EVERY SUNDAY FOR YEARS, ADM. Jeremy "Mike" Boorda had sent a letter to his father, a retired Illinois postal worker, relating tidbits about his family and life in his beloved Navy. He found the experience so gratifying that after Herman Boorda died last year at 91, his son, by now Chief of Naval Operations, started addressing his weekly note instead to his admirals, hoping they would pass it on to their charges. "Instead of writing to Dad," he told an aide, "I'm writing to the Navy." His last such communication came in a pained, hastily scrawled note addressed to "my sailors," in which Boorda, 56, tried to explain why he was about to take his life. It was found on May 16, just after his body was discovered outside his official residence at the Washington Navy Yard, a single bullet from his son-in-law's .38-cal. pistol through his chest.

Though the causes of suicide often remain shrouded in mystery, in Boorda's case they seemed particularly inexplicable. A father of four and the only enlisted man ever to rise to the Navy's highest uniformed post, he was an ebullient man with a gentle, self-deprecating wit (at 5'4", he often joked about his height) who had shown no outward signs of depression or brooding. "He was very upbeat and positive," Navy Secretary John Dalton says of his two meetings with Boorda two days earlier. Yet the Navy's recent difficulties—including a Naval Academy cheating scandal, aircraft crashes and new allegations of sexual harassment—had weighed heavily on him, though he wasn't implicated in any of them. Boorda's death came just after he learned that two Newsweek reporters were to question him about two small bronze V's—indicating combat experience—that he had worn, perhaps improperly, on his military medals over the years. Whether he was right or wrong, "I can't understand how he allowed things to be internalized to the point where he took his life," says a close friend, retired Vice Adm. Jim Zimble. "And that hurts."

For all his apparent cheerfulness, Boorda may have carried, unseen, the scars of his life's early traumas. Born in South Bend, Ind., he was the son of Herman and Gertrude Boorda—themselves children of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants—who owned a dress shop in the farming town of Momence, Ill. His parents' troubled marriage—which ended in divorce when Boorda was in his early teens—caused him great heartache, he admitted years later in interviews. His first way out was to quit high school and drink beer by the six-pack. In 1956, at 16, he found another way, lying about his age to enlist in the Navy. Stationed at a Norman, Okla., training center, he met Bettie Moran, a student at the University of Oklahoma, whom he married in 1957.

Later that year, when Boorda was 18, their first son, David, was born with Goltz syndrome, a rare congenital condition that causes severe malformation of limbs and organs. Though a doctor suggested that the boy be placed in an institution, the Boordas brought him home. David had undergone 17 operations by the time he was 4. "You go from 'Gee, we're going to have this little baby—it will be like playing house' to 'Here's this huge problem,' " Boorda told The Washingtonian. "And you have to deal with it every day. Not just every day for a little while, but forever." (David, now 38 and legally blind, still lives at home.) The Boordas' other children are Edward, now 37 and a Navy commander; Anna, 36, a home-maker; and Robert, 35, a Navy lawyer.

With responsibilities as a breadwinner, Boorda was looking for a way out of the Navy in 1961 when he met George Everding, a chief petty officer. "I just felt that he was a keeper," says Everding, now 75 and a retired lieutenant commander. He encouraged Boorda to apply to the seaman-to-admiral program, designed to help promising young sailors become officers. Boorda was skeptical, but he applied and was eventually accepted, gaining his first commission as ensign in 1962. He did two tours in Vietnam—as weapons officer on a destroyer and as an executive officer on a guided-missile frigate—and later worked his way up through the ranks, commanding ships and serving in various Pentagon posts before being named chief of NATO forces in southern Europe in 1991. Though he was a rare breed in the upper echelons of the Navy—born Jewish and a former swabbie—he gained a reputation as a politically astute leader. When President Clinton tapped him in 1994 to replace Adm. Frank Kelso, who was forced to retire early in the wake of the Tailhook sexual-harassment scandal, Boorda seemed the perfect choice to bolster the Navy's flagging morale.

He was particularly popular with enlisted men, who knew he came from their ranks. "This guy got along with his troops as well as Colin Powell—and nobody has been better than Colin Powell," says Harlan Ullman, a retired Navy commander and friend of Boorda's who is now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. But Boorda's family worried that the workload was taking its toll. His youngest, son, Bobby, told The Washingtonian last year how his father would bring home so much work he'd stay in his office all night. "He'll come out of the office, point to them and say, 'I just did those four briefcases full of work,' " Bobby Boorda said. "I'll say, 'Dad, that's great, but you need some time off.' He'll say, 'Well, let's play a game of cribbage.' "

The top naval post also made Boorda the target of increasingly frequent public attacks. In an April speech at the Naval Academy, President Reagan's Secretary of the Navy, James Webb, aimed a few barbs that seemed targeted at Boorda. Amid persistent criticism of the Navy after Tailhook, top officers should have stood up for the service, Webb said. "Where were the leaders?" he asked. Says former Asst. Secretary of Defense Lawrence Korb: "Like the father of a family, Boorda took these problems personally." And just days before Boorda's death, the Navy Times had published an anonymous letter suggesting that admirals had lost faith in Boorda. "You are not their leader," it said. "Go home immediately for the sake of the Navy you love."

And finally there was the matter of the V's that Boorda had worn for some time and then—perhaps acknowledging the error—took off sometime last year. The prospect of having questions raised about his decorations would have been deeply humiliating, especially for such a senior officer. Why exactly Boorda came to affix the V's may never be known. B.G. Burkett, a Vietnam veteran who has investigated "medal inflation," speculates that Boorda's modest background may have fostered a sense of inadequacy that even his remarkable career could not assuage. "He was good enough to actually do it," says Burkett, "but there always had to be this fear that he wasn't quite good enough and they were going to snatch it away from him."

As Boorda was laid to rest in a private ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery—and memorialized in a service at which President Clinton praised his "deep sense of honor, which no person should ever question"—colleagues, friends and relatives looked for clues that might explain the final, rash act of such a supremely reasonable man. "I have a PhD," says Ullman. "But if I had 27 advanced degrees, and if you gave me a zillion dollars, I still couldn't write a paper as to why this happened."

THOMAS FIELDS-MEYER
MARGIE SELLINGER and ANDREW MARTON in Washington, BONNIE BELL in Chicago and JOSEPH HARMES in San Antonio

  • Contributors:
  • Margie Sellinger,
  • Andrew Marton,
  • Bonnie Bell,
  • Joseph Harmes.