Honoring the American Heroine: The Story of Adm. Michelle J. Howard

Mar 03, 2017

From the age of 12, Michelle J. Howard knew she wanted to join the military and attend one of the academies. After watching a service academies documentary, she decided that was where she wanted to thrive, “The leadership, the marching around, the uniforms, all appealed to me.”

At the time, women were not allowed to attend any of the military academies, but her mother inspired her to not give up on her dreams telling her, “If you still want to when you're old enough to apply, and if they're still closed to women, we'll sue the government.” In 1974, women were accepted to the Naval Academy and four years later, Howard joined her fellow midshipmen at the Academy and embarked on an impressive career in the United States Navy.

Rear Admiral Michelle J. Howard in 2010

Michelle Janine Howard was born on April 30, 1960 at March Air Reserve Base, California where her father, retired Air Force Master Sergeant Nick Howard, was stationed at the time. Howard graduated from Gateway High School, located in Aurora, CO, in 1978. After graduating from the Naval Academy in 1982, Howard later went on to receive a Master’s in Military Arts and Sciences from the US Army’s Command and General Staff College in 1998.

One of the most famous anecdotes of her career was when she rescued Captain Richard Phillips in April 2009 when the cargo ship MV MaerskAlabama was captured by Somali pirates. She lead Task Force 151 in the rescue in the Gulf of Aden. This event was turned into the movie Captain Phillips, and Howard thought the story was told well. Howard said after the incident that the success of the armed forces today is in part due to diversity. The men and women who helped her with the Captain Phillips rescue had a variety of experience and that helped them come up with a solid strategy, “We harvest their good ideas. We empower them. We listen to them. And we are successful as organizations."

This was not the first time Howard was in the news for her service though. Women have been making strides in advancing in leadership positions in the military, and Howard is no exception. She received an award for outstanding leadership skills during her initial sea tour. Howard then went on to be the chief engineer on the USS MountHood; a first lieutenant on the USS Flint, the executive officer of the USS Tortuga; and took command of the USS Rushmore in 2009.

Capt. Michelle J. Howard being frocked to the rank of rear admiral in 2007

Among her achievements, she has been

  • The first African-American woman to serve as a three-star officer in the military and command a US Navy ship,

  • The first African-American and first woman to hold the position of vice chief of naval operations, and

  • The first woman to be promoted to the rank of four-star admiral.

When it came time to order her new insignia for her white Navy dress uniform, she encountered a unique problem, “I said, ‘I need to order a four-star women’s shoulder board,’ and there’s this silence,” Admiral Howard recalled. “Then the lady goes, ‘Um, I’m not seeing any in the system.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I thought that might be the case.’ ”

Howard has never let the idea of something never being done before--or being a woman-- stop her from achieving her dreams, “I didn’t know it was possible to grow up to be anything more than a one-star,” said Howard to the Atlantic about an interview in 2014,when speaking on the rank of rear admiral. In the interview she said that sailors in this day and age “have never known a life when there hasn’t been a woman admiral, women three-stars, women in command of ships, women in command of destroyers.”

Rear Admiral Howard commending the crew of the USS Wasp on their return to Norfolk, VA in 2009

Howard has been revered by many wherever she goes, and the four stars on her uniform only strengthen her resolve to make our military stronger and create more leaders in the ranks. Retired Colonel Krewasky A. Salter taught Howard at the US Army Command and General Staff College when she was taking courses for her Master’s and he said that her abilities to lead have been why she has been so successful, “Admiral Howard is all about capability, not that she’s a woman or that she’s African-American.”

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