Obituary:Admiral Jeremy Boorda

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The Independent Online
Admiral Jeremy "Mike" Boorda, who was found yesterday with gunshot wounds to the chest, apparently self-inflicted, was the first enlisted man to become Chief of Naval Operations and a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He oversaw 450,000 sailors deployed around the world. In Navy argot, he was the first Mustang to get to four-star status.

Boorda's apparent suicide came an hour before he was scheduled to be interviewed by Newsweek magazine about two insignia he had worn that the magazine's military expert, retired Colonel David Hackworth, suspected were never awarded to the admiral. Boorda earned Navy Achievement and Navy Commendation medals during the Vietnam era, but the questions were raised about the "V"s (for valour) that he wore on the colour bars. Valour insignia were awarded if your ship came under fire or was close to the enemy.

Mike Boorda's grandparents were Jewish immigrants from Ukraine. His parents ran a dress shop in Momence, Indiana. Their marriage was a failure, Boorda dropped out of high school and, according to his own accounts, began drinking six-packs of beer and getting into trouble. In a search for structure to his life, he enlisted in the Navy at the age of 17 and married Bettie Moran, his childhood sweetheart two years later. His first son was born before he was 20 with Goltz's syndrome in which organs and limbs are missing or malformed. Two later sons are now Naval officers.

Boorda advanced in the Navy through hard work and by graduating from Officer Candidate School - from the aptly named "Seaman to Admiral Programme" - and then earning a Political Science degree from the University of Rhode Island. Having earned his officers' credentials in 1962 and his university degree in 1971, he was on the rise during the Vietnam War. He served as an instructor, commanding a minesweeper and then on the destroyer Farragut. Neither of these appointments took him to Vietnam, but his posting to the destroyer Craig in 1965 and the frigate Brooke from 1971 to 1973 were in the waters off the coast of the war zone. Boorda's records confirm that these stints earned him his commendation and meritorious service awards - but not the bronze V.

After Vietnam, Boorda was placed in charge of a destroyer squadron, serving on a dozen warships around the world, and was elevated to admiral in 1984. Prior to becoming Chief of Naval Operations he commanded Nato forces in southern Europe, directing Nato's first-ever air strike against Bosnian Serb aircraft in 1994.

The issue of Boorda's medals arose last year, when a private news group, the National Security News Service, filed a Freedom of Information request for information about the use of false credentials among senior military personnel. They were working on a tip. The Naval press officer, Admiral Kendell Pease, one of the officers whose records were being sought, asked the Service's reporter Joe Trento to back off.

Trento noted that Boorda had been wearing the disputed medals since 1985. In July 1995, when he got the records showing that Boorda was not awarded the Vs, Trento asked Pease for a photograph of the Naval Chief. Pease declined, but the Service traced a picture of Boorda wearing the Vs in a copy of Defense News (8 April 1996). "Even then," says Trento, "it was not a high priority story for us. We figured the Pentagon would probably say it was a mistake. Boorda would have said it was a mistake. Instead he took the Vs off." The news service passed the story to Newsweek and it became an issue.

But why would a man so decorated and so senior take his life over so trivial an issue? The medals in question were his two most junior awards. The prevailing theory in Washington is that there is a premium value on those who are battle-tested in the military and a specific mystique attached to having been bloodied in battle in Vietnam. Boorda wore the medals, perhaps, to make himself a part of that club. (He had lied, as a 17-year- old, saying that he was 18, in order to enlist. With the V story about to break, he was faced with explaining his other deception, however minor, to his fellow Chiefs of Staff.)

Other problems that might have contributed were that he was in charge of a Navy beset by scandal - rampant cheating by midshipmen in Naval Academy exams, a series of crashes of F-14s, and sexual assaults on dozens of women at a convention of naval aviators in 1991.

Boorda was a victim perhaps of his own "ranks to chief" story, but also of Naval procedures that neither track the propriety of senior officers' behaviour, nor support them adequately when that behaviour is called into question. Which may all be a part of the same macho culture that places such value on an individual's ability to go it alone - in the trenches at Vietnam, or in the corridors of the Pentagon.

Phillip Frazer

Jeremy Michael Boorda, naval officer: born South Bend, Indiana 26 November 1938; Chief of US Navy Personnel 1988-1991; Commander-in-chief, Allied Forces Southern Europe 1991-94; Chief of US Naval Operations 1994-96; married 1958 Bettie Moran (three sons, one daughter); died Washington DC 16 May 1996.