Admiral Michelle Howard

October 11, 2014

I heard a story, A Phone Call Helped Navy’s First Four-Star Woman Embrace Her Path, on Friday morning’s NPR Morning Edition show. National Public Radio has been running a Changing Lives of Women series, which includes some great stories. This piece featured Admiral Michelle Howard, the Navy’s first female, African-American four star admiral, and its current Vice Chief of Naval Operations (No woman or African-American man has previously held this job.)

I don’t want to steal Admiral Howard’s story—she’s very impressive, and you should listen to the interview—but her comments resonated on several levels. She’s very direct about her belief that being African-American has presented more career challenges than being a woman. She recounts family trips in the 1960s, in which her family slept in the car because there were no rooms for them, and sitting in restaurants for hours getting no service. (Her father, an Air Force Master Sergeant, believed in teaching lessons and making points.) She also shares a story about coming home from school having been called a N*gger by lots of children, and having her father tell her “you have a series of things happen to you growing up that people who are in the majority don’t experience.” (She also mentions whining to her mother, recently, about the media and the focus on her, to which her mother said, “you are who you are,” so deal with it or leave the Navy.)

These comments provided several takeaways. First, no one can really understand anyone else’s journey, and when that journey involves race in America I—I’ll speak only for myself here—know nothing. Oh, I’ve read Native Son (Richard Wright), Invisible Man (Ralph Ellison), and plenty about Martin Luther King, civil rights, and I’ve done much more, but I don’t have a clue. I can’t, I simply can’t!

Second, G-d bless strong parents! Throughout the interview with Admiral Howard it’s evident that her achievements come, significantly, because her parents invested in her, with time, principles, and examples.

Finally, we have “put a (wo)man on it” when it comes to defending our country. We’ve contracted out our defense. We’re rich, we “have people” for these unpleasant tasks, and so we have hired a fighting force. The Vietnam debacle accounts, mostly, for why we have an all-volunteer armed forces. It didn’t make sense when it was created, it doesn’t make sense now, and it never will make sense!

Further disconnecting many from the military is the fact that most of our armed forces are minorities and white people from rural America. Why? Well, let’s start with the fact that we pay our soldiers and sailors so poorly that many receive government assistance just to feed their families, we have a huge and not often enough mentioned problem with predatory lending and fraudsters preying on them, etc. Yes, our military has produced Admiral Howard, daughter of a non-commissioned officer who is, now, the second highest ranking officer in the Navy. I worry, though, about how likely it will be that in 30-40 years we’ll be telling similar stories. When we wonder about why we don’t have a Greatest Generation now, we might note the fact that the group to whom we refer with reverence all—rich and poor alike—served together!

P.S. This is pledge week on National Public Radio, and since today’s post comes from the world of “I heard it on NPR,” I’ve given you a direct link to Arizona Public Media’s donation page! Nothing good in this world is free!!!

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