WASHINGTON — Adm. Michelle J. Howard was looking for new insignia for her white Navy dress uniform when she ran into an unusual 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.’ ”
Last week Admiral Howard, the vice chief of naval operations, became the first female four-star in the 239-year history of the Navy. She is also the highest-ranking African-American woman in a male-dominated military that did not even allow the promotion of women to general or admiral until 1967.
“I didn’t know it was possible to grow up to be anything more than a one-star,” Admiral Howard, 54, said in a recent interview, referring to the rank of rear admiral. She said today’s sailors “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.”
Part of Admiral Howard’s career recently played out on the big screen. In 2009, only days into her new job as commander of a counterpiracy task force based in Bahrain, pirates hijacked the container ship Maersk Alabama off the coast of Somalia. By radio, Admiral Howard coordinated the rescue of the ship’s commander, later depicted in the movie “Captain Phillips.”
Admiral Howard’s tickets to the film’s Washington, D.C., premiere are framed in her large Pentagon office, opposite an enormous oil painting of American battleships arriving in Scotland during World War I. “I thought it was well done,” Admiral Howard said, referring to “Captain Phillips.” Even though she knew the ending, she added, “I was still like —“ and then ended the sentence with a gasp.
But it was another movie that changed Admiral Howard’s life, a documentary on the service academies she watched as a 12-year-old. “The leadership, the marching around, the uniforms, all appealed to me,” said Admiral Howard, whose father had been a senior noncommissioned officer in the Air Force.
Admiral Howard moved all over the country as a child. She graduated from Gateway High School in Aurora, Colo., and then from the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., in 1982, only six years after women were admitted to the service academies.
“There were angry men at Annapolis, but we got through it,” she said. “And there were issues on the first few ships because it was all brand new. Change is hard in society.”
Admiral Howard continued with other “firsts” as she rose through the ranks — in 1999 she became the first African-American woman to command a ship, the U.S.S. Rushmore — and benefited from the cultural shifts underway in the military.
“There weren’t any women when I started,” said Brig. Gen. Wilma L. Vaught, now retired, who joined the Air Force in 1957 and was the first woman deployed with an Air Force bomber unit. “But she was a junior officer when breakthroughs were happening in the 1980s and then she was at the midlevel when there were openings for more challenging positions. She couldn’t have hit it any better.”
As vice chief of naval operations, Admiral Howard is No. 2 to Adm. Jonathan W. Greenert, the chief of naval operations, and described her responsibilities as encompassing “the whole scope of the Navy.” She takes over the job at a time when the Navy has faced a growing number of sexual assault cases, including a highly publicized case at her alma mater in which a Naval Academy football player was charged with sexually assaulting a fellow midshipman when she was too drunk to consent. The football player was acquitted of the sexual assault charge in March. A charge of making false statements was withdrawn upon his resignation.
“We, as leaders, have to get after sexual assault, and I believe we have to work on the command climate,” Admiral Howard said. “I believe we have to go back and look at how we’ve done gender integration, make sure our policies are set and that we are setting the climate across the Navy for our commanding officers and our senior enlisted to be successful, and for our sailors to be successful shipmates.”
Admiral Howard’s four stars send a message to others in the military, said Col. Krewasky A. Salter, now retired, who taught Admiral Howard at the United States Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., in 1998.
“Admiral Howard is all about capability, not that she’s a woman or that she’s African-American,” he said.