papers," said Ms. Diaz, who said she witnessed several people being hired whom she knew to be undocumented.

Morales was initially pleased with her job because she was paid and tipped well, often times by Trump. But her sentiments changed when he ran for president.

"I'm tired of being humiliated and treated like a stupid person," she said in Spanish during a brief interview. "We're just immigrants who don't have papers."

During his campaign in 2016, when he referred to Mexicans as rapists and criminals, he promised to mandate E-Verify, a federal tool to verify employment eligibility, and requested $23 million in his 2019 budget proposal to expand the program for nationwide use. He also bragged when a new Trump hotel opened in Washington, "We didn't have one illegal immigrant on the job."

"The president has been half-serious about stopping illegal immigration by not taking away the jobs magnet," said Roy Beck, president of NumbersUSA, a group pushing to reduce immigration. Beck said Trump has "let us down in his promise to help American workers" because he hasn't "put his shoulder behind a mandatory E-Verify bill."

Morales reports being driven to work by staff to hide the fact that she couldn't legally drive, and that after she presented fake papers for work, she was given another set of fake papers by the Trump Organization to keep her employed there.

Morales had a front row seat on the job to Trump meetings as she was cleaning his villa, even when potential cabinet members were interviewed and when he met with the White House chief of staff.

But that didn't come without experiencing verbal abuse from Trump's staff.

Her attorney Anibal Romero said in a statement Thursday that his clients were called racial epithets and threatened with deportation by a supervisor that ironically, "had employed them despite knowing their undocumented status and even provided them with forged documents."

"We are tired of the abuse, the insults, the way he talks about us when he knows that we are here helping him make money," she told the NY Times. "We sweat it out to attend to his every need and have to put up with his humiliation."

Reader Question: Do we need any more proof that he's a liar about everything?

Obama Reportedly Surprised by McCain's Eulogy Request

"We shared, for all our differences, a fidelity to something higher — the ideals for which generations of Americans and immigrants alike have fought, marched, and sacrificed," Obama said of McCain.

Former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush will pay tribute to Sen. John McCain during a Saturday funeral service at the Washington National Cathedral.

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Florida Shooter Who Killed Black Man in Parking Lot Has History of Gun Threats

Michael Drejka's "Stand Your Ground" defense in the shooting of Markeis McGlockton buckles.

Trayvon Martin's killer, George Zimmerman, was acquitted, according to jurors on the basis of Florida's Stand Your Ground law. It seems the same law will not work in shooter Michael Drejka's favor.

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Central American Mother Suing Trump Says ‘I Had Seen Officers Grab Little Children by Their Hair and Throw Them into Cells’

A Guatemalan mother says that she witnessed immigrant child abuse from officers and wants her daughter returned unharmed.

REUTERS

Perla Karlili Alemengor Miranda De Velasquez is an asylum-seeking mother from Guatemala who is suing the Trump administration for the return of her daughter.

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