A Matter Of Honor

COMMAND, THE SAYING goes, is lonely, and it can be lonelier still for a naval officer. Navy lore says a captain in battle always goes down with his ship; in modern practice, that means the captain is always held responsible, whether he is truly to blame or not. A desktop command in peacetime can be just as demanding and isolating. As the navy's top officer, Jeremy (Mike) Boorda had to contend with scandals over sexual harassment, cheating at the Naval Academy, and the too-frequent crashes of the navy's premier fighter, the F-14. Boorda was to blame for none of these upheavals. But in the long tradition of his service, he took responsibility. In a speech two weeks ago to the midshipmen of Annapolis, Boorda stressed that "every single person in the navy should have one leader they can look to and say, "That person is responsible and accountable for me'."

Boorda, 56, clearly wanted to be seen as such a leader. His pride was a source of his immense drive and strength. Somehow, tragically, it may also have been the source of his undoing. He apparently could not tolerate the idea that his own example might dishonor the service that had been his life since he was 16. He so identified with the uniform he wore -- and with the decorations on his chest -- that in the end, he was apparently unable to separate his real self from his naval persona. He had, after all, given everything to the fleet. A "mustang," he was the first enlisted man in the history of the navy to rise to the post of chief of naval operations. In a hierarchy dominated by Annapolis grads, Boorda's modest origins may have only enhanced his isolation.

BOORDA'S DEATH IS, AND MAY AL- ways be, a mystery. More surprises could emerge in the days ahead. The basic facts of his final hours are known: last Thursday morning Boorda was told by the navy's chief spokesman, Adm. Kendell Pease, that NEWSWEEK wanted to discuss some questions about Boorda's naval decorations with the CNO. For a number of years, Boorda had worn a combat decoration, a "V" for valor, on two of his medals. Recently, he had stopped wearing the insignia. A senior navy official had told NEWSWEEK that Boorda's own aides had advised the admiral that he was ineligible to wear the combat "V." The magazine had reached no conclusions, and it wanted to learn more from the navy before deciding whether to write or print any story. NEWSWEEK reporters were scheduled to see Boorda at 2:30 p.m. But the interview never took place. Boorda told Pease that he was going home for lunch. When he reached his quarters at the Washington Navy Yard, he took a .38-caliber pistol and fatally shot himself in the chest.

Boorda left two suicide notes, a private one for his wife and four children, and one that he asked to be sent throughout the navy -- to "my sailors," as he affectionately referred to the entire fleet. Neither one has been made public, but navy sources say that in the private note, he told his family he had been pushed over the edge by the pending press questions about his medals -- a fact that is provoking a complicated debate about the media's role (page 30). To the navy, Boorda said he did not wish to become a burden, one more blow to its honor. Wearing the medals, he told his fellow sailors, was "an honest mistake," but one that could be easily misinterpreted in the current climate of scandal.

Judging from the citations for his medals reviewed by NEWSWEEK, Boorda was not eligible to wear the tiny bronze "V." The emblem can be purchased in virtually any military PX, but is supposed to be worn only by true combat veterans. Though Boorda twice served on destroyers off the coast of Vietnam, there's no record of his ever being under fire. In the navy, wearing unauthorized medals is a court-martial offense that can send a man to the brig. Why, then, had Boorda risked exposure? He may have succumbed to the temptations of medal inflation, which are strong in the modern military. The navy's convoluted rules on the display of decorations may have made his actions easier to rationalize. Boorda was hardly the first officer to wear combat awards without ever seeing combat. Last week former CNO Adm. Elmo Zumwalt told reporters that he had informally permitted Vietnam vets who were sailing in combat areas to wear the "V," regardless of their citations or whether or not they had been in any real danger. Zumwalt dismissed the whole controversy as bureaucratic niggling. But navy officials told NEWSWEEK that Zumwalt lacked the authority to change the commendation rules, which state that the combat "V" must be specifically authorized by the medal citations.

To many civilians, it seems incredible that anyone would kill himself over bits of ribbon and tin. But medals count in the military; they are a road map to a man's career. Decorations for combat mean the most; getting shot at in earnest is still the truest test of a soldier or sailor's worth, even if it is becoming an increasingly rare experience for a warship seaman. The navy's last major surface action was in 1945.

Still, suicides are never simple matters, and we may never know why Boorda took his own life. Usually, a self-inflicted death is the culmination of long brooding, not a sudden or impulsive decision. But if Boorda was depressed, he did not show it as he made his way about the fleet. Up to the day of his death, he was upbeat with subordinates and senators alike. The diminutive admiral (he was 5 feet 5) was a "sailor's sailor," said Defense Secretary William Perry, beloved for his common touch. His story is of a driven and sensitive man trying to cope with terrible pressures -- from his fellow officers, from politicians and the press, and most of all from himself.

