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FEATURE— Admiral Michelle Howard: Charting the Course
Michelle Howard is a woman who knows a thing or two about leadership. As the Navy’s 38th Vice Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Howard plays a key role in shaping the future of our Navy and has contributed to her service in numerous and remarkable ways.
On her way to the #2 post in the Navy, Admiral Howard has held a variety of leadership positions, including command of USS Rushmore (LSD-47), Amphibious Squadron Seven during its support of tsunami relief efforts in Indonesia and maritime security operations in the North Arabian Gulf, Expeditionary Strike Group Two and Task Force 151, a Multi-national Counter-piracy effort. She’s even referenced in the 2013 film, Captain Phillips, when the movie depicted Howard’s real-life role in coordinating the rescue of the captain of the cargo ship MV Maersk Alabama after he had been captured by Somali pirates.
She’s also been a Navy trailblazer, experiencing many firsts in her extraordinary career. Howard was among the first women to attend the U.S. Naval Academy, being a member of the third class that admitted females. She is the first African-American female to command a U.S. Navy ship and to serve as a three-star officer. And she’s not only the first woman in the Navy to wear four stars, she’s the first African-American to serve as VCNO, as well.
During an exclusive interview with FRA Today, Admiral Howard discussed her background, her mentors and her vision for the future of the U.S. Navy.
FRA: Your Navy career started at the U.S. Naval Academy. When did you know you wanted to go to Annapolis?
ADM Howard: I knew I wanted to attend a service academy when I was about 12 years old, after watching a documentary on the subject. When I went to share my excitement with my older brother, he was quite forthright in letting me know that the service academies were closed to women. I was stunned! When I talked with my mother, she verified that to be the case. It was against the law of prohibition. But she said, ‘As you get older, if you still want to apply and if they’re still closed, we’ll sue the government!’ She’s quite a woman!
The law changed in 1976 and I started at the Academy in 1978. I was in the third class that included women and graduated in 1982.
FRA: What was it like to be one of the first few women at the Naval Academy?
ADM Howard: This was a time of significant social change, not only with regard to women at Annapolis, but also within American culture as a whole. It was very challenging.
FRA: You’ve had a wide variety of duty assignments since then. What assignments are the most memorable for you and why?
ADM Howard: One of the first milestones, before I even graduated from Annapolis, was the change in policy that allowed women to serve on support ships. At the end of WWII, the government had put in place the combat exclusion law, so women couldn’t serve on combatant ships or fly aircraft in combat. They could, however, be test pilot of a combatant aircraft. I was at Annapolis when the policy changed so the Navy had to designate which ships were non-combatants. That opened up salvage ships, submarine tenders, destroyer tenders, training carriers. We used to have a missile test platform and a variety of other options that weren’t previously available to females. It created a whole career opportunity for women at sea and I think all of us at Annapolis were pretty excited about it.
During my Second Class year, we got to spend a few days aboard the USS Spruance [DD-963] and that’s what really convinced me that I wanted to try to be part of the surface warfare community. That was the path I wanted to pursue.
Like most Surface Warfare officers, command assignments have been the most memorable. My time as a commander of the USS Rushmore [LSD-47], commodore/command as an O-6 of FIBRON [Amphibious Squadron] 7 and then as an ESG [Expeditionary Strike Group] commander were all very memorable. The command tours … and the Sailors and Marines with whom I worked … those are my best memories.
FRA: What was your reaction when you learned you had become the first female four-star Admiral?
ADM Howard: You don’t get thrust into any particular rank in the Navy, coming in sideways. It’s a journey along the way. If I could put it in perspective, probably one of the biggest moments of realization about becoming a four-star and then realizing I was the first female to attain that rank was figuring out that we didn’t have women’s shoulder boards made. That was a reaffirmation of how new all of this was, not just for myself, but also for the Navy and, literally, for our country.
FRA: What role models have helped guide you on your journey?
ADM Howard: I certainly count my parents in that group. Even before I came into the Navy, my parents were really wonderful about giving us books to read and people to think about. Harriet Tubman was one of those people. I was an adolescent when I first read about her and I was just in awe. And different iconic Navy admirals, like Grace Hopper and Admiral [Elmo] Zumwalt, have influenced me. I had the opportunity to meet Zumwalt when I was a lieutenant commander and I heard him speak a couple other times. His perspective on life and people was very inspiring to me. That has stayed with me always.
