NAACP Honors a “Military Pioneer”

Vice Adm. Michelle HowardYou don’t need to read much more than the headline on the NAACP’s website to start to understand why Vice Adm. Michelle Howard will receive its Chairman’s Award today.

It reads: “NAACP Chairman’s Award Goes to a Military Pioneer.”

The deputy commander of U.S. Fleet Forces will receive the award that recognizes individuals who use their profession to promote diversity and community involvement. It will be presented during the 44th NAACP Image Awards, which will be broadcast at 8 p.m. (ET) Friday on NBC.

Howard is no stranger to firsts. She is the first African American woman to achieve three star rank in the military and the first to command a U.S. Navy ship. She’s also the first woman graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy to be selected for admiral.

“[The Image Awards] say there is goodness in positive images [in movies, television and literature]. It is my opportunity to say thanks to those people who put something together that allows us to dream, and let them know that because they allow us to dream – dreams sometimes come true in the real world.

As a child, it was a television character that inspired Howard to look beyond traditional roles within society.

“There was no one else on television like Lt. Uhura,” said Howard about the communications officer from the television series Star Trek, which was the only television show Howard’s mother allowed her to watch late on a school night.

“She was just my hero because there was no one else on television who looked like Lt. Uhura, an African American woman, who was doing what she was doing. African American women were either maids or secretaries or maybe sometimes a nurse. That show planted the seed in my head like the books [that my parents gave me about overcoming adversity] to do things beyond the constraints that sometimes society sets on you.”

120824-N-QY430-030 NORFOLK, Va. (Aug. 24, 2012) NORFOLK, Va. - Vice Adm. Michelle Janine Howard's husband, Mr. Wayne Cowles and her sister, Ms. Lisa Teitleman, replace shoulder boards during a promotion ceremony at Naval Support Activity Hampton Roads Aug. 24. Howard is the first African-American woman to receive a third star in flag rank within the Department of Defense. She assumes the duties as Deputy Commander U.S. Fleet Forces and Commander Task Force Two Zero. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class (SW/AW) Rafael Martie)

Vice Adm. Michelle Janine Howard’s husband, Mr. Wayne Cowles and her sister, Ms. Lisa Teitleman, replace shoulder boards during a promotion ceremony at Naval Support Activity Hampton Roads Aug. 24, 2012. Howard is the first African-American woman to receive a third star in flag rank within the Department of Defense. She assumes the duties as Deputy Commander U.S. Fleet Forces and Commander Task Force Two Zero. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class (SW/AW) Rafael Martie)

 

At age 12, a documentary about a service academy sparked Howard’s interest in military service.

“It was the uniforms and discipline. I think some of the camaraderie,” said Howard, who didn’t notice women weren’t part of the documentary.

Her goal became a dream placed on hold after she learned that federal law prohibited women from attending service academies. Four years later, the law changed.

At age 18, Howard entered the Naval Academy. She was aware that she was entering an environment that was still very much male dominated. In 1982, she graduated from Annapolis as a member of the school’s third class to include women midshipmen. Her graduating class included seven women who would serve on ships.

“So, not only was it competitive to become a surface warfare officer, then you had to deal with the environment of being a very small number of you in a wardroom,” said Howard.

Of the 120 officers on Howard’s first ship, there were just six or seven women officers, Howard recalled. The enlisted crew was all male.

“For any minority group, that brings its own unique challenges in terms of becoming part of the team and communicating,” Howard said. “I had to work through each of my [male] bosses and leaders not just who I was trained as a surface warfare officer, but have that dialogue and communication and talk about the environment and getting through biases and being allowed to do my job that I had been trained to do.”

When asked whether Howard feels like she has a responsibility as a vice admiral to encourage diversity, she quickly smiled and said, “I think all of us have the responsibility to look at who we are, look at the environment we create as leaders whether we’re inside the Navy or outside of the Navy, if you own your own business, if you have an organization, if you are a leading petty officer. The only thing you have to do is make sure you treat people the same. Make sure the opportunities are the same.”

Tell us about a situation that you found challenging. Did anyone inspire you to overcome and achieve your goal?