admiral michelle howard

U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Jennifer Castillo

Dec. 20 (Bloomberg) — As a young midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy, Michelle Howard didn’t strike some of her peers as an obvious candidate to become a four-star admiral.

“She was so quiet, and she’s also very short,” said Brian Jones, a classmate who graduated with Howard in 1982. “In the Navy, being forceful and physically commanding is a real asset. She had that working against her.”

Howard, who’s about five feet tall, also is a black woman who had to overcome discrimination based on her gender and race. Now, President Barack Obama has nominated Vice Admiral Howard, 53, to serve as vice chief of naval operations, the service’s No. 2 uniformed officer. She would be the first black and first woman to hold the job and the first female four-star admiral, the Navy’s highest rank.

“Given the underrepresentation of blacks in the Navy, the fact that you’ve got a black woman is an important step toward recognizing the diversity of the force,” said David Segal, director of the Center for Research on Military Organization at the University of Maryland. “Up until very recently, to be a senior officer you had to be white, you had to be a man and you had to be an aviator or submariner.”

In 1978, when Howard entered the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, as a member of the third class to which women were admitted, she was one of seven black women in a class of 1,363. Even today, women, who are more than half the U.S. population, make up 18 percent of the Navy and 17 percent of its officers. Black women are 4.4 percent of the Navy and 2.1 percent of the officers.

Howard, who became a surface-warfare officer, isn’t available for comment while her nomination is pending before the Senate, according to the Navy. In the past, though, she hasn’t shied away from discussing the obstacles she faced or her serving as a role model for blacks and women.

‘Can Be Scary’

“This is not for wimps,” Howard said in a 2010 talk about women and minorities in the Navy at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. “You have to keep 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,” Howard said. “I have been in rooms where I am the only woman and the only minority.”

In the course of her career, Howard said she encountered “individuals who didn’t want me at the command, or didn’t want me in a particular position,” according to an interview she gave Ebony magazine in September 1999. “And the issue either revolved around my gender or my race.”

Disparaged by Admiral

This year, a Navy investigation found Howard had been disparaged by Rear Admiral Charles Gaouette, who speculated that Howard’s race may have aided “in her speed of selection” to three-star rank. Gaouette, a one-star who promised to apologize to Howard when questioned by investigators, retired after he was relieved of command of Carrier Strike Group Three, led by the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis, and reprimanded, effectively ending his career.

In her new position, Howard would be the top deputy to Admiral Jonathan Greenert, the chief of naval operations. She’d effectively be the service’s chief operating officer, helping to manage operations while focusing on issues including personnel, budget and military readiness.

Military Family

A 1978 graduate of Gateway High School in Aurora, Colorado, Howard grew up in a military family, the daughter of Air Force Master Sergeant Clarence Howard. She’s married to Wayne Cowles, a former Marine, and they don’t have children.

Her Navy career included a peacekeeping tour in the former Yugoslavia, a tsunami relief effort in Indonesia, and, at the Pentagon, as senior military assistant to the Navy secretary. She currently serves as deputy chief of naval operations for operations, plans and strategy.

In 1999, when she took command of the USS Rushmore, a dock landing ship that carries and launches amphibious craft, she was the first black woman to command a Navy warship. She later became the first to command an expeditionary strike group at sea and the first to attain three-star rank.

“She wanted to be the type of officer where it was just like being one of the men,” said Linda Postenrieder, another former Naval Academy classmate, who predicts that Howard someday may become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the top job in the military. “It didn’t surprise me when she was the first admiral out of her class.”

Captain Phillips

Howard won attention in 2009 when, as commander of a Navy strike force against piracy, she helped coordinate the rescue of Captain Richard Phillips, whose cargo ship, the Maersk Alabama, was seized by Somali pirates.

Howard was deployed to the USS Bainbridge, a destroyer, after being alerted to the hijacking of the Maersk Alabama and learning that Phillips had been put on a lifeboat controlled by pirates.

“The lifeboat is heading toward the shore of Somalia,” Howard recalled in a videotaped interview about the incident posted on a Navy website. “Once he went into Somalia, it would be very, very hard to locate him again and find him, and make it much harder and less likely that we’d get him back home safely to America.”

After being held captive for five days, Phillips was rescued when Navy SEAL snipers on the Bainbridge fired on the pirates in the life raft and killed all three.

Younger Generation

Over the years, Howard has inspired a younger generation of minority women, said Anu Bhagwati, a former Marine captain of Indian descent who now serves as executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network, a support group for female troops and veterans.

“Anytime a woman, especially a woman of color, is promoted, it helps all of us,” Bhagwati said. “Looking up and seeing women like you, you cannot underestimate the incredible value of that moment.”

The Pentagon is implementing a decision to end a ban on women serving in direct combat roles, which will open as many as 237,000 positions to women by January 2016.

In February, Howard went to Hollywood and appeared at the NAACP Image Awards to accept the Chairman’s Award for public service.

“Her service and achievements as a top-ranking officer in the U.S. Navy have paved the way for girls and young women to know their dreams can become their reality,” NAACP Chairman Roslyn Brock said in a statement announcing the award.

Howard appeared taken aback by the adulation when she walked on stage to accept the award.

“Wow,” she said, according to a transcript. “It’s easier fighting pirates.”

- David Lerman, Copyright 2013 Bloomberg.

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