Michelle Howard didn’t grow up planning to shatter every glass ceiling the Navy had.
But given her family, it’s not completely surprising. Her father was in the Air Force and her mother was a governess and postal clerk.
“Hospital corners were mandatory in our house,” Howard said.
Her career in the Navy saw her become the first woman to command a U.S. ship and the first African American woman to achieve the rank of admiral. The now-retired Admiral Howard will visit Spokane to give the keynote speech at the annual YWCA Women of Achievement luncheon on March 24.
When Howard was 12, she saw a documentary on the service academies and began thinking about attending one. When she was older, she researched the various academies and settled on the U.S. Naval Academy. “I made the Navy my first choice and I got in,” she said.
When she first enrolled the Annapolis academy, women could only serve on hospital ships. That changed while she was in the academy, so Howard found herself among the first group of women who could serve on other ships. But because she was among the first, there were no female command staff to mentor her.
At first she wasn’t sure if she would make the Navy her career. “I really enjoyed the work and working with the sailors,” she said. “It was the pull of the work that kept me in.”
When she got her first command, she decided she liked it and wanted to continue leading. During her career she would rise to be a four-star admiral, serving as the vice chief of naval operations, the second highest rank in the Navy. Her final post was as Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Europe and U.S. Naval Forces Africa.
Along the way she did North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) peacekeeping tours and served in Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom campaigns. She was thrust in the spotlight in 2009 when she led the counter-piracy task force that rescued civilian Capt. Richard Phillips from Somali pirates, an incident that would be showcased in the Tom Hanks movie “Captain Phillips.”
Howard said one of her proudest moments was assisting with tsunami relief efforts in Indonesia. “The people were so grateful,” she said. “That was an unbelievable mission.”
She retired in 2017 after 35 years in the Navy. She was a visiting professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University until 2020. She now serves on the board of directors for IBM.
Any woman interested in joining the military should do research to determine which branch will be the correct fit, Howard said.
“Take the time to explore the differences,” she said.
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