By GREG MARKLEY
While visiting Naval Station Great Lakes, near Chicago, recently I noticed a building was named after Admiral Mike Boorda. He went from the lowest rank (sailor) to the highest rank in the Navy (admiral), a remarkable story. But it ended horribly, due to a true or untrue allegation published in Newsweek.
In May 1996, I was visiting a Navy base as I traveled from New York to my new home in Lee County. I picked up the latest edition of Navy Times and read the main headline: “Mike Boorda, Chief of Naval Operations, commits suicide.” I recalled the day when I met some of the admiral’s coworkers in 1993 who praised his originality, strategic knowledge and above all, his people skills.
I was deployed to Zagreb, Croatia, for three months and knew that if we got into a ground war in the Balkans, Boorda would command the Joint Task Force. His aides were already scouting a location for a headquarters and they greatly admired him. We at the public affairs team were supposed to go to Naples, Italy, to meet key people, including Boorda. That trip fell through. So I did not meet the amazing man who became the 25th CNO and the first who was not a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy.
For decades, a campaign to dislodge statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson was unheard of. But now, having owned slaves turned the first and third U.S. presidents into personas non-grata. Naturally, descendants of slaves have strong reasons for downgrading slave-holders and this negative aspect of some Founders’ lives is regrettable. Seeing Boorda’s building at the navy base in Illinois makes me wonder if future activists may want to delete his name, too.
What happens when in say, 2035, an effort sweeps the country to change the names of buildings and monuments named for persons who committed suicide? Will proponents say we should not glorify those who take their own life? Maybe in 2051 new evidence will surface that Boorda wore a whole lot of medals that he didn’t earn? Then what, down comes his name from the building and his Lone Sailor Statue? (See below for the controversy about his medal usage.) Where does it stop?
Boorda, 56, left suicide notes with “expressions of concern” that he had harmed the reputation of his beloved Navy, following Newsweek’s investigation into the legitimacy of his having two ribbon devices on his uniform and was thought to have made an unconscious error that he was authorized to wear them.
The 4-star admiral was said to be agitated over the research conclusions made for Newsweek by contributor David Hackworth, a highly decorated soldier in the Vietnam War. (Hackworth, who retired as a colonel, wrote the best-selling “About Face,” which showed the generals stumbling for an honorable way out of the quagmire.)
According to Newsweek’s issue 11 days after Boorda’s death, “Hackworth believed that wearing an undeserved combat pin for valor was a grave matter of honor in the military, ‘the worst thing you can do.’” I agree.
The final word came on June 24, 1999, from the Department of the Navy Board for Correction of Naval Records, which determined that despite the additions to Boorda’s personnel file he was not authorized to wear Valor devices. That ruling came more than three years after Boorda’s death. In a one-page suicide note for “my sailors,” he apologized for the issue of his medals, noted the New York Times.
One result of all the partisanship and “tribalism” of our time is that the concept of historical empathy is, even more, a challenge for a person to use when studying history. In old times, researchers may find that people were too tough on their children, and these historians would recoil, for example. But “putting on someone else’s shoes” is very important to avoid biases and to correctly describe an era or heroes.
People may object to a Jefferson statue because, by today’s standards, he was not a great man, not when he was promoting democracy everywhere but on his own farm. But why should we use today’s standards to understand another time? That would make for a poor history paper or book and one not fair to all persons studied.
As I noted, history may be rewritten in a way that judges Mike Boorda too heavily on his last living act. In the larger view, he was a giant in the Navy’s constellation and that’s why, in a rarity even for admirals, he is honored by having a major building named for him, at Naval Station Great Lakes.
Yes, I was disappointed in 1993 in Europe not to have met Admiral “Mike” Boorda, given the charisma and intelligence he oozed. His memory is still present at the large base, in his seven-story 310,000 square foot complex. I don’t expect protestors asking to take his name off the building anytime soon. Perhaps in 25 years? Who knows? Things are changing so fast.
Greg Markley first moved to Lee County in 1996. He has Masters’ in education and history. He taught politics as an adjunct in Georgia and Alabama. An award-winning writer in the Army and civilian life, he has contributed to the Observer for 11 years. email@example.com .
You can always talk to someone by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number, 1-800-273-8255 (TALK).