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Navy’s Top Admiral Dies of Gunshot; Awards Had Been Questioned

May 17, 1996

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The nation’s top Navy officer died Thursday from an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound just hours after learning that a news magazine was raising questions about the legitimacy of some of his combat medals.

Adm. Jeremy M. Boorda, the chief of Naval operations, was to have met about the time of the shooting with the Washington bureau chief of Newsweek magazine, which was working on a story concerning his medals.

Administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there was no evidence the shooting was accidental and no suspicion of foul play. Two notes were found at Boorda’s residence; they were sealed by investigating police.

Colleagues and lawmakers who had spoken with him in recent days expressed shock and dismay over the death of a man several called ``a sailor’s sailor.″ The Navy listed his age as 56, although sources said he was 57.

At the White House, President Clinton praised Boorda, the first enlisted sailor in the history of the Navy to rise to its top position, as a man of ``extraordinary energy, dedication and good humor.″

Navy Secretary John Dalton said he had met with Boorda a day earlier. ``He was in great spirits,″ Dalton said. ``He was in excellent spirits.″

The questions about the legitimacy of Boorda’s combat ``V″ award came at a time when the Navy as an institution has come under fire from critics for moral lapses, starting with the 1991 Tailhook sexual assault scandal and more recently focusing on drug use at the Naval Academy and sexual harassment in the officer corps.

In recent interviews Boorda had emphasized his determination to move the Navy into a new era and away from the controversies that dogged it in recent years.

Rear Adm. Kendell Pease, who was with Boorda a little over an hour before the shooting, said Boorda was to have met with Newsweek’s bureau chief in his Pentagon office at 2:30 p.m. to discuss questions about his Vietnam combat medals. The implication was that Newsweek was investigating whether Boorda for years had worn a combat ``V″ decoration that he was not authorized to wear.

Pease said that when he told Boorda, at about 12:30 p.m., what the subject of the interview was, the admiral abruptly announced he was going home for lunch instead of eating the meal that had been brought to his office.

``Admiral Boorda was obviously concerned,″ said Pease, the Navy’s top public affairs officer. Pease declined to characterize Boorda as distraught.

He said that Boorda had asked him how they should handle the Newsweek questions, then without waiting for a reply had answered his own question: ``We’ll just tell him the truth.″

In a statement, Newsweek Editor Maynard Parker said the magazine ``had not reached any conclusions″ about the medal controversy.

Boorda’s body was found about 2:05 p.m. in a side yard next to his quarters at the Washington Navy Yard. People nearby heard the gunshot and rushed to his aid. But he was pronounced dead at D.C. General Hospital a few minutes later.

Pease, the Navy information officer, said he learned after Boorda’s death that the admiral had become aware about a year ago that someone was looking into his Vietnam medal awards. Pease said he had no indication of how Boorda had reacted except that the admiral had stopped wearing a combat ``V″ on his Vietnam campaign medals.

Boorda was awarded commendation and meritorious service awards for his duty in Vietnam, which included combat operations. But copies of the citations released Thursday by the Navy did not mention that Boorda qualified for wearing a combat ``V.″

Navy regulations say the citation must specifically authorize the ``V,″ and that it is solely for individuals who are exposed to personal hazard due to direct hostile actions. Pease said he did not know the details of Boorda’s awards.

The regulations don’t say what the ``V″ stands for, but it is officially called the Combat Distinguishing Device. It is meant to indicate that the individual cited for the award (in Boorda’s case the Navy Commendation Medal and the Navy Achievement Medal) was personally at risk in combat, as opposed to only serving in the geographic area of a combat operation.

Boorda was known as a gregarious, hard-working admiral.

Sen. William Cohen, R-Maine, expressed the thoughts of many: ``I don’t think any of us had any indication.″

Defense Secretary William Perry called Boorda ``a sailor’s sailor. At every stage of his career, he put the interests of sailors and their families first.″ Dalton, too, referred to Boorda as ``a sailor’s sailor.″

Boorda was to have joined Clinton and other members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the White House on Thursday for announcement of an initiative seeking a permanent worldwide ban on land mines. Clinton asked the chiefs if he should go ahead with the announcement after Boorda’s death, and they recommended that he do so, aides said.

Clinton opened the session by asking for a moment of silence in Boorda’s memory, as grim-faced military officers stood behind him. He bowed his head, prayed silently, then whispered, ``Amen.″

The president praised Boorda for his work in Bosnia and for showing ``unwavering concern for the men and women″ of the U.S. military.

Stunned lawmakers took to the Senate floor to praise Boorda and express their grief.

Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, chairman of the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee, said he was ``in a state of shock.″ He called Boorda ``one of the bright stars″ of the Navy.

Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., the Senate majority whip, noted he had met many top Navy admirals over the years. ``I’ve never known one better than Mike Boorda. The men and women of the Navy loved him,″ Lott said.

As commander of NATO forces in southern Europe, Boorda was in charge of a NATO air strike against four Bosnian Serb aircraft flying in violation of the U.N. ban on fixed-wing flights.

It was the first time a NATO commander had ordered alliance forces on an offensive mission in its 44-year history.

Clinton appointed Boorda as chief of Naval operations, the Navy’s top job, in 1994 after Adm. Frank Kelso II resigned. His first mission: to try to restore the service’s reputation following the Tailhook sexual assault scandal involving Navy aviators.

The Navy also has suffered a series of serious flying accidents, and the Naval Academy is mired in drug-use and other controversies.

The grandson of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants, Boorda was born in South Bend, Ind., and grew up in Chicago. He dropped out of high school, fibbed about his age and joined the Navy at the age of 17.

Survivors include his wife, Bettie, and four children.

Boorda’s top deputy, Adm. Jay L. Johnson, took over as acting Navy chief after the shooting.

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