Boorda, Jeremy Michael (“Mike”)

views updated

Boorda, Jeremy Michael (“Mike”)

(b. 26 November 1939 in South Bend, Indiana; d. 16 May 1996 in Washington, D.C.), four-star admiral who was the only person in American naval history to rise from the lowest rank to the highest office. He committed suicide while serving as chief of naval operations.

The middle of three children of Herman Boorda and Gertrude Frank Wallis, corner-store clothing merchants, Jeremy Boorda had a difficult youth. The family, which moved several times before finally settling in Momence, Illinois, was troubled as neither parent had much time for their children. Herman was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia after trying to commit suicide when Jeremy was thirteen.

An indifferent student and a loner at school, Jeremy quit high school during his junior year, and in early 1956, lying about his age, he enlisted in the navy at sixteen. Following basic training, he attended the Naval Air Technical Training School in Norman, Oklahoma, where he specialized in personnel administration. On 13 March 1957 Boorda married Bettie May Moran, a student at the University of Oklahoma; they had four children. Naval service had a focusing effect on Boorda, and by 1961 he had advanced to the rank of petty officer first class, serving primarily in aviation commands at Miramar, California.

After completing officer candidate school in 1962, Boorda was commissioned an ensign, and during the next two decades he rose to the rank of captain while holding a variety of assignments. They included service aboard the destroyer Porterfield; attendance at the naval destroyer school; a stint as weapons officer on the destroyer John R. Craig, which engaged in fire support missions for American and South Vietnamese troops in Vietnam in 1965; command of the minesweeper Parrot; instructor at the naval destroyer school; attendance at the Naval War College at Newport, Rhode Island, and the University of Rhode Island, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1971; service as executive officer of the destroyer Brooke, which in 1972–1973 escorted aircraft carriers operating against North Vietnam; a tour in the bureau of naval personnel; command of the destroyer Farragut from 1975 to 1977; service as executive assistant in the naval secretariat for manpower and reserve affairs; command of Destroyer Squadron 22 from 1981 to 1983; and service as executive assistant to the chief of naval personnel from 1983 to 1984. In these posts Boorda earned a reputation as an outstanding gunnery officer and seaman and as a politically savvy officer who was a strong advocate for the navy on Capitol Hill. He also earned a reputation as “a sailor’s sailor” because of his efforts to improve the welfare of enlisted men.

In 1984 Boorda was appointed executive assistant to the chief of naval operations, his first “flag” assignment (that is, one filled by an admiral), and two years later he became commander of Cruiser-Destroyer Group 8, followed shortly afterward by stints as commander of an aircraft carrier battle group and later as commander of the Battle Force Sixth Fleet. From 1988 to 1991 Boorda was chief of naval personnel, and in December 1991, now a four-star admiral, he became commander in chief, Allied Forces Southern Europe and commander in chief, U.S. Naval Forces Europe. In the former role, Boorda commanded North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces enacting United Nations sanctions against the warring factions in the Balkans, and in February 1994 he ordered air strikes in Bosnia against Serbian forces, the first offensive military action ever by NATO forces.

Boorda was appointed chief of naval operations in April 1994, the first “mustang”—an officer commissioned from the enlisted ranks—to be named chief and the first chief from the surface fleet in more than two decades. He had little combat experience, yet President Bill Clinton and Secretary of Defense William Perry thought his political skills and popularity with sailors made him a good choice to restore the morale and image of a service that had been buffeted by troubles in recent years. These troubles included the crashes of a number of costly F-14 aircraft and dealing with the lingering effects of the Tailhook scandal, which involved the molestation of female naval officers at the 1991 convention of the Tailhook Association, a group of current and former naval aviators. Few had been satisfied by the navy’s handling of the scandal. Aviators charged that the probe to identify and punish offenders had degenerated into a witch-hunt, while others charged that Tailhook symbolized a prevailing hostility against women in the navy that needed to be completely rooted out.

