Michelle J. Howard, the first African-American woman to command a U.S. Navy ship

Michelle Howard-admiral service US Navy command. Image credit: US Navy

Michelle J. Howard is a trailblazer for the African-American woman, who had a career in the Navy filled with firsts. A graduate from Gateway High School in Aurora, Colorado, Howard, born on April 30, 1960, in Riverside, California enrolled in the United States Naval Academy.

She graduated from the academy in 1982 and from the Army’s Command and General Staff College in 1982 with a master’s in military arts and sciences.

Born into a military family, Howard’s father served as a master sergeant in the U.S. Air Force.

Howard was one of the seven African-American women amongst the U.S. Naval Academy’s 1,363 students when she enrolled in 1978.

Howard’s initial sea tours were aboard USS Hunley (AS 31) and USS Lexington (AVT 16). She received the secretary of the Navy/Navy League Captain Winifred Collins award in May 1987 while serving aboard Lexington – an award given to one woman officer a year for outstanding leadership.

As chief engineer in 1990 with the USS Mount Hood (AE29), she served in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. In July 1992, she assumed duties as the first lieutenant on board the USS Flint (AE 32).

In January 1996, she became the executive officer of USS Tortuga (LSD 46) and deployed to the Adriatic in support of Operation Joint Endeavor, a peacekeeping effort in the former Republic of Yugoslavia. 

Howard took command of USS Rushmore (LSD 47) on March 12, 1999, becoming the first African-American woman to command a ship in the U.S. Navy. She was also the commander of Amphibious Squadron 7 from May 2004 to September 2005.

In 2009, she commanded Expeditionary Strike Group 2 from April 2009 to July 2010 when it was deployed off the coast of Africa.

The Virginian-Pilot reported that “the Norfolk-based cargo ship Maersk Alabama had been boarded by Somali pirates and its captain was being held hostage aboard a life raft for ransom” and it was Howard’s job to set him free.

She had only been on the job aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer for a week.

“That’s an eye-opening way to start a new job. Very quickly we had several ships, special forces, aircraft and it seemed like everyone in the world was focused on one American and trying to make sure he didn’t end up on shore in Somalia,” Howard said in 2012. “Synchronizing that kind of might and capability was pretty amazing.”

In 2014, she was the first woman to become a four-star Admiral in the U.S. Navy and the first woman to be appointed to the position of Vice Chief of Naval Operations (number two in a Military Service). She is the first African-American woman to reach the rank of three-star and four-stars in the Armed Forces as well.

Howard retired from the Navy in 2017 after completing her last assignment as the commander of naval forces in Europe and Africa.

Two years later, IBM appointed her to its board. IBM CEO Ginni Rometty said in a statement, “Admiral Howard is a groundbreaking leader with a distinguished career in military service.”

“Her leadership skills, international perspective and extensive experience with cybersecurity and information technology will make her a great addition to the IBM Board.”

Howard now teaches cybersecurity and international policy at George Washington University.

Last Edited by:Kent Mensah Updated: March 21, 2020


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