“When you have a diverse team, you get different perspectives that help you succeed. It’s about having a team that has lots of ideas and grabbing the best one—that’s what diversity brings you.”
Admiral Michelle Howard
Highest ranking female officer in US Navy history
Howard’s portrait in the Fearless Portrait project consists of an Ink drawing on a map of Washington, D.C. The Pentagon, where she served for part of her career, is on her lapel. On her chest is a bright medley of colors, representing the many awards she earned for her distinguished service.
In April 2009, Rear Admiral Michelle Howard was aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer commanding an anti-piracy task force when the call came in:
Somali pirates had hijacked the American cargo ship MV Maersk Alabama 300 miles off the coast of Somalia and taken its captain—Richard Philips—hostage. The pirates removed Phillips from the ship and were speeding him to the shore in a life raft.
“It was obvious that if they got to shore with Captain Phillips, we were probably not going to get him back,” says Howard. So she and her team devised a tactical plan to rescue him.
It was a unique situation for Howard. Pirates hadn’t seized an American-flagged vessel since 1821 and Howard herself was just three days into her job leading Combined Task Force 151 (CTF-151)—a multinational task force countering piracy around Somalia’s “Pirate Alley.” Immediately prior to her assignment to the Gulf of Aden to command CTF-151, she was serving in Washington, D.C. as a senior advisor to the Secretary of the Navy.
“We were all trying to figure out how best to handle the mission,” she says. “We had an American citizen trapped on a life raft with pirates. In that circumstance you cannot even sleep. How could I possibly sleep when that poor man is out there, not knowing if he is going to live or die?”
Howard needed to get the pirates to stop moving without getting Phillips killed. Long an advocate for the power of diverse groups to generate innovative ideas, she gathered a team onboard her flagship to strategize Phillips’ rescue. “We needed to have folks outside the immediate problem give us different perspectives,” she said. The team she assembled included the ship’s meteorologist, a Somali interpreter who advised on culture, a former FBI agent, some marines, and enlisted sailors. She insisted on the sailors being present, “because they’re the people who make things happen on deck.”
The result was a creative solution that employed the destroyer USS Bainbridge to make waves, pushing the raft away from the coast and giving Navy SEAL snipers an opportunity to kill the pirates.
The successful rescue later inspired the 2013 movie “Captain Phillips,” starring Tom Hanks.
In 2014, Howard became the first woman promoted to the rank of four-star admiral in the US Navy. Concurrently, she was named vice-chief of naval operations (VCNO), the second-highest ranking officer in the navy.
Background on Howard:
Howard was born into a military family on April 30, 1960 at March Air Reserve Base in California. The drive that propelled Howard to the highest echelons of the navy came in part from her mother. When Howard was 12 years old, she knew she wanted to attend a service academy, but they didn’t accept women. Her mother encouraged her not to give up on her dream, saying, “if you still want to go when you’re old enough to apply and if they’re still closed to women, we’ll sue the government.”
In the end, the Naval Academy opened to women in 1976, two years before Howard completed high school. Howard graduated from USNA in 1982 with her bachelor’s degree.
Becoming the first woman to earn the rank of “full admiral” was just one of many firsts Howard achieved throughout her career in the navy.
She assumed command of USS Rushmore in 1999, becoming the first black woman to command a ship in the navy. She was the first female graduate of the US Naval Academy to reach flag rank, becoming a rear admiral (lower half) in 2007, and then the first woman to reach rear admiral (2010) and vice admiral (2012). Following her service as VCNO, she went on to command the US Naval Forces Europe and Naval Forces Africa, becoming the first female four-star admiral to command operational forces.
Howard retired in 2017, after nearly 36 years of service in the US Navy.
This episode contains music by Geovane Bruno and Zakhar Valaha.
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- Chappell, B. (2014, July 2). Navy Promotes Its First Female 4-Star Admiral. NPR. https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2014/07/02/327655651/navy-promotes-its-first-female-four-star-admiral
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- Morning Edition. (2014, October 10). A Phone Call Helped Navy’s First Four-Star Woman Embrace Her Path. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2014/10/10/353565847/a-phone-call-helped-navys-first-four-star-woman-embrace-her-path
- Rafferty, J. P. (2022, March 16). Michelle Howard | Biography & Facts. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Michelle-Howard
- Sony Pictures Entertainment. (2013, May 14). CAPTAIN PHILLIPS - Official International Trailer. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GEyM01dAxp8
- The Flagship. (2013, May 13). 20 Years | 20 Questions: Vice Adm. Michelle J. Howard. MilitaryNews.com. https://www.militarynews.com/norfolk-navy-flagship/special_sections/20th_anniversary/20-years-20-questions-vice-adm-michelle-j-howard/article_f26ef056-f948-5ef0-9d86-f3ccbe496e85.html
- Wikipedia contributors. (n.d.-a). Captain Phillips (film). Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Captain_Phillips_(film)
- Wikipedia contributors. (n.d.-b). Michelle Howard. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michelle_Howard