Boorda took a number of steps to improve the navy and burnish its public standing. He intensified long-range strategic planning to make the most of the navy’s dollars at a time when defense budgets were dwindling because of the end of the cold war, lobbied Congress for new ships, submarines, and aircraft, insisted upon improved aviation-maintenance and pilot-training programs, worked to convince members of Congress that the navy had put Tailhook behind it, and attempted to address the concerns of ordinary sailors over matters like housing and family problems, even if it meant personally bending a rule to benefit a sailor in need.

Boorda’s actions were popular with Congress and sailors; however, he was soon entangled in troubles. There were continuing controversies over the treatment of women, scandals at the U.S. Naval Academy, and more aircraft crashes. In addition, some in the naval community began to criticize his leadership. They complained that he was too liberal on gender issues, too ready to ignore the chain of command in personnel matters, and too willing to curry the favor of politicians by failing to fight for the careers of good officers who had been unfairly stigmatized by the sexual scandals. Under Boorda’s leadership, they charged, the navy was emphasizing “political correctness” to the detriment of naval traditions and warrior virtues.

By the spring of 1996 some of Boorda’s critics were saying that he had lost the respect of senior officers and should resign. At the same time, Newsweek magazine began to look into reports that for a number of years before 1995 Boorda had wrongly worn combat valor pins on two Vietnam War decorations. Perhaps fearing that a dispute over the legitimacy of his wartime decorations would further harm the battered reputation of the navy, or perhaps distraught by the attacks from his critics, Boorda killed himself on 16 May 1996 at his quarters in the Washington Navy Yard. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

The wearing of a decoration to which one is not entitled is a serious violation of navy rules and difficult to explain away for a senior commander, even if it is in error. The valor pins worn by Boorda signified being fired at in combat, and like many naval officers at the time of the Vietnam War, Boorda believed that his service in the war zone qualified him to wear them. Navy rules about medals were not always clear during the war, and it was not uncommon, especially in the surface fleet, to leave it up to the individual’s interpretation as to whether he should wear a valor pin. But according to regulations that went into effect in 1969, one was entitled to wear the pin only if it had been specifically authorized in the medal citation. Boorda’s citations did not include the authorizations, and in 1995 the navy’s Office of Awards and Special Projects advised him that he did not rate the pins. In a suicide note Boorda said he had made “an honest mistake” in wearing them, although some noted that as an experienced personnel officer and a senior commander he should have been fully aware of the rules. After a request from Boorda’s widow for an official ruling from the navy on the appropriateness of the pins, Secretary of the Navy John Dalton in April 1998 placed “a memorandum for the record” in Boorda’s service file certifying that he was entitled to wear them. He cited the authority of Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, commander of U.S. naval forces in Vietnam and later chief of naval operations, who in a memorandum also placed in Boorda’s file stated that wearing the pins was “appropriate, justified, and proper.” Dalton’s action did not change the official record, however, which requires an appeal to the Board for Correction of Naval Records, a long and complicated process that was not initiated.

A diminutive, gregarious, and energetic man, Boorda stood out for his efforts to guide the trouble-plagued navy into the post—cold war era of reduced budgets and across the divide between an old navy secure in its verities and a new navy caught up in the nation’s cultural wars.

Boorda’s tenure as chief of naval operations is described within the larger context of the navy’s travails in Gregory L. Vistica, Fall from Glory: The Men Who Sank the U.S. Navy (1997). Magazine articles offer the best source of information about Boorda. They include Tom Philpott, “Can Mike Boorda Salvage the Navy?,” Washingtonian (Feb. 1995); “A Matter of Honor,” Newsweek (27 May 1996); Richard Zoglin, “A Question of Honor,” Time (27 May 1996); Peter J. Boyer, “Admiral Boorda’s War,” New Yorker (16 Sept. 1996); Nick Kotz, “Breaking Point,” Washingtonian (Dec. 1996); Nick Kotz, “A Matter of Honor,” Washingtonian (July 1998); and “Another Chapter in the Boorda Matter,” News-week (6 July 1998). Obituaries are in the New York Times and Washington Post (both 17 May 1996).

John Kennedy Ohl