SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - The year was 1861. The Civil War was raging as the United States and the confederacy fought to the death over slavery, federal versus states' rights, and economic differences between the north and the south. In the midst of it all, a slave named Cathay Williams made her mark. Union soldiers freed her shortly after the war began. She wanted to become a soldier at the time when the army didn't allow women, but Williams was so determined to fight for freedom that she pretended to be a man, enlisted as William Cathay, and became the first African- American female soldier. More than 200 years later, her story is still inspiring Lt. Colonel Valerie Dunham of the 165th Air Lift Wing - a woman of influence.
From chemist in a lab coat to the air force proudly wearing the uniform, Lt. Col. Valerie Dunham has come a long way. "It wasn't until after I graduated and got my B.S. from Armstrong and then a master's degree from Savannah State that somebody said what have you always wanted to do and haven't done? I said well, I've always admired and respected the military, but I couldn't do that. They are world travelers. They're strong people. I can't do that. So, I said why not? I talked to the recruiter and next thing I knew, here I am," explained Lt. Col. Valerie Dunham.
She spent 12 years active duty in the U.S. Air Force before transitioning to the national guard working in command and control and logistics. After many tours overseas, the little girl who grew up in West Savannah spent the next 12 years back here at home where she serves today. "Probably my proudest moment has been going overseas and deploying to Qatar and being able to have the honor of serving this country and serving overseas. The bottom line is we really just want to be there to protect this country make sure that this country is safe. If I can be a part of doing that, I am really honored to do it," said Lt. Col. Valerie Dunham.
Her passion for the guard shows in everything she does. "Val does a fantastic job! She is our wing executive officer. She handles the daily administrative functions of headquarters. She is also very involved in community affairs. She constantly has her finger on the pulse of the community. She is very active. She's very dedicated. She leads by example. Her work ethic is second to none," said Col Speedy Gomez.
During the 24 years she has served our nation, Dunham earned numerous awards and decorations including the Meritorious Service Medal, Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal and Korean Defense Service Medal. But Dunham admits what she has accomplished pales in comparison to what others like Cathay Williams achieved during turbulent times in our nation's history. "That's just amazing wanting to be a part of the military and protect her country and her family that she would go to those lengths and impersonate a man. By golly, that's what I'm going to do. That's amazing fortitude." Lt. Colonel Dunham knows all about that as she worked her way up the ladder. As for Cathay Williams, the army only discovered she was a woman after she got sick and had to be treated by a doctor.