David H. Hackworth
June 11, 1996


Perhaps we'll never know why Adm. Jeremy Boorda killed himself. But there's a lot more to it than two reporters with an appointment to ask him why he wore valor devices his official records didn't reflect.

Suicide experts say Boorda was suffering from depression. His sister, Sybil Nahrgang, 60, said she began to worry about her brother several years ago when she spoke to him after he gave a talk.

"He looked strange, not as chipper as he usually was," she said.

I worry about what system is in place to keep an eye on our top brass' mental stability. These guys are under heavy-duty pressure, and with the added stress of post-Cold War downsizing and perceived shortages of defense dollars, things have only gotten worse.

In Adm. Boorda's case, apparently no one near him had a clue that he was on the verge of suicide.

Instead of going home and shooting himself, Boorda could just as easily have walked into the Pentagon's War Room and ordered up a holocaust. Senior leaders have enormous war or peace powers at their fingertips. In 1962, during the Cuban missile crises, Fidel Castro is reported to have pressed the button that downed a U.S. spy plane flying over Cuba when war with the Soviet Union was but a blink away.

I worry too about the U.S. Navy's handling of the Boorda suicide. First, senior Navy brass -- retired and active -- blamed me. They tried every dirty trick in their slime bag to smear me -- disinformation, lies, calling my friends, feeding the sleaze media and even recycling the confessions I made in my book "About Face" that happened three and four decades ago -- in an attempt to discredit me.

Next, they zeroed in on the Navy Times, a weekly newspaper circulated throughout the fleet, which a week before his death had run an unsigned but brutal letter about Boorda that "really hurt him," according to Adm. Kendell Pease, the Navy's top spinner. This was followed up with an attack by retired Navy Cmdr. Harlan Ullman, who actually blamed Boorda's problems on President Clinton.

The Navy is back in its cover-up, damage-control, smoke, mirrors, disinformation, blame-someone-else, try-to hide-the-truth mode. We've seen it all before.

Remember when the turret on the battleship Iowa blew up, killing 47 gunners, and the Navy blamed a sailor? Years later, when the truth came out, it was proven the explosion was the fault of bad munitions, not a gay love affair that went wrong. The Navy apologized but is now being sued by the sailor's family.

Similar cover-ups, lies and deceptions occurred when the cruiser Vincennes shot down an Iranian Airbus in Iranian waters, during the Tailhook sex disgrace and during the long-running scandals bubbling out of the Naval Academy.

All the services have serious honor and morality problems except the U.S. Marine Corps, which just goes along in its old-fashioned, proud, ethical way. (I swear, I was never a Marine.)

A recent internal Army report says the top U.S. Army leadership is under siege. Soldiers distrust their senior officers, whom they believe put career over the troops. Gen. Dennis Reimer, the Army's main man, didn't ignore this damning report or try to hide it. Reimer jumped in, boots and all, and is kicking butt, setting the example and cleaning up the Army.

The U.S. Air Force has a serious leadership problem. Gen. Ronald Fogleman, the Air Force top gun, is attacking it head on. He's holding his leaders' feet to the fire. Accountability and responsibility, long neglected in that service, are back on the front burner. Fogleman is armed with two blazing blow torches, and so far he's melted three lieutenant generals and a dozen other generals and colonels.

The U.S. Navy must also shape itself up and stop blaming others. There are no bad organizations, just bad leaders. The Navy can't blame the press, the president or anyone else for what's happened to an outfit filled with great sailors and extraordinary junior leaders.

Somewhere in the Navy's ranks there's an Arleigh Burke or Jim Stockdale, a two-fisted, straight shooter. Make him the next chief of naval operations and watch our Navy come about smartly.