Last Tuesday, July 1st, Admiral Michelle Howard became the first woman four-star admiral in the U.S. Navy, joining the first women who hold four-star rank in the Army and the Air Force. Admiral Howard is becoming the Vice Chief of Naval Operations (VCNO), the second most powerful job in the Navy. Many people who hold this billet go on to be CNO. By the way, Admiral Howard is also an African American.
Her new position is but the latest in a career filled with “firsts.” She was among the first women to attend the Naval Academy, graduating in the Class of 1982 (the first class to include women at all was the Class of 1980). A Surface Warfare Officer, she served in increasingly responsible positions aboard ship and ashore. When she took command of the dock landing ship, U.S.S. Rushmore, in 1999, she became the first black woman to command a U.S. Navy warship. She was later to become the first black woman to command a strike group at sea and the first to attain the rank of vice admiral. She is a super smasher of “glass ceilings.”
Admiral Howard’s path to these achievements was not easy. “This is not for wimps,” she told an audience at NOVA Southeastern University in Florida. “You have to develop a sense of humor. You have to develop stamina because there’s going to be tough days. Like the pioneering women of old, you have to let some things go. It can be scary going into an environment where no one looks like you. I have been in rooms where I was the only woman and the only minority.”
As a twenty-nine-year Navy veteran, I can well imagine the discomforting situations Admiral Howard faced. One of the central characters of my new novel, Asphalt and Blood, is “Bull” Barker, a young African American petty officer in a Seabee battalion in the Vietnam War. While happy and comfortable as a Seabee, Barker encounters many instances of overt racism as the story progresses. Getting Barker right is one of the most difficult challenges I faced in writing Asphalt and Blood.
The Navy has changed a great deal since I retired. In an interview last Monday, Admiral Howard commented that many of the obstacles she faced and overcame no longer exist, at least not to the degree they did at the outset of her career. Repeal of the combat exclusion law has allowed women to serve on all types of ships and aircraft. Now even submarines are open to women.
“Admiral Howard is also a great example of how much we lose as a Navy and a nation if we put artificial barriers in,” Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus told a crowd of about 150 people at Howard’s promotion ceremony. “If we don’t judge people on their ability, based on their capability.”
Like any successful executive, Admiral Howard has her detractors. One contemporary hinted that she might not have been required to cross as many hurdles as her male counterparts. In an interview with Navy Times, Rear Admiral Sonny Masso refuted such claims. “Do I think she’s a token female, a token African American?” Masso commented. “I would say absolutely and emphatically not. With her performance and critical jobs across the spectrum, …she has brought an extraordinary amount of experience that is equal to any of her peers.”
To those who would question the ability of women to command in combat, I would cite Admiral Howard’s performance while Commanding Task Force 151 during anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. In April 2009, when Somali pirates seized the cargo ship, Maersk Alabama, and her skipper, Captain Richard Phillips, Admiral Howard devised a plan to get him back and sent destroyer, U.S.S. Bainbridge, to perform the rescue. Navy Seals aboard Bainbridge later shot and killed the pirates and freed Phillips. A win-win situation for everyone but the pirates. This woman is a warrior!
In closing his remarks at the promotion ceremony, Secretary Mabus concluded, “I hope that I have always been as passionate about that (judging people on their abilities), but the intensity has increased since I became the father of three daughters, and I refuse to believe that there are any ceilings for them, glass or otherwise. That they can get to where their abilities take them. And with that, they and countless others in the Navy now have a wonderful role model in Michelle Howard.”
To paraphrase a popular TV commercial of past years, “Admiral Howard gained her new position the old fashioned way—she earned it.”