Today's apparent suicide of Admiral Jeremy Boorda shook the armed forces and official Washington. Charlayne Hunter-Gault is joined by Time Magazine national security correspondent Mark Thompson to look back on the career of the first man to rise from the enlisted ranks to chief of naval operations.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: The death of Adm. Jeremy Boorda stunned official Washington. Adm. Boorda was the first man to rise from sailor to chief of naval operations. For more about him and his career, we go now to Mark Thompson, national security correspondent for "Time Magazine." Thank you, Mark, for joining us. Mike Boorda was lured to the sea at a very early age, was he not?
MARK THOMPSON, Time Magazine: Yeah. He essentially lied to get into the Navy at the age of 17. He didn't have a happy home life as a kid, and he dropped out of school and enlisted as an enlisted sailor. He later went on and became an officer. He was a Mustang. He rose from the enlisted ranks to become an officer and ultimately the top officer in the Navy.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: That's the first time that's ever happened.
MARK THOMPSON: Right.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: How did he do it?
MARK THOMPSON: He had a tremendous personal touch with people. He was very pragmatic, very intuitive. He was the chief of naval personnel from the point in time when they abandoned their quest for a 600-ship Navy and into the downsizing and through the Persian Gulf War, so he grappled with the hardware and the people elements, and was very highly regarded as a people person, which is what the military felt it needed after the troubles they had had with aviators and submariners. Mike Boorda was a surface warfare officer and, as such, had more of the common touch.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Defense Sec. Perry today called him a sailor's sailor. How did he--was that how he earned that reputation?
MARK THOMPSON: Yeah. He--I mean, he was the sort of fellow when he'd have a tense meeting he would pick up his Nerf basketball and shoot it in his office, the chief of naval operations' office. He'd go out and play golf with a young enlisted sailor outside in the outer office, a game of computer golf, to break tension at times. He remembered the small people. He was literally a small person. He was not very tall.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: How tall was he?
MARK THOMPSON: Oh, about five five, and he, uh, liked licorice and pipe-smoking. I mean, these were the sort of things that did not give him a stand-offish sort of attitude.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: He served as commander of NATO in Europe at a very important time in the history of NATO. Tell us about that.
MARK THOMPSON: Right. He served as the chief of the Southern European Command after he left the Navy personnel shop and before he became CNO. It was while working there in Naples that he ordered the first offensive action by NATO against four Serbian warplanes during the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. And by all accounts, he handled himself well in that slot.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And, and what was unusual about that? I mean, up to that point, NATO had only--
MARK THOMPSON: NATO had essentially never done anything in terms of anger and was always poised defensively, but when the Serbian planes went up and violated the no-fly zone, he ordered them shot down.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And that was his decision?
MARK THOMPSON: Yeah, as the top officer there.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And how was it regarded?
MARK THOMPSON: I mean, nobody quarreled with it. We told the folks there you should not fly. They flew. They paid the price.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: He became CNO, chief of naval operations, at a very difficult time for the Navy. Briefly tell us about those times and how he grappled with them.
MARK THOMPSON: Right. Adm. Frank Kelso, the prior CNO, retired two months early because he had been at the Tailhook Convention in 1991 in Las Vegas where all of the, all of the sexual harassment occurred, and there was a lot of arguing going on in the military who should take Adm. Kelso's place, and most people inside felt that Mike Boorda was exactly the right guy, given his hands-on, personal management style, and his selection was universally heralded and his death today led to a lot of tears, both in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Is the other--I mean, he began to grapple with that problem, but the Navy just seemed to have one problem after another. It had problems with flying accidents--
MARK THOMPSON: Right.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: --and scandals at some of the Naval academies, controversies over drug use at some of the--
MARK THOMPSON: Yeah.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Was that--tell us briefly about that and how he managed to--
MARK THOMPSON: When he came into this confirmation hearing, he said the problems the Navy has are real but they are individual problems, not institutional problems, and he seemed to maintain that attitude right up to the end of his life. I mean, the Navy, among all the services, is doing quite well in the budget battles that go on. He as the overlord of personnel and later as CNO made sure that the Navy's downsizing was a relatively gentle one. Not a lot of people were fired as it shrunk dramatically rather, he scrunched down on recruiting, which isn't something that other services did so much, and, uh, he, uh, just was--did very well on that regard.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: How do you think he'll be remembered?
MARK THOMPSON: He'll be remembered, I think, as someone who was at the helm of the Navy in a very tough time and who did his best. Two of his four children are naval officers, remain naval officers, and I think he will remain well loved because he was a sailor who became an admiral.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, Mark Thompson, thank you.
MARK THOMPSON: Thank you, Charlayne.