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Washington - The ceremony included a bit of comedy, but there was no denying the significance: For the first time in its history, the Navy promoted a woman Tuesday to become a four-star admiral.
Surrounded by friends, family and peers, Adm. Michelle Howard was promoted to her new rank at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. She'll take over as the vice chief of naval operations, the No. 2 officer in the service. She is not only the first woman to hold the job, but the first African-American.
It's the latest achievement for Howard, who previously was the first African-American woman to serve as a three-star officer in the U.S. military and command a U.S. Navy ship. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said her promotion is a "representation of how far we have come, and how far she has helped bring us."
Howard is perhaps best known for leading Task Force 151, which oversaw counterpiracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. After Somali pirates attacked the cargo ship MV Maersk Alabama and captured its top officer, Capt. Richard Phillips, in April 2009, she was involved in the planning to get him back, dispatching the USS Bainbridge, a destroyer, to help.
Navy SEAL snipers eventually opened fire on a small lifeboat carrying Phillips and three pirates, killing the bandits and freeing him.
The Army and Air Force each have named four-star female officers in the past. The first one in the military, Army Gen. Ann Dunwoody, retired in 2012 after serving as a four-star general for nearly four years.
At one point Tuesday, Mabus struggled to put Howard's new four-star shoulder boards on her uniform. He refused to give up, drawing laughter from the crowd.
In her remarks onstage, Howard joked about it.
"It is a remarkable sign of leadership," she said, "to be persistent in your goals and to achieve them."