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Howard's path to Navy history

Former SECNAV, detailer recall VCNO-select's early career

Jan. 4, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
USS Bataan visit
A former detailer said Vice Adm. Michelle Howard's time in command of amphibs shows her willingness to take on difficult jobs. Here, Howard, center, speaks to Capt. George Vassilakis, the commanding officer of the amphibious assault ship Bataan, and Rear Adm. Ann Phillips, the then-commander of Expeditionary Strike Group 2, in April. (MCSN Edward Guttierrez III/Navy)
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Name: Michelle Howard
Age: 53
Hometown: Aurora, Colo.
Education: 1982 Naval Academy graduate. Master’s degree from the Army’s Command and General Staff College.
Ships: Submarine tender Hunley, aircraft carrier Lexington, ammunition ships Mount Hood and Flint, dock landing ships Tortuga and Rushmore.
Awards: Defense Superior Service Medal. Legion of Merit. Meritorious Service Medal. Navy Commendation Medal. Navy Achievement Medal. Joint Meritorious Unit Award. Navy Unit Commendation. Meritorious Unit Commendation. Coast Guard Meritorious Unit Commendation. National Defense Service Medal. Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal. Southwest Asia Service Medal. Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal. Global War on Terrorism Service Medal. Armed Forces Service Medal. Humanitarian Service Medal. Sea Service Deployment Ribbon. NATO Medal. Kuwait Liberation Medal.
Favorite adage: “The best ambassador is a warship.”
Source: Navy Personnel Command

She has confronted prejudice and resistance from her Induction Day in 1978 to her recent years as a flag officer.

Now, Vice Adm. Michelle Howard stands on the cusp of making history, becoming the Navy’s first female four-star when she’s officially promoted in early 2014. She will also be the first black woman to attain four-star rank.

Howard has steadily surmounted hurdles over three decades through drive and a sense of humility, her friends and colleagues say, helping alter perceptions about roles for women. She volunteered for tough assignments and kept a steady eye on mission accomplishment in stand-offs like the 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama.

Howard joined as the Navy struggled with the integration of women, who’d largely held support roles. She and other early female Annapolis grads proved that women could serve as warfare officers, and her selection to be the vice chief of naval operations marks another turning point: Women can run the Navy, too.

“No offense to [Rear Adm.] Grace Hopper, but this is somebody who came up the old ranks,” said former Navy Secretary Don Winter. “It’s confirmation that women in the Navy aren’t just doing the intel function and comms and things of that nature anymore: They are commanding ships, battle groups and now at the VCNO position. Not too bad.”

Howard has been a trailblazer during her 31-year career, becoming the first black woman to command a ship when she took charge of the amphibious dock landing ship Rushmore in 1999.

The daughter of an Air Force master sergeant, Howard sees herself in the context of those who’ve come before her.

Asked in a 2013 interview with The Flagship newspaper to name her role models, she cited, among others, Lt. Cmdr. Wesley Brown, the first black academy grad.

Brown, the sixth black man admitted to Annapolis, encountered persistent racism while in school. Trifling uniform issues led to severe reprimands. Mids refused to sit next to him at lunch. He lived without a roommate.

He graduated in 1949 and served for 20 years in the Civil Engineering Corps. A veteran of the Korean and Vietnam wars, he is interred at the academy.

Howard also encountered resistance in her career’s early stages. She joined a Navy where opportunities for female officers were only beginning to open up. Integration efforts came with a backlash.

“There were individuals who didn’t want me there or wanted to undermine what I was trying to do,” Howard recalled in an 2012 interview with WJLA-TV, the ABC affiliate in Washington, D.C., after adding her third star.

Howard declined an interview request prior to her Dec. 20 confirmation, and a spokeswoman said she was not available to comment in the following week.

Some of her contemporaries have privately grumbled that Howard has gotten ahead because of her gender and race. These resentments came to light in 2013 after a Navy report cited one of her peers, Rear. Adm. Chuck Gaouette, for telling others that Howard “may not have had to cross as many hurdles in the same fashion to get where she was at,” and her race and gender may have sped up her selection for vice admiral, according to the Navy’s investigation.

Gaouette, who was fired from command of the John C. Stennis Carrier Strike Group mid-deployment in 2012, admitted his comments were “petty” and said he’d apologize to Howard.

'Going to the hard places'

Her first ship was the submarine tender Hunley, which hardly left the pier. She volunteered for an additional sea tour aboard the aircraft carrier Lexington to get more ship-driving experience, recalled one of her former detailers.

“The whole body of her career work is that she was going to the hard places, doing the harder things,” said retired Rear Adm. Sonny Masso, who served as a junior officer detailer in the early 1980s, in a phone interview. Masso noted that she served as an executive officer and CO aboard dock landing ships, powered by diesels that are difficult to maintain, and did so while meeting all the ship’s missions and commitments.

“Do I think she’s a token female, a token African-American, or anything like that?” Masso continued. “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.”

Friends know her as a quiet and sincere person, who enjoys music, cooking and exercise.

Howard is also widely regarded as a top-notch operational commander. She took charge of the counterpiracy Combined Task Force 151 only a few days before Somali pirates seized the cargo ship Maersk Alabama. Howard oversaw the response to the crisis.

She has earned a reputation for competence and collegiality that makes her an effective leader, said Winter, the former SECNAV for whom she worked as a senior military assistant in 2007 and 2008.

“She was an exceedingly effective military assistant. She ran the office, no question about it,” Winter recalled in a phone interview. “The other thing I found is that she was well-respected elsewhere in the Pentagon and was able to work with many of the other officers there that we really needed to engage with.”

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