Rear admiral-to-be always a trailblazer

The first black woman to take command of a Navy ship learned early to overcome adversity

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Michelle Howard was 5 years old the first time a classmate called her a name using a racial slur. She ran home crying to her father, an enlisted man in the Air Force and a strict disciplinarian.

"My father picked me up and shook me," says Howard. "He shook me and he said, `You get used to it, little girl. You've got to toughen up. That's just the way it is.'"

It was not the tender comfort she had sought, but Howard, now the first female Naval Academy graduate to be promoted to rear admiral, would need just that kind of resolve to make it through Annapolis.

She would need it later, too, as she blazed a trail for women and African-Americans in the Navy, taking on difficult engineering assignments in the fleet and commanding men who had seldom worked with a woman, let alone taken orders from one.

But Howard, 46, attributes much of the success in her career to luck, since her Navy assignments have always come on the heels of change in what women were allowed to do in the military. She jokes that her parents deserve thanks because they had a daughter at just the right time.

"April 1960 was a good time to come into the world," she says. "But really, you've got to thank the leadership for saying, `Yeah, we can do this, we can move women into these kinds of ships.' "

Next month, Howard will be the keynote speaker at a conference celebrating "30 Years of Women at the U.S. Naval Academy," an opportunity she will use to talk about her love of being a Navy leader.

Howard grew up facing racism all over the country as she followed her father to duty stations in California, Massachusetts, Alaska, Guam and Colorado. White kids bullied her and chased her home from school from time to time, and when her family moved across the country, hotels often turned them away and they had to sleep in the car.

Recalling those and other stories while sitting on a bench in the courtyard of the Pentagon, Howard speaks with more candor than most high-ranking military officers. She laughs freely and has a biting wit, often using her hands and body to punctuate her remarks.

But when asked about the academy and what it was like for women in 1978, her first year and the third for women, Howard pauses.

"Challenging," she says, with a somewhat inscrutable smile. She declined to discuss how except to say that she experienced racism and sexism. The people who treated her poorly aren't worth discussing now, she says.

"There was inappropriate behavior that occurred when I was there," she says. "And so you deal with it and move on."

Howard's roommates in Annapolis say she was an uplifting presence in those challenging years and a leader who favored mentoring over tongue-lashing.

"I had never experienced anybody treating me a certain way because I was a minority," says Carrie Perry, now a reservist in the Marine Corps. "But there, we were very much in the minority. So it was like wow, someone doesn't like you and they don't even know you. Michelle had experienced that in her life at different times, and I remember talking about that a lot."

When Howard graduated from the academy, she got the last of seven spots allotted to women. Out of thousands of ensigns, a total of 17 women were selected from the various officer training commands to fill the newly opened spots. Howard first served on a submarine supply and repair ship, then went on to attend engineering training for surface warfare officers in Coronado, Calif.

As a leading instructor there, then-Cmdr. Gene Kendall said he came down hard on Howard, the first woman and African-American to come through his course. Since she was preparing for a daunting engineering assignment on a World War II-era aircraft carrier, he decided to "make it my business to see just how she was going to be as a student and if she was going to have the wherewithal to go through that."

"She quickly proved that she was an absolute whiz in the game of understanding engineering," Kendall says. Howard eventually returned to Coronado as an instructor.

"Michelle was the consummate professional and officer," he says. "For her, it was just the way it was. ... To her, it wasn't a matter of black, white, male or female, it was just a matter of what she had to do. It was just to perform."

Within a few years, the Navy opened up ammo and fuel ships to women, and Howard served as chief engineer of the USS Mount Hood in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

Combat ships were opened to women in 1993, and three years later she was the first woman to become second in command on one. In 1999, Howard became the first black woman to take the helm of a Navy ship as commander of the USS Rushmore.

From 2004 to 2005, she led an amphibious squadron which deployed to support tsunami relief in Indonesia.

Now serving as deputy director of the Navy's expeditionary warfare division, Howard oversees a $5 billion annual budget that provides resources to various communities in the fleet.

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