CNN US News

Navy's top officer dies of gunshot,
apparently self-inflicted

Letter left behind offers clues

Boorda

May 16, 1996
Web posted at: 10:10 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The nation's top Navy officer, Adm. Jeremy Michael Boorda, died Thursday from an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound hours after learning Newsweek magazine was raising questions about the legitimacy of some of his combat medals.

CNN has learned from Pentagon sources that Boorda wrote two letters before he died, one to his family and one addressed to sailors.

Sources said that in the typewritten note to the sailors, Boorda explained that he took his life because of the questions raised about his wearing of "V" for valor medals on his combat ribbon from Vietnam.

Navy officials had not yet decided whether to release the letters.

A U.S. Navy official who met with Boorda in the hours preceding his death said Boorda was "obviously concerned" about a scheduled meeting Thursday with two Newsweek reporters pursuing the story.

The 57-year-old chief of naval operations was rushed to D.C. General Hospital after he was found outside his quarters at the Washington Navy Yard, the Navy said. An emergency room physician said Boorda arrived with a gunshot wound to the chest. Five minutes later, at 2:30 p.m. EDT, he was pronounced dead.

According to Newsweek editor Maynard Parker, the news magazine was working on a story that called into question two medals Boorda received during the Vietnam war.

According to Navy sources, the magazine claimed to have uncovered evidence that Boorda had for more than 20 years inappropriately displayed "V" for valor on the medals.

According to a source who has seen Boorda's note to the sailors, Boorda wrote that he wore the Vs because he thought he rated them.

Boorda told the sailors how much he thought of them, and said that some people will not think he did the right thing, the source said. He ended the letter with a reference to "critics in the media" who have been "hard on the Navy," saying "I have given you more to write about," the source said.

The "V" for valor on such awards is reserved for acts "involving direct participation in combat operations," according to military code. The Navy released documents late Thursday which indicate that Boorda was not authorized to wear a combat "V" decoration.

Rear Adm. Kendell Pease, who was with Boorda a little over an hour before the shooting, 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.

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."

Dalton

The Navy would not say if Boorda's wound was self-inflicted, and Navy Secretary John Dalton said Washington, D.C., police were investigating Boorda's death.

Earlier, a Pentagon source told CNN that Boorda's death was "definitely a suicide."

According to sources familiar with the investigation, a .38 caliber pistol was used in the shooting. The gun belonged to his son-in-law, sources said.

President Clinton expressed his grief at Boorda's sudden and violent death. Opening a briefing to announce a new U.S. policy on land mines, the president asked for a moment of silence in honor of Boorda. He bowed his head, prayed silently, then whispered, "Amen."



'His death is a great loss not just for the Navy and our armed forces but for our entire country ... Mike Boorda was the very first enlisted man in the history of our country to rise to become the chief of naval operations.' -- President Clinton


Earlier, during a discussion with business leaders, Clinton, who appointed Boorda to his position in 1994, was handed a note from an aide informing him of the shooting. After reading the note, the president's shoulders slumped and he grimaced. (800K QuickTime movie)

He continued the discussion for 20 minutes, without mentioning Boorda. On returning to the White House, he headed for an Oval Office meeting with several somber aides.

Dalton praised Boorda as "a sailor's sailor," and after a pause said, "He will be missed." (196K AIFF sound or 196K WAV sound)

The Navy secretary said he met with Boorda on Wednesday and found him in "great spirits."

Boorda, whose name was Jeremy, preferred to be called Mike.

Born in South Bend, Indiana, Boorda was married to Bettie May Moran and had four children. He received a bachelor's degree in political science from the University of Rhode Island in 1971 and postgraduate degrees from the Naval War College in 1971 and 1983.

Pictures of Boorda

He was commissioned as an ensign in the U.S. Navy in 1962 and advanced through the ranks to admiral in 1984. A top NATO commander, Boorda was in charge of American naval forces in Europe and commander in chief of allied forces in southern Europe before being chosen for the Navy's top job.

CNN Correspondent Jamie McIntyre contributed to this report

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