Vice Adm. Michelle Janine Howard added Tuesday to the long list of firsts in her naval career -- first female four-star Admiral in the 238-year history of the Navy.
“There’s no news here today,” Navy Secretary Ray Mabus joked in promoting Howard to admiral. The Navy had simply “picked the best officer to be the VCNO,” or Vice Chief of Naval Operations and No. 2 officer in the Navy, Mabus said.
"Her accomplishment is a direct example of a Navy that now, more than ever, reflects the nation it serves,” Mabus said at the promotion ceremony at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.
“She is also a great example of how much we as a nation and a Navy lose if we put artificial barriers in,” Mabus said.
In her remarks, Howard said that in preparing for the promotion ceremony she was told that “four-star shoulder boards for women didn’t exist.”
The Army and the Air Force have previously promoted women to four-star rank. The first female four-star, Army Gen. Ann Dunwoody, retired in 2012.
Howard was also the first African-American woman to rise to three-star rank in the active-duty military.
The 54-year-old Howard, a 32-year Navy veteran, currently is the Deputy CNO for Operations, Plans, and Strategy. She will replace Adm. Mark Ferguson III as the 38th Vice Chief of Naval Operations (VCNO).
Ferguson is scheduled later this month to relieve Adm. Bruce Clingan as commander, Allied Joint Force Command, Naples, and commander of U.S. Naval Forces Europe.
Howard graduated from the Naval Academy in 1982 and became the first African-American woman to command a Navy ship in 1999 when she came aboard the dock landing ship Rushmore.
In April 2009, she commanded Task Force 151, a multi-national counter-piracy effort off the Horn of Africa.
Three days after coming aboard her flagship, the amphibious assault ship Boxer, Somali pirates attacked the cargo ship MV Maersk Alabama and captured its top officer, Capt. Richard Phillips.
Howard helped devise a plan to rescue Phillips and dispatched the destroyer Bainbridge to assist. Navy SEAL snipers were brought aboard the Bainbridge and later opened fire on a small lifeboat carrying Phillips and three pirates, killing the pirates and freeing Phillips.
Howard later told “Power Players,” an outlet of ABC News and Yahoo News, that “we found out that the life raft was heading to the Somali coast, so very quickly the focus of the mission became -- don't let the life raft touch land.”
“We wanted to bring Capt. Phillips back safely to the U.S., but we figured out that if that life raft got ashore before we could rescue him, that would probably be the last we'd see of him,” Howard said.