Despite a troubled history with racism and slavery, the United States of America is on the path to a better social future. This is evident every time any individual of colour achieves successes once reserved for white Americans. President Barack Obama became the nation’s first African-American president in 2008, and in December 2013 he selected Vice Admiral Michelle Howard for the #2 post in the United States Navy, marking a new height for women (and women of color) in the United States Armed Forces.

In countries around the world, people of colour have historically struggled for success, notoriety, and places of honour due to chequered pasts involving slavery and racism. For better or worse, the United States was once one of the world’s hotbeds for not only slavery, but deep racial divides. While few would argue the U.S. has completely put the divides of racism behind it, there are signs each year that the country is on the right path.

On Friday 19 December 2013, the United States Senate confirmed President Barack Obama’s selection of Vice Admiral Michelle Howard to become the Vice Chief of Naval Operations for the United States Navy. The selection of Vice Admiral Howard by President Obama (the nation’s first African-American president) makes her the first female four-star admiral in the 238 year history of the U.S. Navy and also the first four-star female in Pentagon history (covering all four branches of the U.S. Armed Forces.)

Born into Service

Vice Admiral Howard was born into a family of service to the national security of the United States. Mrs. Howard was born at March Air Force Base in Riverside County, California to Nick and Phillipa Howard. Nick Howard is a retired Master Sergeant in the United States Air Force and his wife Phillipa is a British citizen.

After graduating from Gateway High School in Aurora, Colorado Mrs. Howard chose to attend the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD. She graduated from the Naval Academy in 1982 and immediately went into service of her country aboard various vessels at sea. Throughout the early years of her career, Vice Admiral Howard would take part in critical U.S. naval operations around the globe.

Notable Career Assignments

Vice Admiral Howard’s first assignment of merit came as the Chief Engineer aboard the USS Mount Hood. After reporting to the Mount Hood in 1990, then-Chief Engineer Howard would serve aboard the ship as it deployed to the Persian Gulf as part of Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm during the First Persian Gulf War.

In 1996 she would serve aboard the USS Tortuga as Executive Officer and deployed to the Adriatic Sea as part of a U.S. Naval force sent to support international peacekeeping efforts in the former Republic of Yugoslavia. Following her time on the USS Tortuga, Vice Admiral Howard’s career took an upward swing that continues to this day.

After graduating from the United States Army’s Command and General Staff College in 1998 with a Master’s in Military Arts and Sciences, she took command of the USS Rushmore on 12 March 1999. In so doing, Vice Admiral Howard became the first African-American to command a vessel in the history of the U.S. Navy.

Other notable assignments in Vice Admiral Howard’s career include commanding Amphibious Squadron 7 during its relief efforts in Indonesia following the devastating Christmas Tsunami in December 2004. Just days after assuming command of counterpiracy Combined Task Force 151 aboard the USS Boxer in 2009, a group of Somali pirates overran the commercial cargo vessel Maersk Alabama.

Vice Admiral Howard was in command when a group of U.S. Navy SEALs ended the hostage crisis involving the Maersk Alabama’s captain, an event that was followed by news organizations around the globe.

Breaking Barriers

In 2006 Vice Admiral Howard was selected for the rank of Rear Admiral (lower half) in the U.S. Navy, making her the first graduate from the Naval Academy’s class of 1982 to be selected for admiral and the first female graduate of the Naval Academy to receive the honour. When she was promoted to Vice Admiral in 2012 she became the first woman and African-American to receive three-star rank.

Vice Admiral Howard will officially begin her role as Vice Chief of Naval Operations (VCNO), the number two post in the U.S. Navy, in early 2014. She will be replacing current VCNO Admiral Mark Ferguson who is leaving to take command of Naval Forces Europe-Africa and Allied Joint Forces Command in Naples, Italy.

Vice Adm. Michelle Howard

Vice Adm. Michelle Howard, deputy commander of U.S Fleet Forces, poses for the press after receiving the 2013 NAACP Chairman’s Award. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Michael O’Day/Released)

Professional and Social Accolades

At the age of 53, Vice Admiral Howard’s 31-year career of service to the United States of America has been recognized on a number of levels by organizations both professional and civil. Her distinguished awards from the United States Armed Forces for her service to her country are befitting a sailor of her experience and service, and include the following:

  • Navy Distinguished Service Medal
  • Defense Superior Service Medal (x2)
  • Legion of Merit (x3)
  • Meritorious Service Medal
  • Navy Commendation Medal (x4)
  • Navy Achievement Medal

Vice Admiral Howard’s professional accolades from the United States do not stop there however. In 1987 she was the recipient of the annual Secretary of the Navy/Navy League Captain Winifred Collins award for outstanding leadership from a female officer.

As an African-American woman and an outstanding female officer in the service of the United States Navy, Vice Admiral Howard has also received such honours as the2008 Women of Colour Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) Career Achievement Award, 2009 Dominion Power Strong Men and Women Excellence in Leadership Award, and the 2011 USO Military Woman of the Year.

Perhaps the greatest honour awarded to Vice Admiral Howard came on 1 February 2013 when the “Chairman’s Award” at the 44th  Annual National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) Image Awards. Such an award not only recognizes her professional accomplishments as a military officer, but also her success in overcoming racial and social barriers.