Mike Boorda, our chief of naval operations whom we tragically lost last week, was a close friend, a respected shipmate and a Navy combat veteran with the highest degree of moral ethics, integrity and effective personalized leadership. I stand with our president who mourns the tragic loss of this great leader as a loss to the nation, the Navy and, most painfully, his family. This was a good man performing superbly under great pressure.
The question “Why?” is one we all must explore if we are going to learn from this senseless tragedy. Mike Boorda deeply believed until just before his dying breath that you could talk straight, tell the truth and improve the organization through the process of adding light and truth to any situation or event. So why did he succumb to human frailty at the end?
It was not the issue of medals - and yet it was. As a lieutenant on the USS John R. Craig (1965) and as a lieutenant commander on the USS Brooke (1971), Mike Boorda received formal awards for meritorious achievement and service in direct combat operations. Secretary of the Navy regulations governing the wearing of decorations at the time (1955-1971) stated that the combat distinguishing device “V” was authorized for wear on the meritorious ribbon for acts or service involving participation in combat operations.
This is fact, not speculation. So there is no issue of integrity, of someone trying to represent himself on his chest with service he had not performed or did not rate. Mike Boorda had earned the citations and met the requirements to wear the “V.” Period.
Oh, but the so-called military experts (Roger Charles, David Hackworth) imply there is deceit here. Charles and Hackworth may be experts on ground combat (I do not know), but they are not experts on Navy combat operations. A ship that brings support to units ashore (the USS John R. Craig citation) must place itself in range of enemy shore batteries. Similarly, a ship that closes the shoreline to pick up aviators downed in combat (USS Brooke citation) also exposes itself to enemy fire. Maybe this does not meet Charles’ and Hackworth’s personal definitions of “combat,” but that was not a requirement. This service did and it does meet the official definition.
Still, supposed defenders of honor say the words “authorized to wear combat ‘V”’ were not written on the original citation, nor was a block checked off on some other form. So what? With more than 500,000 Americans fighting at any one time and more than a million having served in combat, millions of these deserving citations were pushed through the paper mill. Errors and missing details were routine.
Any young lieutenant or lieutenant commander who referred to the manual after receiving an award (usually six to 10 months after the fact) could and would, I believe, have concluded he rated the “V” for the service in question, just as Mike Boorda did back then - and so he wore the devices without further thought for the next 30 years.
OK, it is said. If the devices were authorized, then why did he stop wearing them when an inquiry reached his office a year ago? The answer is that Lt./Lt. Cmdr. Boorda had become Adm. Boorda, chief of naval operations, and he was trying to lead the Navy out of the aftermath of the Tailhook sex-harassment scandal and a series of incidents that all raised the issue of the integrity of senior officers. Adm. Boorda did not want any issue to sidetrack his mission, so, according to his staff, to avoid any controversy, he stopped wearing the devices. A year later, those who pursue these issues for profit still were hard at work, and now, recent unrelated accidents and incidents might make the story worth publishing.
An anonymous, biting and factually wrong letter to the editor was published in the Navy Times. Timing is everything. Sadly, oh how sadly, Mike Boorda did not think he could depend on his friends and the men and women of the Navy that he loved to weather a vicious attempt to gore him. He did not think he could rely on all of us to put the whole truth and facts into perspective.
So, what is the lesson from all this? It is time for searching our personal and national consciences. We are losing the ability to debate and disagree, which is the strength of our democracy. Instead, we spend all our time in character assassination and tearing down those who have the audacity to disagree with a position.
This negativism has become a growth industry that is destroying the fiber and fabric of what makes our nation great. The sad part is that we are so busy using our energy tearing down things that we are losing the unity to build something good and to create a better nation.
It is time for us to search our personal and national consciences on these issues. At a minimum, I hope those personally involved in digging up a 30-year-old non-issue and piling it on until it became the straw that broke the good camel’s back have serious regrets. It is time for newspapers and magazines to stop printing character assassination by anonymous critics.
Finally, we who care must take a stand against incessant attacks by innuendo and half-truths (often by anonymous instigators with hidden agendas) designed to impugn and tear down those bearing the heat of the kitchen.
This is a personal plea from a sailor who has lost a shipmate he should not have lost and never will forget.