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Published: April 18, 2009 10:07 pm    print this story   email this story   comment on this story  

STEPHANIE SALTER: In a generation, a sea change has come to the U.S. Navy

By Stephanie Salter
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE It was one of those “driveway moments,” in which the contents of the car radio broadcast keep you from turning off the engine and going on into your house, office or social engagement.

On National Public Radio’s evening news show, “All Things Considered,” Robert Siegel was about to interview the U.S. Navy commander of a new multi-national counter-piracy task force in the waters off Somalia. Said Siegel:

“Rear Admiral Michelle Howard … at sea on the USS Boxer.”


For a split-second, I thought, “Oh, right. Some French-American guy named Michele.” But, no. Clear as a ship’s bell, a woman’s voice greeted Siegel.

Creaky old feminist that I am, I nearly wept. And not for the first time in my life did I give thanks for the context, for all the years and experiences that allowed me to appreciate the size and weight of a Michelle in command.

Young women and girls take such things for granted, which is fine because that is what youth always does. But I know Adm. Michelle Howard did not happen in a vacuum. Nor did her slow, steady rise through the ranks of the United States Navy occur because a bunch of men woke up one morning in a good mood and said, “You know, females probably can command ships and their crews just as well as guys can. Why don’t we give them a try?”

Michelle Howard graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1982. That was only six years after the first female midshipmen in academy history had been admitted — which took Congressional legislation. Passage of that law required the efforts of countless American women who were branded as everything from “bitches” to “subversives” because they demanded equal opportunity and pay for equal work, education levels and capabilities.

During the time Howard was attending the Naval Academy, an Annapolis alum and Vietnam War veteran wrote a scathing article in Washingtonian magazine titled, “Women Can’t Fight.” Lengthy and impassioned, the essay detailed the many dangers to society of allowing women to be trained alongside men for combat command.

“[Women’s] presence at institutions dedicated to the preparation of men for combat command is poisoning that preparation,” the Navy vet wrote in 1979. “By attempting to sexually sterilize the Naval Academy environment in the name of equality, this country has sterilized the whole process of combat and leadership training, and our military forces are doomed to suffer the consequences.”

The author of the essay was James H. Webb, who now serves as a Democratic U.S. Senator from Virginia. Webb’s Washingtonian article was unearthed during his senate campaign in 2006.

Twenty-seven years after Webb had written, “No benefit to anyone can come from women serving in combat,” he said he was “profoundly sorry” for any offense or harm he may have caused women in the academy and the military.

Michelle Howard spent those 27 years learning to be a better and better officer. She attended the Army’s Command and General Staff College where she received a master’s degree in military arts and sciences. She taught other Navy personnel what they needed to know for the Steam Engineering Officer of the Watch.

As the years rolled by, Howard was promoted to chief engineer, 1st lieutenant, executive officer and, on March 12, 1999, commander of her own ship, the USS Rushmore.

That promotion was historic because — oh, by the way — Howard also happens to be an African American. Her command of a U.S. Navy ship was the first for a black woman.

In 2006, when Webb was running for Senate, Howard was selected Rear Admiral, lower half, becoming the first female graduate of the Naval Academy and — the lovely coup de grace — the first member of her entire Class of 1982 to make admiral.

Late last year, she was promoted again to Rear Admiral, upper half, and made Commander of Expeditionary Strike Group Two. Space prohibits adequate description of that job, but suffice to say it involves overseeing many moving parts, such as an aircraft carrier, two different kinds of helicopters, an amphibious assault ship, a dock landing ship, Harrier aircraft and Marine expeditionary units — to name a few.

Who better to take on pirates?

During her radio interview with Siegel, Howard was wonderfully unexciting and careful in all her answers. Military to the bone.

Siegel wanted to know about the policies of participating nations with regard to “zero tolerance or negotiations” with pirates holding hostages and ships. Howard politely did not go there. Not her area of duty, sir. Up to the individual nations.

“Once here at sea,” she said, “we are focused on finding the pirates, countering the pirates and bringing the pirates to justice in each of our nations or bringing the pirates to justice in a nation that is willing to prosecute.”

What about going after the pirates on land, Siegel wanted to know.

Howard deftly replied that “most people would agree that because the pirates live ashore, that is where the crux of the problem is,” but she repeated that such pursuits would “depend on the will” of each affected nation.

Gently reminding Siegel and his huge radio audience of her area of expertise, the admiral said, “You can feel quite comfortable that we are ready to fight the pirates at sea.”

Siegel asked another question about commercial ship crews carrying weapons. Howard explained that the Navy task force had discovered that “just by taking simple steps” — increasing a ship’s speed, using evasive maneuvers, pulling up ladders and using fire hoses over the side — defensive methods involving guns would not likely be necessary.

When the newsman thanked the admiral for speaking with him, she said, “Yes, sir. Thank you.”

The first chance I got, I opened my laptop, jumped onto the Internet and Googled, “Adm. Michelle Howard.” In its customary, pushy, helpful way, Google shot back:

“Do you mean Adm. Michael Howard?”

No, you marvelous but still somewhat unenlightened search engine, I do not mean Michael.

Stephanie Salter can be reached at (812) 231-4229 or

• • •

Response to my question about why you want an actual paper Tribune-Star in your hands has been terrific. Those of you who’d still like to tell me why, this is your last week. Call or e-mail your brief-as-possible answer via the above phone number or e-address, or send it to 222 S. Seventh St., Terre Haute, IN, 47807.

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Tribune-Star columnist Stephanie Salter. / (Click for larger image)

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