One good man, a trivial little tale and his obsessive code of honour

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They were just a couple of bronze letter 'V's for Valour, half an inch high. They are pinned on to military decoration ribbons. You can pick them up in a military curio shop for 50 cents or a dollar. But for the man who held the most senior uniformed job in the mightiest navy on earth, the merest doubt about them was enough to die for.

The gesture was so swift, so devastating and, to non-military men at least, simply so unreasonable, that 36 hours later this city can still barely believe it. One moment Admiral Jeremy "Mike" Boorda, Chief of US Naval Operations, was at his Pentagon office, grappling with the considerable strains of his job but apparently in good spirits. Two hours later, he was pronounced dead at a Washington hospital of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The proud navy man had taken his own life with a single .38 bullet. It was aimed not into his mouth or at his temple, but through his chest, the very place where decorations and the two Vs had rested.

Just before 12.30pm on Thursday, Admiral Boorda had learnt that the media was about to disclose that he had once improperly worn the V-pins on two decorations he had earned in Vietnam. The citations say that in 1965 he took part in a coastal shelling operation, and in 1973 helped "protect vital units and rescue downed airmen". The citations and decorations were in order, but the V-pins which for years the admiral wore upon them, denoting that he had put his life at risk in combat, apparently were not. A year ago, he discovered the error and stopped wearing them. At that point an insignificant tale might have ended - but for the National Security News Service and his own obsessive code of honour.

NSNS, which provides the media with tips on the forces, had unearthed Admiral Boorda's transgression, and told Newsweek and ABC TV. Newsweek asked to see the admiral to discuss the charges. An appointment was made for 2.30. "What are we going to tell them? he asked Rear-Admiral Kendall Pease, the Navy's chief spokesman, before answering his own question: "We'll just tell the truth."

But then, abruptly, Admiral Boorda refused his regular lunch, rushed out of the building and drove himself to his home. At about 2pm a shot was heard. His chauffeur, who had been so concerned that he followed him home, arrived to find him slumped on a bench in the yard, mortally wounded.

Maybe his humble background had something to do with his end. Maybe he lacked that peculiar armour often endowed by wealth, birth or privilege that would help him survive a deception - or rather, almost certainly, a simple mistake - which was puny by the standards of the half-truths, omissions or downright lies that a politician can peddle his entire life without a blush.

But Boorda was a uniquely American success story, an "Anyone-Can-Make- It" tale that epitomises that easily derided but potent "American Dream," which still makes Americans feel good about the society they have created.

He was a man loved throughout the service, and nowhere more than among the ordinary seamen from whose ranks he sprang. In his two years as Chief of Naval Operations, he travelled around the world meeting sailors. Martha Raddatz of National Public Radio, who knew the admiral well, recalls, "I've seen tough sailors break down and cry around him."

"The Navy became my family," he had said. "Everything I've done since I was 16 years old has been wrapped up in this organisation." And the shopkeeper's son from South Bend, Indiana, with a premature fondness for six-packs who lied about his age to join the Navy when he was only 16, has travelled far and high.

"The Navy saved me from alcoholism," he once joked. In fact it did more; it took him to its very pinnacle, the first enlisted man ever to serve as chief of naval operations. After Vietnam he rose to senior command positions, to take charge of US naval forces in Europe and then of Nato forces in southern Europe during the first stages of the Bosnian war, before his appointment by President Bill Clinton in April 1994.

But it was to his family and to ordinary sailors that Admiral Boorda addressed the two notes he left by his body. He admitted that he had wrongly worn the V-pins, but had genuinely thought he was entitled to them. "But some will never see my action as an honest mistake." Thus the unbearable disgrace, not so much for himself, but for the service he commanded.

And thus perhaps the hideous end of a glittering career is best understood. These have been wretched times for the US Navy, characterised by budget cuts, jet crashes and scandals about drugs and cheating at Annapolis, the elite Naval Academy. From a crusty ancien regime have come accusations that the admiral, in his zeal to stamp out sexual harassment, was sacrificing the Navy's fighting efficiency on the altars of militant feminism and political correctness.

What precise blend of pressure and despair causes a man to commit suicide? Early on Thursday afternoon, the mixture went critical in "Mike" Boorda. The catalyst was two small bronze Vs, worth nothing - except to a military man of honour.