MAY 17, 1996
The death of Admiral Jeremy Boorda Thursday dealt yet another blow to the beleaguered U.S. Navy. The service experienced a series of public embarassments and scandals in the past few years that Boorda had sought to correct. Charlayne Hunter-Gault discusses the life of the man and the effect his death will have with two naval analysts.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: From seaman apprentice to chief of naval operations, Jeremy Boorda's ascent was historic in the annals of the senior service and his origins gave him a reputation as a sailor's sailor, at ease with and attentive to the lower ranks in the fleet, but yesterday afternoon, 40 years of stellar service ended with a gunshot wound in the chest. Police labeled it a suicide.
At the time of his death, Boorda was scheduled to do an interview with a "Newsweek" journalist inquiring about two medals he wore until recently amid his rows of ribbons. They were Vietnam Service medals with a "V" for combat valor. Boorda had served on ships offshore from Vietnam but had removed the "V"s last year after inquiries from a news organization. But any potential controversy over the medals would have been among many Boorda and the Navy were facing, including problems in the ranks and at the Naval Academy in Annapolis. Boorda addressed some of those problems in a speech at the academy.
ADM. BOORDA: (April 24) What you have now is a Navy which is rooting out, or attempting to, its problems and solving them. And so every time a problem is solved and someone decides to discuss that, they can push the button and talk about all the other problems that were either solved or terrible before. Don't be fooled by that. Don't be fooled by that. If we try to stay out of the media by hiding our problems, if we ignore them and don't address them head on, we will not get better.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Two views now on Adm. Boorda and his Navy. Norman Polmar is a naval analyst and historian who writes a column for the Naval Institute "Proceedings Magazine." Harlan Ullman, a retired Navy captain, is a senior policy analyst at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. And thank you both for joining us. Starting with you, Dr. Ullman, as you know, there's been a lot of attention paid to this "V" medal and the role that it might have played in the apparent suicide of Adm. Boorda. What is the significance of this medal?
HARLAN ULLMAN, Naval Analyst: Well, in my own view on a scale of one to a hundred, this is a zero. The "V" indicates that he served in combat positions and was supposed to be part of any award. Whether Adm. Boorda wore that by accident or not, it seems to me that this is really a trivial issue when you look at the contributions of the officer and what he's done for the service and the nation.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Norman Polmar, how important is this "V" valor insignia to the Navy overall?
NORMAN POLMAR, Naval Historian: Oh, I'd say to the Navy overall it's like any ribbon or decoration. It's your bona fide testifying to what you've done, where you've been, but when you look at what Mike Boorda was, a 17-year-old kid with problems, he made it through six years as an enlisted man, was commissioned, became an admiral, became the No. 1 admiral in the Navy, whether he had those two ribbons--and he earned the decorations--it was a question of just the combat "V" added to it--he certainly earned those. But the question is, did they play any role in the selection of his promotion? The answer is absolutely not. And I have to agree with Harlan that we're talking about something that should have been a two or three paragraph story on page 17 of the newspaper, if it made it at all, and should certainly not have even been a TV or radio news item.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And, of course, none of us can possibly ever know what happened, and we're not going to begin speculating here, but here is a man of renowned unflappability, and yet a man who took honor and integrity to heart by all accounts.
DR. ULLMAN: Let me make a point--
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: I mean, would the notion of his integrity being impugned in some way flap the unflappable?
DR. ULLMAN: Well, obviously something happened. What happened is speculation. I would note that Mike Boorda's immediate predecessor, Adm. Frank Kelso, who retired three months early under the Tailhook controversy, suffered an extraordinary blood disease and until recently--Frank almost died--until recently, he'd just become mobile, so the pressures of the office in peacetime are rather significant based on the last two chiefs of naval operations.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And of course, as we know, Adm. Kelso left because of the many problems associated with Tailhook, the sexual harassment, and there have been others like the--well, the problems at the Naval Academy with drugs and cheating and other kinds of crimes. Help us understand the stresses on Adm. Boorda.
MR. POLMAR: I think you have a situation where everything you've mentioned was certainly of major concern eating into him, because this was his Navy. He accepted his responsibility very personally, and, and very honestly, but superimposed on that was the whole budget battle, what the military calls downsizing, reduction of forces, but at the same time, the requirements we have in this country for our Navy today are roughly in gross terms the same as they were during the Cold War. We've got ships steaming to Korea now. We've had ships the last couple of weeks in the Taiwan Straits. The--we still have ships in the Persian Gulf, the whole Bosnian operation, the evacuation of [Liberia], and here is a man who's faced with the day-to-day budget problems, the day-to-day problems of making sure the operational commanders have the ships, aircraft, and people, and at the same time, every day there's another issue related to integrating women in the Navy, another sex scandal or problem, and as he said in the clip you showed, he was talking about the problem of computers that every journalist who wants to do a TV or news story on it just presses a button in the computer and up comes the history of--
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: The litany--
MR. POLMAR: The litany of horrible events, so he can say this is the latest, not this is an event, this is the latest event.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Dr. Ullman, you knew--
DR. ULLMAN: I have a somewhat different view.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Okay.
