Irene Trowell-Harris’ brothers and sisters must have thought she was joking when she pointed to a plane flying over their family’s farm in rural South Carolina and declared: “One day I’m going to fly and work on an airplane.”

“We all laughed,” recalls Trowell-Harris, R.N., M.P.H. ’73, Ed.D. It did seem unlikely on that day in 1954 that their 14-year-old sister would ever set foot on an airplane. The children lived in a farmhouse that initially lacked running water in Aiken, S.C., and attended an all-black school. True, if anyone from the family was going to make it, it might be Irene, the third of 11 children. “I always had a lot of responsibility. I was the one who always stayed focused, made sure everybody did their schoolwork and housework and farm work,” recalls Trowell-Harris.

Trowell-Harris did find a way to fly, as an Air National Guard nurse. And she rose steadily in the Air National Guard to reach the rank of major general—the first African-American woman to achieve that rank in the National Guard. A month after retiring from the Guard in September 2001, she accepted an appointment by President Bush as director of the Department of Veterans Affairs Center for Women Veterans. Her office monitors the welfare of the 1.7 million women who have served in the Armed Forces.

To get this far, Trowell-Harris combined realism with idealism. She made decisions that would give her maximum support in overcoming the barriers of poverty and racism. She chose nursing because she knew she would always have a job, and she sought a career in the military because its rules to some extent protected her against discrimination (although it was not until 1974 that Congress required the Armed Services to drop its 2 percent cap on women in the military).

“I wanted to be successful. … So I decided I would use my skills to work within the system. But all along, my goal was to help change the system later on, not just for myself, but for others.”

As director of the Center for Women Veterans, Trowell-Harris works to ensure that female veterans know about the benefits available to them, including inpatient and outpatient health care, counseling, insurance and home and business loans. She also works with veterans affairs committees in Congress to introduce legislation that benefits female veterans. For instance, Trowell-Harris helped back a new law that provides money and services for disabled children of women exposed to the herbicide Agent Orange in Vietnam.

Trowell-Harris notes that services to female veterans will become increasingly important as the proportion of women in the military increases. Women now constitute 6.5 percent of the nation’s 26 million living veterans, and the percentage will increase for two reasons: first, because the number of women in active service has risen, to 17 percent; and second, because male veterans, mostly from World War II, are dying at a rate of 1,400 per day.

Trowell-Harris was born just two generations away from slavery: her grandfather, Jim Trowell, was enslaved until he was in his early 20s. After the Civil War, a white family took him under its wing, bequeathing him 50 acres in South Carolina that Trowell-Harris’ parents gradually enlarged into a 200-acre farm. Trowell-Harris was born in the farmhouse in 1939 and grew up helping her parents raise cotton, corn, peas and watermelon and tend cattle, pigs and chickens. The family would pile into a mule-drawn wagon to go to town and to attend the Mount Hill Baptist Church on Sundays.

When Trowell-Harris finished high school, she considered her options. In 1955, “African-American females had three choices: secretary, teacher or nurse.” Nursing would not only provide steady work, but it would allow her to earn money as an aide while she was a student, helping finance college for her brothers and sisters. (Among them would be another nurse, a pilot, three small-business owners and a physician.)

Trowell-Harris earned her nursing diploma on a Friday in the spring of 1959, and by Monday she was working two jobs. A hurricane had destroyed the family farm, and she was helping her family financially. “I felt frustrated, but I knew if I didn’t help, we would lose the whole farm.” It took two years for the family to get back on its feet, and then Trowell-Harris went north. She got further training as a psychiatric nurse at New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center in White Plains, and then relocated to New York City where she would work for 20 years. There she heard from a fellow nurse about the Air National Guard.

She signed up in 1963, and a year later she flew for the first time. On weekends, during vacations and during stints of active duty, she worked as a flight nurse on jets evacuating patients from battlefields, and she saw the world.

While serving in the Air National Guard, she spent two years at Yale studying for her master’s in public health. The School of Public Health recognized her in June 2001 by naming her to its Alumni Public Service Honor Roll. She also earned her doctorate in education from Columbia University.

Now, in her spare time, Trowell-Harris attends the nationally known Mount Olive Baptist church in Arlington, Va., plays racquetball and rides on the bike trails near her suburban Virginia home. She was married for a decade, divorcing in 1983, and has no children, but she has helped 14 of her 32 nieces and nephews pay for college. At the family reunions she organizes every three years, she tells them to stay in touch, to keep their lives in balance and to keep learning. She advises them “to turn obstacles into steppingstones” and that persistence pays off. One of her stories illustrates this: early in her career in the Guard, a chief nurse warned her that she’d never make it past major, “no matter how good I was. I just thanked her and said ‘OK.’” She went four ranks beyond major, to major general.

“Why do you think I have worked so hard within the system?” she asks. “To get it changed.”