Once, long ago, the navy saved Mike Boorda's life. It "replaced alcohol," he once told a crowd of boot-camp trainees. Restless in high school in Momence, Ill., he was drinking six-packs of beer and skipping school. His parents' marriage was troubled. "Reducing the amount of pain you suffered every day was important to me," Boorda once told Tom Philpott, the former editor of the Navy Times. "I wanted to get away from it." Lying about his age, he joined the navy as a 16-year-old. It gave him a uniform, which he cherished as a symbol of accomplishment. In a real sense, the navy became his family. The feeling was strengthened when Boorda, who had married at 17, first became a father at 19. The boy, David, was missing an eye and suffering from Goltz syndrome, a rare congenital condition that leaves infants with malformed organs and limbs. He would have 17 operations by his 4th birthday -- all paid for by the navy, which put off Boorda's first sea duty so he and his son could be near a good naval hospital. Boorda refused to place his disabled son in an institution. Legally blind at 38, David still lives at home.

THE NAVY ALSO GAVE BOORDA AMBItion. Open and eager to learn, he was picked in 1961 for a "seaman to admiral" program designed to make the promising enlisted men into officers. Among the college grads at Officers' Candidate School, Boorda "wasn't part of the crowd." He was "self-contained, reserved," recalled his roommate, Lee Van Boven. But the young "mustang" was extremely well organized and disciplined. With his new lieutenant's epaulets, he was sent to Vietnam aboard the destroyer Craig in the spring of 1965. But the North Vietnamese had no blue-water navy to challenge the Americans. As weapons officer, Boorda did help demonstrate to some visiting South Vietnamese army officers how the ship's five-inch guns could lob shells at Viet Cong positions in the jungle. But there are no reports that the fire was ever returned. Boorda won a Navy Achievement Medal, a minor award that sailors say is routinely handed out for "showing up." He won a second, somewhat more important Navy Commendation Medal on a short tour in Vietnam in 1972-73 as executive officer of the frigate Brooke. But according to the ship's history, the crew was disappointed because the ship never got to join in the naval bombardment of Vietnam. Neither of Boorda's medal citations authorize him to wear the combat "V." Navy regulations say the citation must specifically authorize the "V" solely for "individuals who are exposed to personal hazard due to direct hostile actions." As the ship's executive officer, Boorda would have been thoroughly familiar with the rules governing medals.

Despite his lack of combat experience, Boorda was by all accounts a superb officer. He was the "best ship handler in the navy," he once boasted, and he was resourceful and daring in war games. Commanding a guided-missile destroyer, the Farragut, in a North Atlantic exercise in 1977, he "captured" a Canadian oiler and used the ship as a screen to sneak up and "sink" a carrier. The gambit, performed at night in heavy seas, earned him the brass's flattering attention. So did his knack for winning over enlisted men with gentle but firm leadership.

An officer on the way up in the modern navy needs to "punch his ticket." And Boorda methodically punched his, serving in a variety of staff and command jobs. At some point in the 1980s, he began wearing the "V"s on his medal ribbons. (In a 1977 photo, he is not wearing them; in a 1986 picture, he is.) He may have felt that he needed to catch up in the race for credentials. The navy is divided into three different fiefdoms, of which the surface navy -- "ship handlers" like Boorda -- is the least glamorous. Aviators saw plenty of combat in Vietnam, while submariners are considered quasi-combatants for their games of cat and mouse beneath the waves with the Soviets during the cold war.

Boorda also lacked an Annapolis ring, a symbol so important that non-Academy graduates often complain about the exclusivity of the "ringknockers" among the top admirals. The "V"s gave Boorda (who finally earned a college degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1971) instant standing. Boorda had always been admired as a good mate, a family man who could attend to a sick child while raising a family of four amid sea and shore duties. With a chestful of medals and rings of gold braid marching up his sleeve, he was becoming a leader that others -- even ringknockers -- had to defer to. As the NATO commander in 1994, Boorda ordered the first-ever airstrike by the alliance in Bosnia, further cementing his warrior credentials.

Still, it was Boorda's political skills that won him the navy's top job. When Adm. Frank Kelso had to step down as CNO because he had attended the notorious 1991 Tailhook convention in Las Vegas, the navy needed someone who could lift low morale, and restore public confidence in the scandal-rocked sea service.

