TopRank: Michelle Howard
Breaking the military "brass ceiling" once again, the Navy's Michelle Janine Howard was promoted to Vice Chief of Naval Operations, the Navy's Number 2 post, fulfilling a lifelong dream.
Following President Obama's nomination in December, the historic event marks two milestones in American military history: She is now the first African-American woman to attain four stars, as well as the first female four-star Admiral in the 238-year history of the U.S. Navy.
"Michelle Howard's promotion to the rank of admiral is the result of a brilliant naval career, one I fully expect to continue when she assumes her new role as vice chief of naval operations, but also it is a historic first, an event to be celebrated as she becomes the first female to achieve this position," said Mabus. "Her accomplishment is a direct example of a Navy that now, more than ever, reflects the nation it serves - a nation where success is not borne of race, gender or religion, but of skill and ability."
The momentum continues to build in support of military women. This is the third such promotion in recent years for women -- two years after the Air Force's first woman four-star General, and six years after the Army's first woman four-star General.
Howard's historical significance is also near and dear to the Commander in Chief. She was a guest of President Obama at the 2014 State of the Union Address in January, in the Presidential Box, joined by First Lady Michelle Obama.
The 1982 Naval Academy graduate and surface warfare officer has set many firsts in her career, including becoming the first female Academy graduate to become an admiral. Throughout her career, she sought to be evaluated and treated professionally on par with the men.
"She wanted to be the type of officer where it was just like being one of the men," said Linda Postenrieder, a former Naval Academy classmate, told Bloomberg News. "It didn't surprise me when she was the first admiral out of her class."
Postenrieder predicts that Howard someday may become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the top job in the military and a path taken by Colin Powell, forging his own path of firsts for African Americans.
"Michelle's many trailblazing accomplishments in her 32 years of naval service are evidence of both her fortitude and commitment to excellence and integrity," said Adm. Jonathan Greenert, Chief of Naval Operations. "I look forward to many great things to come from the Navy's newest 4-star Admiral!"
As is the case for most trailblazers, the path was not easy, although Howard was surrounded by the right influences at a young age.
A 1978 graduate of Gateway High School in Colorado, Howard grew up in a military family, the daughter of Air Force Master Sergeant Clarence Howard. Later, she married Marine Corps veteran Wayne Cowles.
She became interested in a military career at age 12, during an era that did not yet support women in Annapolis. But by 1978, two years after that barrier was broken, Howard entered the Naval Academy. During Howard's time with the third Navy class accepting women, she was one of only 96 of the 1,363 students in her freshman class who were women, and 34 percent of them failed to graduate, compared to 22 percent of the men. Overcoming the odds, she was the first member of her class, female or male, to attain the rank of admiral.
"Where was the country in '78? What was the most popular TV show and what was our image of women? Charlie's Angels? Are you kidding me?" She laughs, during an interview with Success Magazine.
"You think about, Was there a woman Supreme Court justice at that point? Had Sally Ride done her first flight in space? When you're talking about societal change… there's a lot of friction and there are going to be people who don't want change. Those are the people you have to deal with."
Her Navy career included a peacekeeping tour in the former Yugoslavia, a tsunami relief effort in Indonesia, and, at the Pentagon, as senior military assistant to the Navy secretary. Before her promotion, Howard previously served as deputy chief of naval operations for operations, plans and strategy.
She was also the first black woman to command a ship -- the dock landing ship Rushmore in 1999. She later became the first to command an expeditionary strike group at sea and the first to attain three-star rank.
She also has a claim to fame outside military circles. Howard's voice was depicted in "Captain Phillips" -- a 2013 film dramatizing the Maersk Alabama crisis -- when she speaks over the radio telephone to the commanding officer of the destroyer Bainbridge.
"It's confirmation that women in the Navy aren't just doing the intel function and comms and things of that nature anymore: They are commanding ships, battle groups and now at the VCNO (Vice Chief of Naval Operations) position. Not too bad," said former Navy Secretary Don Winter.
Over the years, Howard has inspired a younger generation of minority women, said Anu Bhagwati, a Marine Captain of Indian descent, who now serves as executive director of the Service Women's Action Network, a support group for female troops and veterans.
"Any time a woman, especially a woman of color, is promoted, it helps all of us," Bhagwati said. "Looking up and seeing women like you, you cannot underestimate the incredible value of that moment."
In additional to being a Naval Academy graduate, Howard graduated from the Army's Command and General Staff College in 1998, with a Masters in Military Arts and Sciences. Other awards include the 2011 USO Military Woman of the Year, and the 2013 NAACP Chairman's Image Award.