The biggest consistency that I see in the people I admire is their persistence. Think about Harriet Tubman, who was an escaped slave and kept going back, making more than one trip to help others escape to freedom at great danger to her own life. That’s a persistence of goals and character that’s pretty remarkable.
Admiral Hopper spent a great deal of her life trying to educate people, both in and out of the Navy, about computers and what they would come to mean in our lives. There was a persistence in her own subject matter expertise and keeping the rest of the world engaged in winning this transformation that was going on. She was in uniform and still lecturing long after most people her age would be enjoying retirement.
When Admiral Zumwalt was Chief of Naval Operations, he was very persistent in his focus on Sailors and diversity. He refused to let the bureaucracy or existing culture of the Navy stop him from resetting and getting the Navy to a better place, in terms of demographics of people.
FRA: Can you give your perspective on women in the military? How do you see their role evolving in the future?
ADM Howard: We are currently looking for enlisted female volunteers to serve on submarines and we’re going to start the first integration in 2016. When the Navy made the decision years ago to put women on submarines, I was absolutely thrilled. Up to that point, I had honestly believed that might still be the one area that remained closed to women when I retired. When it was first announced that female officers could serve on subs, the opportunity was opened up for Naval Academy graduates and there was no shortage of volunteers. When I visited the campus around that time, I had several women come up to me and talk with me about it. It was exciting for them, as well.
You’re asking what new frontiers are out there for females? We’re just about all there. Even before the combat exclusion law, we had female EOD [Explosive Ordnance Disposal] technicians and divers. We’ve already had a female diver who’s retired and gone on to the Diver Hall of Fame. The majority of what the Navy does is open to women. We have women on submarines, surface ships, aircraft carriers, aviation squadrons; we have women Seabees. The head of the Seabee service is a female two-star. The only remaining area that’s still under review for all of the services is Special Forces. That effort is being synchronized and led by SOCOM [U.S. Special Operations Command, a unified command for the worldwide use of Special Operations elements of the Army, Navy and Air Force]. I imagine whatever policy changes might come out of the discussion will apply to all the services.
FRA: Can you discuss your role and responsibilities as Vice Chief of Naval Operations?
ADM Howard: At this level, we’re responsible for the training, equipping and manning of the force. That entails oversight of a number of agencies and organizations that make that happen, and synchronizing all that across the Navy and sometimes across the Department of the Navy. There are also some statutory responsibilities for the Vice Chief that include the Joint Requirements Oversight Council and I’m also the Navy’s representative to the budget process. And I also serve as a backstop for the CNO, so if he’s on travel, I step in and attend meetings in his stead. For example, Admiral [Jonathan] Greenert is the senior naval advisor for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and, when he isn’t available, I’ve joined the Joint Chiefs of Staff [when they meet in their conference room, “The Tank”] as they develop their best military advice [for the Secretary of Defense and the President]. So my job includes the entire scope of who we are as a Navy, how we generate and employ our forces, and the support structure to make it all happen.
FRA: How would you describe the readiness of the Navy and the fleet today?
ADM Howard: Navy readiness starts with our phenomenal people. The folks we’re bringing in, whether from boot camp or through our officer candidate programs, are amazing. We are truly fortunate to have these great citizens come in and go on this wonderful adventure. The quality of the force is just stunning.
In terms of numbers, we’re at the manning we need to be. We have about 322,000 active duty personnel, 59,000 Reservists and a couple hundred thousand civilians working together as part of our total force. Where we’ve had challenges in the last few years is getting the force in the right place.
A few years ago, during my tour as deputy commander at Fleet Forces Command, we had the billets at sea, we had positions at sea, but we didn’t have people in those positions. We were about 17,000 people out of whack, in terms of who needed to be at sea. Chief of Naval Personnel and the fleets have done a great job in the last couple years of getting that gap closed down to just a few thousand gaps in our at-sea manning.
Our job is at sea. We are the premier maritime force for this country and, with the Marines, we’re the premier expeditionary force. We need to keep our people at sea … on ships, in aviation squadrons, on submarines, aircraft carriers … and ensure those assets are ready to do their job.
