War and American Women: Heroism, Deeds, and Controversy

By William B. Breuer | Go to book overview

32 The Admiral Boorda Tragedy

In April 1996, just over two years since Admiral Mike Boorda had taken over as chief of naval operations, he was in Annapolis, Maryland, for a speech at the Naval Institute. Typically, the affable, pipe-smoking Boorda was brimming with good humor and self-confidence. Clearly, the soft-spoken admiral, who loved licorice and played Nerfball in his Pentagon office to relieve tension, was handling the enormous pressure of continuing Tailhook-related and other seemingly endless problems quite well.

In his upbeat remarks at the Naval Institute, Boorda urged his audience not to "fall into a trap and feel sorry for yourself because your problems are getting reported [in the media]. He also spoke forcefully about the duty of military leaders to be models and to be aware of both the misdeeds and the personal problems of individuals in the Navy.

"Can the sailor commit suicide and not have the leader know that he or she had been in distress?" Boorda asked. "The answer is no."1

About a month later, on May 16, just before lunchtime, Boorda was told that two Newsweek reporters had arranged an appointment that afternoon to question him about two small bronze V (for valor) pins he had once worn on a chestful of decorations and ribbons received during his nearly forty years of Navy service. A year earlier, when he had heard rumors that reporters were looking into whether he was authorized to wear the combat Vs for his Vietnam service, he took them off.

Instead of eating the lunch that had been delivered to his Pentagon office, Boorda told an aide that he was going home, but that he would be back in time for his 2:30 P.M. appointment with the Newsweek correspondents. Brushing aside his driver, the admiral drove himself to his quarters in the historic Navy Yard in southeast Washington. There he took a .38-caliber pistol, walked outside, and ended his life with a shot to the chest.

Boorda had quickly scribbled two suicide notes. One was to his wife Bettie, to whom he was deeply devoted, and the other was to "the sailors." In the latter message, he indicated that he was not taking his life in the belief that he had been "caught in a lie," but out of fear that the media would accuse him of one and blow up the incident into major proportions, thereby damaging the Navy as a whole.

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