Boorda was an instant success on Capitol Hill and with the swabbies. Before visiting the fleet, he would find out who was up for a medal or a promotion. An aide would keep the medals in his pocket, and Boorda would surprise happy seamen with impromptu awards ceremonies, telling the aides to take care of the paperwork later. If a seaman needed a transfer to be with his family in a medical emergency, Boorda would simply decree it on the spot. He was cheered on decks from Naples to Okinawa.

BUT NOT BACK AT the Pentagon. Some Academy men resented this upstart four-star. Naval aviators regarded Boorda with suspicion, alleging that he was too willing to sacrifice good men -- like the flyboys of Tailhook -- to appease the politically correct. He was accused of caving in to political pressure in the summer of 1994 when he gave up a fight to name Adm. Stanley Arthur to head the U.S. Pacific Command. Arthur, a genuine hero of the Vietnam War who flew more than 500 combat carrier missions, had been accused of failing to support a sexual-harassment claim by a female pilot against her flight instructors. Boorda later regretted not going to bat for Arthur, whose promotion was being held up by a single senator, David Durenberger of Minnesota. "I should have fought this to the end," he told Tom Philpott early last year. "I helped screw it up, and I don't feel good about it."

Boorda's regret wasn't good enough for Jim Webb. The much-decorated marine hero of Vietnam and former navy secretary viewed Boorda as a craven bureaucrat. Webb likes to play the role of the navy's conscience, telling Annapolis midshipmen -- and anyone else who will listen -- "where principle is involved, be deaf to expediency!" At a speech last month at the Naval Academy, Webb harshly criticized Boorda, not by name but by clear implication. When Arthur's name had been withdrawn, "Who fought this? Who expressed their outrage?" demanded Webb. "Some are guilty of the ultimate disloyalty," he continued. "To save or advance their careers, they abandoned the very ideals of their profession in order to curry favor with politicians." Boorda was said to be deeply wounded.

It was Webb's passion for purity that led, indirectly, to the controversy over Boorda's medals. As navy secretary in the late 1980s, Webb made it his business to check the photographs of officers up for promotion to flag rank against their medal citations. He found that as many as 30 percent were wearing their medals improperly. The message trickled down through the bureaucracy, and soon lower-level officials in personnel were scrutinizing the "fruit salad" on the chests of senior officers. Boorda's "V"s immediately attracted attention. His staff was first notified in 1987. But none of Boorda's aides had the heart to confront him -- that is, until he became CNO. About a year ago, NEWSWEEK has learned, Boorda's personal lawyer, Capt. Tom Connelly, told Boorda that he had to take off the "V"s.

At about the same time, the National Security News Service, a watchdog group that feeds tips to news organizations, began filing Freedom of Information Act requests for the medal citations of all the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. After finding the apparent discrepancies in Boorda's records, Roger Charles, a former marine colonel who is now a correspondent for the National Security News Service, approached retired Col. David Hackworth, NEWSWEEK'S contributing editor for military affairs. It was Hackworth who had originally scheduled the appointment to see Boorda. When Hackworth was unable to get to Washington in time for the Thursday meeting, a pair of correspondents from the NEWSWEEK Washington bureau were dispatched in his stead. About two hours before the scheduled appointment, NEWSWEEK told Boorda's spokesman, Admiral Pease, what the magazine knew about Boorda's medals and the questions they raised. Pease immediately told Boorda, who asked, "What do we do?" Then, according to Pease, he answered his own question: "We tell the truth."

Boorda seemed concerned, but not upset, said Pease. Nonetheless, the CNO declined the lunch that had been ordered for him in his office and told Pease he was going home. Boorda reportedly pushed aside his driver and drove his car to his quarters at the Washington Navy Yard. Made anxious by Boorda's uncharacteristic abruptness, the driver followed. When he arrived, Boorda was already lying in his side yard, mortally wounded by his own hand. It is not clear whether Boorda's wife, Bettie, or any of his children (all grown, two of them naval officers) were at home. It is also not clear just when he had time to write the notes or whether he might have been contemplating suicide for some time.

Cameras caught President Clinton's shocked reaction when he was handed the news of Boorda's death. Later he privately told aides, "I wish the commander in chief could have told him that this is not worth killing yourself for. But," he added, "these things are always a lot more complicated." Last month Boorda told the Naval Academy midshipmen, "You won't hear me lamenting reporting about the navy. It may be painful, but it is also helpful. Sometimes, it makes you go look, and quite often you come across things that need to be worked on." Boorda continued, "If you fall into the trap of not looking into problems and feeling sorry for yourself because your problems are getting reported, you don't get better. I'm not going to fall into that trap." But he did, and the sailors he served so well can only mourn him.