FRA: What about the health of the Navy’ personnel force? Specifically, how about morale?
ADM Howard: The times I’ve gotten out into the fleet and connected with Sailors in the past six months, I’d say morale has been pretty darned good. It really comes across when Sailors ask questions or come up to talk with me. They’re everything you’d want a Sailor to be.
It’s interesting. The kinds of questions I get are concerns about the future. They ask where are we going. I might get a dozen questions and a lot of them are focused on operations, operational tempo or cyber security. In fact, I’ve gotten some very thoughtful questions about cyber security. I talk about gender integration, so sometimes they’ll echo that back … they sometimes feel more comfortable asking me about that.
There is a pay and compensation commission that’s looking into alternate models and I do get some questions about pay and benefits. They don’t specifically ask about the [Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission] report, which is due out very soon and we’ll all get to take a deep breath when we hear what the commission has to say, but some of their questions relate to how their current and future benefits might be impacted. For example, I’ll be asked if tuition assistance is fully funded.
Sailors want to improve themselves, but their focus in on warfighting, particularly at operational units. They are justifiably proud of their accomplishments and what they’re trying to achieve.
FRA: How will the current budget climate impact sailors’ quality of life and that of their families?
ADM Howard: When we went through part of a year sequestered, I was out in the fleet at the time and I can tell you those were unhappy times. But we were able to preserve all the things that go into Sailors’ quality of life. We need to keep child care centers and family support centers open, and that will remain a priority if we have to go through another sequester.
If or when there’s another round of cuts, it’s our job as leaders to communicate those needs and help Congress understand the impact of sequestration and what it does to the services. Hopefully we’ll have a different plan and path in terms of budget.
FRA: What do you see as future challenges for the Navy?
ADM Howard: Cyber threats are a big concern. [The Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Information Dominance] is leading an integrated task force, cyber awakening, and we’re working our way holistically across the Navy, from networks, ashore and at sea, across systems commands, to make sure that we’re prioritized in terms of training, equipment and manning for the cyber force. We’re also getting a better understanding of what’s needed for everyone who’s in this domain … and that’s everybody. There’s a piece that’s focused for our cyber warriors, and there’s another piece that’s there for all of us. Right now, everybody, regardless of their role in the total force, should have annual information assurance training, but I would submit that that’s probably insufficient for how we all literally operate in the cyber domain.
None of us can do our jobs right now without going on the Internet and having that connectivity. If you look at it from a vulnerabilities perspective, everyone who works in the Navy or DoD is a potential node of entry for those wishing to exploit information. We’ve got to get smarter and more thoughtful about how we train all our people and what their day-to-day work routine means, in terms of potential vulnerabilities and how to be better positioned in this domain. And this doesn’t just apply to our personnel and DoD employees. When you look at social media and deploying ships, there’s an operational security piece that goes out to family members and relatives. Our training and awareness needs to be much broader than what we have in place now. Cyber security needs to be everyone’s concern.
FRA: How can the retired sea service community support today’s Sailors?
ADM Howard: There are great opportunities for retirees to support transitioning ill, injured and wounded Sailors and Coast Guardsmen through the Navy’s Safe Harbor program. The program encourages retirees and civilians to be mentors for those who have transitioned or are transitioning. Most of our Safe Harbor mentors are currently Reservists. This program is a great opportunity for those who’ve already transitioned at some point to help those who are ill, injured and wounded as they make their own transition back to the civilian world. Any number of volunteers for Safe Harbor would be helpful.
[To learn more about Navy Wounded Warrior Safe Harbor, visit safeharbor.navylive.dodlive.mil or call 855-NAVY WWP (628-9997) or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org]
Less than 1 percent of the American public is serving in the armed forces. Retirees can help raise awareness in their communities about the Navy and what it does. They can help raise awareness of the great work our personnel are doing. This year is the 100th anniversary of the Reserves and is a great opportunity to talk about our citizen Sailors — who they are and how they’re integrated into the total force. Even as we withdraw from Afghanistan, Reservists will remain an integral part of who we are as the Navy and how we successfully accomplish our mission as a total force. It’s a great time to say thank you to our citizen Sailors.
Lauren Armstrong is the Contributing Editor and Member of the FRA Auxiliary. She can be reached at email@example.com.