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Bridget Wingert: Happy to Be Here

An admiral comes back for a visit


Admiral Michelle Howard came to Bucks County in 2017 to speak to the Central Bucks Chamber of Commerce. She was wearing her winter uniform adorned with ribbons and gold stripes and was greeted with a military color guard and all the pomp the local chamber could muster.
Howard was back in Bucks County in September wearing casual civilian clothing. Nevertheless, she was greeted with a flag salute and and an audience standing in respect. She had been to New England for a conference and was on her way to Washington for a Senate hearing when she got off the Amtrak train in Trenton and was driven to the Spring Mill Country Club to speak to the chamber a second time.
She came as a friend to Vail Garvin, the chamber president, who has had a special interest in federal government operations. The women met years ago at sessions of the Naval War College, one of Dr. Garvin’s special interests.
On the first visit Howard spoke about leadership; on the second she spoke about goals – she has set many goals and achieved more than most men or women. But she was warned long ago by a commanding officer, “If you’re riding two horses at the same time, it’s time to leave the circus.” Staying focused has been an overriding theme of her goals.
One of her first goals was being admitted to the U.S. Naval Academy in 1978 after graduation from Gateway High School in Aurora, Colo.
Years later, following a pattern of promotions, Howard became the first African-American woman to command a Navy ship. She commanded the amphibious dock landing ship Rushmore in 1999.
She was a rear admiral upper in 2009 as she assumed command of Virginia Beach-based Expeditionary Strike Group Two and was deployed to thwart pirates in the Gulf of Aden aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer.
And that’s where she earned her biggest claim to fame. Within a week of assuming her command, as leader of Task Force 151, Howard was a key figure in the rescue of Merchant Marine Capt. Richard Phillips, commanding officer of the cargo ship Maersk Alabama, which was seized by Somali pirates.
According to news reports, on April 8, 2009, four pirates boarded the Maersk Alabama then southeast of the Somalian port city of Eyl. With a crew of 20, the ship had departed from Salalah, Oman, en route to Mombasa, Kenya. The ship was carrying 17,000 metric tons of cargo, of which 5,000 metric tons were relief supplies bound for Kenya, Somalia and Uganda.

As the pirates were boarding the ship, the crew members locked themselves in the engine room. The crew sank the pirate boat after the pirates’ boarding by continuously swinging the rudder of the Maersk Alabama, and under Howard’s direction, swamping the smaller boat. Phillips and all but one of the pirates got into the ship’s rescue boat, but it would not start, so the crew dropped a lifeboat and met the pirates to switch prisoners and boats.The crew released the captured pirate, but the pirates left with Phillips in the lifeboat.
Three days later, on April 12, U.S. Navy marksmen opened fire and killed the three pirates on the lifeboat, and Phillips was rescued.
The biographical thriller film “Captain Phillips” detailing the pirate attack, was released in 2013, with Tom Hanks as Capt. Phillips. The film was based on Phillips’ 2010 book “A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea.”
Following the Gulf of Aden incident, Howard became the first African American woman promoted to the three-star rank in the U.S. Armed Forces when she became deputy commander of Fleet Forces Command, based in Norfolk.
In 2014 Howard was the first woman to be promoted to the rank of four-star admiral in the history of the Navy. She assumed the duties and responsibilities as the 38th vice chief of naval operations, which made her the No. 2 admiral in the Navy behind Gen. Jonathan Greenert, the chief of naval operations.
The commission ceremony officiated by Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus and attended by her husband, Wayne Cowles, was held at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial at the Arlington National Cemetery.
Howard retired from the Navy in 2017, completing her final assignment as the commander of naval forces in Europe and Africa. After serving 32 years in the Navy, she divides her time among speaking engagements, serving on commissions and the IBM board of directors, and living on her ranch in Colorado. “ I have a husband, two dogs, a horse and a mule,” she says.
And, what’s one visit without another? Last week Vail Garvin flew to Colorado and stayed at the admiral’s ranch, touring the open space and taking in the “incredibly beautiful” view of mountains around them.
And, as fall begins, she is back in Bucks County, possibly musing on the adventures she has had as president of the Central Bucks Chamber of Commerce.