DR. ULLMAN: Umm, Mike Boorda earned his spurs in the Carter administration when he was a very young Navy captain and single-handedly got a bill passed in Congress that improved the compensation package from the Department of Defense. During the Carter years, the military was in bad shape, so I think that Mike knew how to deal with adversity. I'm sure he had all these problems but in my association with him, which was fairly close, he was always pumped up, he was always dynamic. I think one of the real sorrows is that for the last two years of his four-year term, he had a lot of plans to deal with some of these fundamental issues and plans which I'm afraid right now are not going to be implemented.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: You, you say you knew him quite well. In one of the articles I read, maybe a couple, it described his ability to--well, it described him as thin-skinned when it came to criticism, and one of the strongest criticisms of him recently was by former Navy Sec. James Webb, who impugned his leadership. Simultaneously, there was another article by an anonymous person, presumably in the service, who also was critical of him. Did he take criticism like that to heart?
DR. ULLMAN: I had had a very intimate lunch with Adm. Boorda three or so weeks ago in which we talked about a variety of things, including this, and he didn't strike me then, and the conversation, believe me, was very, very candid, that these things really bothered him. There's been other controversy and other criticism from some quarters that's been worse. I think he was aware of it, he certainly felt it, but I don't think that really seemed to bother him in our discussion.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Do you think--
MR. POLMAR: I think the synergistic effect of one thing after another that every time he turned around there was another, if not personal attack on him, a personal attack on his Navy, and all the times Harlan said he had plans, things he wanted for the Navy, and the things he had to do to make the Navy, the forward operating force that it is for the nation today.
DR. ULLMAN: This is the great dilemma in contradiction, because on the one hand, that's true, and Mike's untimely demise demonstrate that there were these huge pressures on him. On the other hand, I don't know of anybody, or hardly anybody, that would have predicted this to happen of all people. Mike was formidable. He was balanced. He had a terrific sense of security, he was confident--
MR. POLMAR: And a tremendous sense of humor.
DR. ULLMAN: Absolutely.
MR. POLMAR: When he went to France with President Clinton, and he came back and he was telling me about the D-Day ceremony, and he said, of course, you didn't see me on television, Norman, and I said, no, I didn't, Admiral, and he said that's because I would stand next to the flower pots, and they're taller than I am.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: He was five foot four.
MR. POLMAR: Five foot four, and he just joked about that. He had a good sense of humor but I just have the feeling--I saw him at Annapolis three weeks ago at the conference, that you had the clip on, and then he and I had a private meeting about that time, and he seemed in good spirits. He was positive, but all there were were problems just building up, one after another.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Dr. Ullman, you mentioned the plans that he had for the next two years. Do you think that--I mean, this is speculation too, but do you think if he had been able to deal with the problem, the plans that he had in his head, the plans that he discussed with you, that he could have reinvented the Navy, which is what his mission was, and until--
DR. ULLMAN: I think so. I think that the key point that Adm. Boorda was moving to is a fact I think most of us know that the current strategy of dealing with two wars is not fundable by what's in the budget. And I think Adm. Boorda wanted to convince the Joint Chiefs of Staff that it was important to see President Clinton and the Republican nominee before November to make sure they understood where the Department of Defense was headed and, therefore, provide guidance which could be used after the election to take care of this mismatch. I think that was first on his plate, but that obviously will not come to pass.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Do you have anything to add to that about his plans?
MR. POLMAR: No. We talked about--he and I talked about three weeks ago about a couple of specific projects. One of them I recall talking to him and saying--just to give you an insight into his personality--I said, the way to sell this is to have a photo of you on the national news magazines holding a model of this ship. We were discussing the arsenal ship. And he said, "Norman, I don't want my photo on covers of magazines." And I said, "Why not?". He said, "It's a Navy project, not my project." And yet, it certainly was his project.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What impact is his death going to have on a Navy that is taking it from all sides, inside, outside?
DR. ULLMAN: I think devastating. I think in the ward rooms, in the ships at sea, having the No. 1 man in the Navy die the way he did is going to have a very, very hard impact on morale and esprit.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Why?
DR. ULLMAN: Because all of a sudden everything that you stood for has now been abandoned by the fact that the No. 1 person has killed himself, and people are going to ask, "Gee, why did he do it? Is he not letting us down?" And dealing with that is going to be very, very difficult.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Do you have anything to add to that?
MR. POLMAR: I look at it slightly differently. The people are going to say when they have problems in the Navy, they would say, hey, Mike Boorda's been there, he solved the problems, he was an enlisted man, a junior office, he solved them, I can solve them. Now they're going to say, Mike Boorda was there, he couldn't handle them from his lofty station. How do they expect me to solve this problem?
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So is it going to be difficult to find someone who can solve the problems?
MR. POLMAR: It will be very difficult to find the new chief of naval operations [CNO]. And I don't envy Mr. Dalton, Secretary of the Navy, or Mr. Perry, Secretary of Defense, in choosing the next CNO. It's going to be difficult, and, uh, it's going to be difficult to find the right man.
DR. ULLMAN: Well, following Mike Boorda under any circumstances would have been difficult, but under these tragic and devastating circumstances, the difficulty is going to be compounded immeasurably.
MR. POLMAR: Absolutely.
DR. ULLMAN: I agree with Norman.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, I hate to end on such a note, but thank you for joining us.
MR. POLMAR: Thank you.