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First African American woman appointed to Maj. Gen. honored in Aiken

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Eleven years after retiring from the military, Dr. Irene Trowell-Harris visits the Aiken County Historical Museum to find a corner recognizing her accolades. Even she's still amazed a little black girl growing up in Aiken, South Carolina could shatter unbreakable barriers of that era.

"I was determined," Trowell-Harris said. "I wanted to be successful, not just for myself though; for my brothers and sisters, my family, my church, my community, and my country."

One of 11 children, Trowell-Harris and her siblings helped her parents pick cotton to maintain their family farm.

"Because of the farm, with the cotton it only grows from September to December," Trowell-Harris said. "So many times we had to miss the early part of school. That was a big disadvantage growing up on the farm."

One day she saw an airplane fly over their cotton field. That's when Irene decided she wanted to be a pilot. With only a third-grade level education, Irene's parents knew that with hard work and perseverance she could be anything she wanted.

"She, my mother said the opportunity may not be here right now, but it's going to be there later," Trowell-Harris said. "And you need to be prepared and ready to walk in that door."

In quarters, nickels and dimes, her church collected $60 for her tuition to nursing school. Irene earned her bachelor's, a master's in public health from Yale University and her doctorate in education from Columbia. Still dreaming flying airplanes, Dr. Trowell-Harris joined the U.S. Air Force with the Air National Guard. The sky became her limit, working her way from flight nurse examiner to chief nurse executive to Major General, the first African American woman to earn the ranking. She'd hold that title until retiring in September 2001; never forgetting how she got to that point in her life.

"Because of that $60 and the people that supported me, I got silver wings, two stars; major general, a doctorate from Columbia, wrote a book, and became a white house political appointee," Trowell-Harris said. "Not bad for a country girl."

Dr. Trowell-Harris now works as the Director of the Department of Veterans Affairs Center for Women Veterans. Remembering her church and the 60 dollars that led to her success, she started a scholarship program at the church; inspiring others using her accomplishments to realize their dreams.

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