A lone sailor remembered on Memorial Day

Twenty years ago this month, U.S. Navy men and women stationed around the globe received wrenching news: Adm. Mike Boorda had shot himself to death during lunch break from his Pentagon job leading the Navy. Sailors revered him as a leader who made people his top priority. Boorda also was the first in the Navy’s 220-year history to rise from the rank of seaman recruit to the four-star position of Chief of Naval Operations (CNO).

I’ll never forget that Thursday morning, May 16, 1996: At Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, the Pacific Fleet commander gathered the entire staff in a morning formation usually reserved for special occasions. When he announced the CNO’s death, tears welled and more than a few sailors wept openly.

Like others who had worked closely with Boorda, I never imagined he would end his own life. Just eight months earlier, he had joined President Bill Clinton in Hawaii for the 50th anniversary of V-J Day and the end of World War II. After Clinton’s address to veterans on the flight deck of USS Carl Vinson, Boorda cheerfully led the president on an unscheduled tour of the aircraft carrier to meet crew members. This was classic Boorda — going off script for one-on-one time with sailors.

In Boorda, Clinton found a senior military leader he liked and also trusted with major military operations. Referring to Boorda’s command of U.S. and NATO forces enforcing United Nations sanctions in the Balkans, Clinton later observed, “more than any other military officer in this country, Mike Boorda helped to lead us to the point of peace…. And there are countless thousands of people alive in Bosnia today because of this small man with a big heart, a large vision, and great courage.”

When young Mike Boorda reported to boot camp in February 1956, no one could have predicted he would rise to lead the Navy. Short in stature, he was the Jewish grandson of immigrants from the Ukraine and Lithuania. With a mediocre academic record, he dropped out of high school and lied to the recruiter about his age. Shortly after facing the rigors of boot camp, Boorda decided to quit and he revealed his true age. But one of his Navy trainers, seeing some spark in this 16-year old, refused to initiate a discharge, and decided to mentor Seaman Recruit Boorda instead.

From then on, in one Navy assignment to the next, others saw promise too and gave Boorda the opportunities and support he needed. One of them, a senior chief petty officer, practically ordered Boorda to apply for an enlisted-to-officer commissioning program that selected a small number of sailors annually for officer training. On his second try, the Navy chose Boorda for Officer Candidate School in 1962.

Boorda never forgot the care and encouragement he received in those early years in the Navy. As a three-star admiral and Chief of Naval Personnel, Boorda repeatedly urged his staff to “do the right thing” for sailors, even if it meant bending Navy policies and procedures occasionally. At the end of nearly every otherwise bureaucratic personnel bulletin, he added a personal “p.s.” to explain its purpose in everyday language. As a four-star admiral, when he became CNO in April 1994, Boorda sent a personal message to everyone in the Navy describing the mentoring he had received and concluded, “If we took the same leadership approach with everyone…, we would get better and better as a Navy because our people would be improving and people, after all, are really what our Navy is all about.”

As much as sailors and most naval officers admired this leadership approach, it did not sit well with those inside and outside the Navy who believed a CNO’s focus should be on ships, planes and war-fighting rather than people. Boorda didn’t come from the Naval Academy crucible and seemed to identify with sailors more than with his fellow officers. His periodic “all hands” communiques to all Navy personnel and his frequent visits to ships, aviation squadrons and naval installations irritated some officers as interfering with the proper chain of command. Some detractors blamed Boorda for the continuing repercussions from the Tailhook incident, concerns arising from integrating women into Navy combat roles, and media criticism of the Navy on these and other issues. Others said Boorda had become too cozy with leading members of Congress and the White House. In a book entitled Fall From Glory: The Men Who Sank the U.S. Navy, a former defense reporter described Boorda as no taller than a jockey and “a political chameleon who could cut a deal without leaving any fingerprints.”

Did Boorda occasionally do favors for members of Congress and other government leaders? Of course: This is part of currency of U.S. military leaders who are not permitted to lead PACs, make campaign contributions, or present gifts of value to government leaders. But Boorda did a 100-times more favors for regular sailors and families who needed a break. He made time to personally type responses to letters from sailors and their families, even as CNO.

We all knew the admiral’s habits of working very long hours and somehow getting by with only a few hours of sleep a night. But only a few members of his family and staff members knew about his creeping fatigue, growing discouragement from criticism of the Navy, and other possible demons. A tipping point approached when Naval Academy graduate and Marine Corps combat veteran James Webb told an Annapolis audience that the Navy was “struggling for its soul.” Having resigned as Secretary of the Navy after only 10 months to protest a Defense Department decision to decommission 16 frigates, Webb attacked Boorda’s response to the Tailhook incident, his lack of “vigorous strategic vision” as CNO, and asked, “what admiral has had the courage to risk his own career by putting his stars on the table and defending the integrity of the process and of his people?” Three weeks later, on May 13, Navy Times published an anonymous letter written by a naval officer alleging that Boorda had lost the respect of senior officers in the Navy. Under the title “CNO Should Resign,” the letter referred to the CNO as “Little Mikey Boorda” and ended, “CNO … Go home immediately — for the sake of the Navy you love.”

The final blow came three days later, when Boorda learned that Newsweek planned an exposé the following week criticizing him for incorrectly wearing two combat “V” pins, signifying valor in combat, on his Vietnam-era Navy Achievement and Navy Commendation medals. Boorda admittedly had worn the V’s but removed a year before, following questions from a retired Marine Corps officer with the National Security News Service. The commanding officers of the two ships received Combat “V” pins for the same deployments and Boorda’s own award citations cited the combat environment. But his commanders had not fulfilled an administrative requirement by specifically authorizing the V’s in the citations.

Facing these attacks, Boorda chose suicide to avoid more questions about his leadership and more embarrassment upon the Navy. In a final note to “my sailors,” he wrote that “I couldn’t bear to bring dishonor to you.” He closed by saying, “If you care to do so, you can do something for me. That is take care of each other.”

Those of us touched by Mike Boorda will never forget his advice, leadership, and spirit. Today his name graces Admiral Mike Boorda Hall, a residence for new arrivals at Naval Station Great Lakes, where his career began at boot camp. Likewise a children’s center at a military hospital in San Antonio (funded by the New York City-based Fisher House Foundation); a recreational center at a Navy base in Washington State; a Navy-Marine Corps scholarship program; and the boulevard leading to the Armed Forces Retirement in Gulfport, Mississippi, are named in Boorda’s honor. And in Washington, DC, where Boorda’s life tragically ended, there is the bronze sculpture of The Lone Sailor at the U.S. Navy Memorial, dedicated in 1987 as a tribute to all the personnel of the sea services. In the end, Boorda came to feel like a lone sailor with the weight of the U.S. Navy upon his shoulders. It need not have been so, and we miss him.

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Steve Clawson is a Naval Academy graduate and retired Navy captain who served with Adm. Boorda.