Preparing to speak on Nov. 11 at Veterans Day programs about life in the military has become an annual practice for retired Army Lt. Col. Valarie R. Austin.
In 2011, Austin was a panelist on a television special about veterans for the PBS NewsHour hosted by broadcast journalist Judy Woodruff. The topic was, “After Draftless Decade of War, Gap Seen Between Military, Civilians.” The next year, she spoke at the University of Maryland’s Veterans Day Program at College Park.
Austin, a West Point graduate, spent her formative years in Miami’s Colored Town/Overtown at the home of her maternal great-grandparents, David Colebrook Sr. and Sylvia Styles Colebrook. Her grandfather was a pioneer carpenter.
In the late 1960s the construction of Interstate 95 through Overtown began disrupting the community, and the Colebrooke home was one of many that was torn down. The family moved to another Miami neighborhood, Buena Vista, close to the family church, St. Peter’s African Orthodox, which had also relocated from Overtown because of I-95. Austin attended Shadowlawn Elementary School, then Miami Edison Middle and Senior High schools.
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At Edison High, Austin was valedictorian of the class of 1983. During her senior year Career Day, a guidance counselor introduced her to a U.S. Military Academy liaison officer. She vividly recalls, “The officer appeared enthusiastic in recruiting me to attend West Point. At that time I believe that I was the only black female candidate in his region, specifically Miami, who had the academic credentials necessary to gain admittance into West Point.”
Austin’s parents were also enthusiastic about the possibility, and provided support and love every step of the way. Her mother, Albertha Austin Dunnell, and stepfather, Rayward Dunnell, read about West Point when they and I were students at Miami’s Booker T. Washington Junior-Senior High School. Rayward Dunnell graduated from BTW in 1959. Albertha, her twin sister Ruth, and I graduated from BTW in the class of 1960.
The Dunnells shared their daughter’s pending opportunity with family, church members and classmates. To anyone who would listen, they cited several facts, including: West Point’s role in our nation’s history dating back to the Revolutionary War; West Point’s first black graduate was Henry O. Flipper in 1877; and black cadet Benjamin O. Davis Jr. rose to the rank of three-star general in the 1960s. Although at that time West Point was a predominately white male institution, her parents were confident that she could succeed.
Austin submitted the application, passed the physical exam, and obtained a Congressional appointment from then-U.S. Rep. William Lehman, D-Biscayne Park. She recalled, “We were excited when West Point accepted me ... My parents, sister, Lynvonne, and aunt, Ruth Austin Simmons, traveled with me to West Point for my first day and the induction into the West Point Corps.”
Austin met West Point’s academic and physical challenges. Four years later, she graduated and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army. The year was 1987. The first female cadets had graduated only a few years earlier, in 1980.
In her career, she served a tour of duty in Saudi Arabia and Iraq during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1991. Austin also spent time stationed in Germany and Korea. In addition, she had tours of duty stateside in Georgia, Wisconsin, Arizona, Washington, D.C., and finally in Maryland.
In 2008, Austin retired from the Army after 21 years of service with more than 25 awards and decorations. Later she earned a master’s degree in public administration at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, and an associate of applied science in network and wireless technologies from Montgomery College in Rockville, Maryland. Currently she is completing a second bachelor’s degree, in geography, at the University of Maryland in College Park.
The purpose of education at West Point is to produce leaders of character who are prepared to provide selfless service to our Army and nation. As her parents predicted, she succeeded. Finalizing her speech for Veterans Day, Austin has been invited to tell her story about training as a cadet and service in the military at the 20th anniversary celebration of the dedication of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial in Washington. The program, In Their Own Words, is sponsored by the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Foundation.
Dorothy Jenkins Fields, Ph.D., is a historian and founder of the Black Archives, History and Research Foundation of South Florida. Send feedback to email@example.com.