Who could have guessed that Rear Admiral Michelle Howard’s first week on the job would play out like something out of a James Bond movie, gripping us with every twist and turn. But this was no movie. The drama on the high seas was real. Eventually U.S. snipers saved Captain Richard Phillips, who was kidnapped by Somali pirates a few weeks ago. And there at the center of the rescue mission was Howard, the first African-American woman to hold her position. While the captain was eventually rescued, the struggle to end piracy continues: Captain Phillips testified this week before the Senate that private security could prevent piracy. Somali pirates are still lurking the seas, and just last week hijacked a merchant ship from the United Arab Emirates and a Greek-owned bulk carrier near Madagascar. Meanwhile, Howard is going about her work; continuing to guard the high seas. She talks exclusively to ESSENCE.com about last month’s dramatic events.
Rear Admiral Michelle Howard awoke on April 8 to sunshine, the rolling swells of the Indian Ocean, and the beginning of another day looking for pirates. No one could have predicted just a few days later she would be embroiled in a major international crisis, and saving a man’s life from the deadly forces of Somali pirates.
Howard, 49, had just officially transitioned from a desk job in Washington, D.C., where she was senior military adviser to Donald Winter, secretary of the Navy, to the helm of the USS Boxer, a large deck assault ship patrolling off the Gulf of Aden, otherwise known as “Pirate Alley,” in the Arabian Sea.
Now the Boxer had become Howard’s flagship, where she is the first African-American woman and second female to head a Navy strike force. And in this role she oversees a dozen warships and a contingent of 1,000 Marines, as well as runs the international Combined Task Force 151 with another 14 warships.
When Howard received word that the containership Maersk Alabama had been attacked and boarded by pirates and its American captain, Phillips, was taken hostage, she immediately devised a tactical plan with her team to save his life.
“I was thinking about poor Mr. Phillips,” she recalls. “And every Marine out here was focused on Mr. Phillips. We were all trying to figure out how best to handle the mission,” she says. “We had an American citizen trapped on a life raft with pirates. In that circumstance you cannot even sleep. How could I possibly sleep when that poor man is out there, not knowing if he is going to live or die? How could I sleep when he doesn’t know if he can get out of there alive?”
Howard, a graduate of the United States Naval Academy in 1982 and the Army’s Command and General Staff College in 1998, dispatched aircraft surveillance to the site of the endangered cargo ship, 300 miles off the coast of Somalia, and followed with her fleet to aid the first American flag vessel seized by pirates since 1821.
Reporting directly to Vice Admiral William E. Gortney, commander of the U.S. Fifth Fleet based in Bahrain, Howard was the go-to person on the scene, working with the secretary of the Navy and President Obama, who granted her permission to use lethal force in the rescue attempt. Howard then determined the deployment of Navy SEALs, the positioning of war crafts, and the level of negotiations with the four pirates.
It was, as she says, a sleepless week.
But although her immediate focus was on saving Phillips, Howard’s task force had to also focus on other brewing problems. “We were chasing down pirates in other areas and boarding pirate skiffs. There is more than one activity going on out here at any one time.”
At one point during the saga, Phillips unsuccessfully tried to bolt from his captors.
“When Mr. Phillips made his escape attempt, we still were concerned with his safety. My immediate concern was that he may have angered his captors,” she recalls.
Since the incident, some have said the pirates looked like mere high school boys.
Said Howard: “Like any organized criminal group, the pirates are of all ages. The pirates engage in violence, kidnapping, and destruction. I did not have kidnappers in my high school.”
On April 12, Navy SEAL snipers under her command fired three shots that killed three of the kidnappers while a fourth man was captured by U.S. officials. Phillips was freed. It was the mark of a successful mission. Her determination to save Phillips and dogged focus eventually brought the tense situation to a close. But while Phillips and the rest of his crew returned to their families in the States, Howard continues her job as sheriff of the high seas, patrolling international waters and keeping U.S. vessels safe from harm.
“I am here to protect our interests and our citizens, and for a few days, there was one citizen we were trying to protect and bring home to America. And that was all I thought about,” she says.