By Debbie Gregory.
The U.S. Navy will soon be promoting Michelle Howard to the rank of 4-star Admiral. Along with her new rank, she is also getting promoted to Vice-Chief of Naval Operations. This means that Admiral Howard, an African American woman, will become the second in command of the World’s Finest Navy.
Her elevated rank will make Admiral Howard a member of a few very exclusive clubs. Admiral Howard will be the first female African American to hold a 4-star rank in any branch of the U.S. military. She is only one of seven African Americans to hold the 4-star rank. And she is only the third female to ever put on a fourth star; joining retired Army General Ann Dunwoody, who put on her rank in 2008, and Air Force General Janet Wolfenbarger, who was promoted in 2012. In terms of diversifying the U.S. Armed Forces, this is a huge deal.
Admiral Howard is accustomed to being among the first to brave the uncharted waters of diversity. In 1978, she was admitted into the U.S. Naval Academy; only the third academy class that accepted women. In 1999, she was among the group of five women chosen to be the first female combatant commanders in the U.S. Navy. This group included the first female to command a U.S. Navy warship, the late Captain Kathleen A. McGrath, who took command of the USS Jarrett (FFG-33) in December, 1998. A few months later, on March 12, 1999, Howard took command of the USS Rushmore (LSD-47).
Admiral Howard still remembers her early days as junior officer, when she was often the only female and the only African American officer present at her duty stations.
“You look around the room, and there’s nobody who looks or sounds like you,” Howard recalls. “It can make you take your breath in.”
While taking nothing away from the extraordinary individual achievements and societal strides made by Admiral Howard, the small populations of women and African Americans in the leadership of our nation’s leading employer makes one question the diversity of our military.
President Harry S. Truman desegregated the U.S. military by signing Executive Order 9981 on July 26, 1948. Since then, African Americans and other minority groups have served in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq (twice), Afghanistan, and several other skirmishes and operations.
The percentage of African Americans who would meet enlistment eligibility is approximately 17% of the U.S. population. Percentages of African American military personnel have been as high as 27% in the Army. Currently, African Americans make up about 20% of Army personnel, 17% of Navy, 17% in the Air Force and 10% in the Marine Corps.
Currently, only 6% of the cadets in all of the military branches’ respective Academies are African American. While not every officer come from an academy, this statistic draws into question of diversity of military leadership in the future.
Women, African Americans, and especially African American women should triumph in Admiral Howard’s appointment, and see it as step in the direction of diversity. Diversity is what makes our nation and its military strong. Let’s hope that Admiral Howard’s steps will be among the first in what will become a trodden path of diversity in the U.S. military.