NATION

Vice Admiral Michelle Howard first African American woman to reach rank of three-star officer

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A trailblazer her entire Naval career, Vice Admiral Michelle Howard has become the first African American woman in the U.S. armed forces to reach the rank of a three-star officer.

"It says a lot about where this country has come," said Admiral Howard, in her perfectly-pressed khaki uniform, three silver stars perched on each shoulder.

But climbing the Navy's ladder of success meant this sailor was in for occasional rough seas.

"I think like in most occupations, there's been times where there were individuals who didn't want me there or wanted to undermine what I was trying to do," she said.

Refusing to be knocked off course, Howard navigated her way to becoming second-in-charge at U.S. Fleet Forces Command in Norfolk, Virginia. At her office there, Admiral Howard sat down for an exclusive interview with ABC7 News.

"If it is from the Arctic to the Gulf of Mexico, if it's under the water, on the water or flies, it's ours," she explained.

Howard, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, has been front and center for many crisis.

"I was in the Pentagon when the plane hit."

On September 11, 2001 Howard was working in the Pentagon for the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff.

"You could see the smoke coming off the building. I was just angry, over the top angry. I wanted to be able to defend myself, wanted to be able to defend my nation," she said.

That steely resolve has helped Howard break down several barriers in the Navy.

In 1999 she became the first African American woman to command an American warship, the accomplishment Howard says she is most proud of.

In 2009 Howard was the first African American woman to command an expeditionary strike group, fighting pirates in the Arabian Sea.

Just three days into that historic role, Somali pirates hijacked the American cargo ship, the Maersk Alabama, and took the captain hostage in one of the the ship's covered life boats.

"The first thing we needed to do was try to stop that life raft from getting to shore."

As the world watched, Admiral Howard devised a plan using ships, aircraft and a large team of military personnel.

"Everyone was focused on trying to rescue this one American citizen," said Howard.

The five day standoff ended when Navy SEAL snipers opened fire on the life boat, simultaneously killing all three pirates and saving Captain Richard Phillips.

"Oh a cheer," beamed Howard, "Yes! We've got him. He's ok. We've got him!"

Celebrating the victories, Admiral Howard also keeps a close eye on brewing threats.

"I seem to remain steadfastly fixed on North Korea and the potential for instability there and Iran and the instability associated with that country."

As for the admiral's hopes, she said, "20 years from now we're going to see a woman CO of a submarine. I hope they invite me back for that." With a wide smile, Howard added, "I would love to see that."

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