He went into the Navy the way a lot of men go in, as an enlisted man, a grunt, the lowest level. Over the years he worked his way up, rising through the ranks, commanding five different Navy ships, and ultimately becoming, in 1994, the head cheese, the top gun, Chief of Naval Operations. Jeremy (Mike) Boorda, who stood only 5-feet-4, was the biggest admiral in the business.
It was some achievement — especially for the poor son of Jewish parents. But in the end, Boorda’s life may have been defined not by what he’d done, but by what he wore. Two small bits of bronze-colored metal. Two little “V’s” — for valor — attached to service ribbons on his uniform. You can buy these things in any Army-Navy store for less than a dollar. They are supposed to mean the wearer has been “in personal danger from hostile fire.”
A year ago, Newsweek began looking into those little V’s on Boorda’s chest, and if he’d really earned them.
Then, a few weeks ago, Boorda, 56, learned that a Newsweek reporter was coming by to interview him, to ask about the medals. Boorda canceled a lunch, went home, took out a .38 revolver and held it to his chest.
Bang. The suicide notes
Now, your first question here should be: “Is this really a reason to kill yourself?” And the obvious answer is no. Even if Boorda had stuck those medals on his chest without justification, it hardly seems a cause to wipe himself out, especially when he had a wife and four children.
Yet Boorda left behind two suicide notes, and in each he suggested that the possibility of a scandal was the reason he pulled the trigger. Just so you understand what we’re talking about here, it’s not like Boorda was wearing medals that said he was a fighter pilot when he’d never been off the ground. Boorda had indeed served in Vietnam, two tours of duty. The only thing in question was the level of danger he’d faced.
Still, in the days after his death, some high-ranking ex- military men paid tribute to Boorda’s suicide. One said, “He had the moral courage to take a very drastic step.”
Added another: “He took the medals seriously, and I appreciate his decision.”
Excuse me, but . . . are these people crazy? This is a man’s life here. Over a tiny decoration? Yes, I know what those medals stand for, and yes, I know, people have died for them and they should be held in high esteem. But does that make killing yourself over them a noble way to go?
And, more to the point, does it eliminate scandal? Hardly. If anything, when the highest-ranking man in the Navy shoots himself, it only invites more scandal, more controversy and more suspicion.
If that’s honor, we need to redefine the word. The establishment
Which brings us to another possibility: that the medals were just a small part of why Boorda took his life. Insiders say resentment within the Navy was a bigger reason.
Boorda was, by all accounts, a forthright guy, with endless energy and enormous stress-tolerance. He was witty and well- liked. A few years ago, he had overseen operations in Bosnia, and at the memorial service, President Clinton said there were “thousands of people alive today” because of Boorda.
But Boorda did something else as head of the Navy. He tried to clean it up. Tainted by the Tailhook scandal, cheating, drug dealing and sexual assault incidents, our sailors needed a drastic turnaround. Boorda established a “zero tolerance” rule for sexual harassment charges. He stood up for the rights of disabled soldiers. He was constantly fighting for the female officers, and for lower-ranking enlisted men.
Not everyone liked this. Some, who preferred the old days when rank really meant privilege, objected strongly to Boorda. They said he was caving in to
“politically correct types.” One disgruntled officer wrote an anonymous letter
to the Navy Times, asking Boorda to quit, saying his men didn’t respect him, and they called him “Little Mikey Boorda” behind his back.
Never mind that the guy turned out to be a disgruntled officer who was relieved of his command for verbally abusing his men. The letter greatly disturbed Boorda. Maybe, some say, enough that he took his life.
Unbelievable? No more than killing yourself over a tiny medal. In either case, it is devotion beyond reason. It is noble to be devoted to the military. But in times of peace, we shouldn’t be losing soldiers, especially high-ranking ones.
Maybe this weekend, on Memorial Day, when we remember the fallen heroes of this country, we’ll also remember something about honor, real honor. That it comes from your heart, it does not need medals, and it is not served by a suicide bullet, only wounded.