Admiral Michelle Howard: First Female Four-Star Admiral

Michelle Howard was born in the year 1960 and graduated from high school in Aurora, Colorado.  She went on to the U.S. Naval Academy in Maryland and graduated from there in 1982.

She would go on to become the first female graduate of the United States Naval Academy to earn the title of admiral.

Howard also attended the Army’s Command and General Staff College and graduated in 1998 with a Masters in Military Arts and Sciences. 

In 1987 she was awarded the Navy/Navy League Captain Winifred Collins award, which is an award given to only one female officer a year for outstanding leadership.

In 1996 she became the executive officer of the USS Tortuga and went to the Adriatic Sea in deployment on a peacekeeping operation for the former Republic of Yugoslavia.

Michelle Howard then went on to become the first African-American woman to command a U.S. Navy ship, the USS Rushmore, on March 12, 1999.  She later became the commander of Amphibious Squadron Seven and aided in tsunami relief efforts in Indonesia, with Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG) 5. 

The Maersk Alabama and the Rescue of Captain Phillips

Now, In 2009 she became the commander of a multinational task forced designed to combat piracy in the territorial waters around Somalia. 

The counter-piracy task force was called Combined Task Force (CTF) 151 and operated in the Gulf of Aden.  Admiral Michelle Howard had only been in command of the task force for a few days when the news came that a U.S. ship (a merchant vessel), the Maersk Alabama, had been hijacked by pirates.  

In addition to the hijacking, the vessel's captain had been taken hostage.

The military's immediate focus became the safe return of the American hostage and seeing to it that the pirates were brought to justice.  The pirates took Captain Phillips aboard a lifeboat and were headed toward the coast of Somalia. 

The focus of the mission became to make sure that the lifeboat, carrying Captain Phillips and the pirates, did not make it to land.  Once on land, it might be impossible to get Captain Phillips back safely. 

Howard’s role, as commander of Combined Task Force 151, was to coordinate ALL of the intelligence, ships, special forces and the other assets needed to ensure that operations were properly synchronized and successful.

The U.S. ships, the USS Bainbridge and the USS Halyburton, followed the lifeboat carrying Captain Phillips for three days, preventing it from landing on the Somali coast, as military personnel negotiated with the pirates to secure the safe return of Captain Phillips.

Eventually, snipers from Naval Special Warfare killed the pirates onboard the lifeboat.  Captain Phillips was returned to the United States.

The heroic men and women of:

  • The Combined Task Force 151 (under the command of Admiral Howard)
  • The USS Bainbridge
  •  Naval Special Warfare
  • The USS Boxer
  • The USS Halyburton
  • Joint Special Operations forces
  • 5th fleet headquarters, and...
  • Agencies like the FBI 

...all of these forces came together to successfully save Captain Phillips.

Michelle Howard, in 2010, went on to command the Maritime Task Force for BALTOPS, under the 6th fleet.

She was nominated by President Barack Obama to become the Vice Chief of Naval Operations and was confirmed by the Senate in December of 2013; making her the first female and the first African American to hold that position.  Thus, becoming the 2nd highest ranking uniformed officer in the Navy.

In 2014 she became the first woman in the history of the U.S. Navy to earn the title of four-star admiral.

In 2016, she completed her service as the 38th Vice Chief of Naval Operations and went on to other assignments.

According to her U.S. naval biography, her current assignments are:

  • Commander of the U.S. Naval Forces for all of Europe;
  • Commander of the U.S. Naval Forces Africa and
  • Commander for the NATO Allied Joint Force Command (which is located in Naples, Italy).

There are many things we can learn from the life of Michelle Howard, but one of my favorite quotes from her is,

“You don’t have to wait until you get the job to prepare for it.”

- Michelle Howard, Four-Star Admiral

Copyright, Red and Black Ink, LLC 2017.


NAVY VERSUS PIRACY  #PRESENCEMATTERS, All Hands Magazine Feature Presentation.  Fighting Piracy, January 2014.

Office of Naval Intelligence Celebrates Women's History Month.  Story Number: NNS120329-08  Release Date: 3/29/2012 4:47:00 PM.  From Office of Naval Intelligence Public Affairs.  Accessed January 2014.

United States Navy Biography, Admiral Michelle Howard Commander, Allied Joint Force Command Naples; Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Europe; Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Africa. Accessed June 2017.  Updated June 21, 2016.


Danita Smith