Vice Admiral Michelle Howard (pictured) has been tapped by President Barack Obama to become the Navy’s vice chief of naval operations. If confirmed, she would be the first woman and first African-American to hold the number two spot in the naval warfare service branch of the U.S. Navy, according to Time.
Serving currently as deputy chief of naval operations for operations, plans, and strategy, the 53-year-old’s promotion follows a trend from the Obama administration of placing more women in higher defense positions. Ann Elizabeth Dunwoody became a four-star officer in the U.S. Army in 1998. In March of last year, Janet Wolfenbarger became the first female four-star general in Air Force history.
Howard, a surface warfare officer, graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1982. She received her Masters in Military Arts and Sciences from the Army’s Command and General Staff College in 1998. The Aurora, Colo., native has quite a few “firsts” under her belt. She is the first African-American woman to command a U.S. Navy warship, the first female graduate of the Naval Academy to achieve the rank of rear-admiral and the first African-American woman to command an expeditionary strike group at sea.
Howard, who is married to retired marine Wayne Cowles, came from a military family; her dad was an Air Force master sergeant. At age 12, Howard knew she wanted to follow in her dad’s footsteps, but a federal law blocked women from military academies at the time. Her mom tried to encourage her daughter not to give up and keep hope alive that one day she would be able to attend a naval academy. In 1978, Howard’s dream finally came true and, at age 17, she was in the third class of women admitted to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.
By the time 1999 rolled around, Howard became the first African-American woman to command a Navy warship at sea, the amphibious dock landing ship USS Rushmore. Howard taking command of the ship actually raised eyebrows not because of her sex but her race. Howard told Time, “For some of the sailors, it was a big deal—not because of the woman thing, but because of the African-American thing. I literally had people coming up, wanting to have their picture taken with me—this is the first time this has happened, where a minority woman has had command of a ship.”
There was some hostility coming from haters in the Navy during Howard’s early days when she was still green behind the ears. Assignments that she was very qualified to handle were instead handed out to men who were less capable. Soon, however, the tables turned for Howard. “What’s great about the Navy is that, despite the few knuckleheads that exist, there are a lot of folks who are professional and who will grade you on your performance and not on how you look.”
Howard, if confirmed, will replace current Vice Chief of Naval Operations (VCNO), Adm. Mark E. Ferguson, for the position serving directly under CNO Adm. Jonathan Greenert.