New Chief Tries to Get Navy on the Correct Course

July 17, 1994|By GILBERT A. LEWTHWAITE

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- In the drawer of the desk in his Pentagon office, Adm. Jeremy M. Boorda, the new chief of naval operations, has a bottle of stomach-calming Maalox.

"I have taken it out a couple of times, but I have not had the need to drink it just yet," the Navy's top admiral says. "I'm still having fun."

Eight weeks into his job of revitalizing a service shamed by sex and cheating scandals, battered by downsizing and challenged by global crises, Admiral Boorda, 55, appears to be thriving under pressure.

The Maalox was left by his predecessor, Adm. Frank B. Kelso II, who took early retirement in April in the wake of the Tailhook scandal, an episode of sexual harassment that brought shame and embarrassment to a service that Admiral Boorda aims to imbue with a renewed sense of honor and mission.

That's not all that's required of him. He must also define the Navy he thinks the country needs for the 21st century, persuade Congress to fund it and make sure it can serve the nation's interests -- all with less money, fewer ships and smaller ranks.

That is no small order for a high school dropout from South Bend, Ind., a grandson of Jewish immigrants from Ukraine who ran away from home, enlisted at 17 and rose to the top without attending the Naval Academy, the usual breeding ground for the service's elite, or joining a college ROTC unit, the main alternate route to a commission.

Mr. Boorda was selected in 1962 -- under the "Seaman to Admiral Program" -- for Officer Candidate School in Newport, R.I. He graduated from the University of Rhode Island and the Naval War College.

"Going from seaman to CNO is an extraordinary feat and should serve as an inspiration for the young sailors in the fleet today," Navy Secretary John Dalton said of Admiral Boorda's appointment.

Admiral Boorda has had several tours at the Pentagon. Just before his appointment as the top Navy admiral, he was the top U.S. admiral in Europe, commanding NATO air patrols over the former Yugoslavia.

Being the first chief of naval operations to rise from the enlisted ranks in modern times has given Admiral Boorda the reputation of being a "people's" person.

"I would rather talk about people than anything else," he said in a recent interview in his office.

He will, however, have to talk about more than people in Washington, where Congress is grappling with how big defense budgets should be, what the military should be able to do and how it should be structured.

"His greatest vulnerability is he doesn't understand yet what a shark pit he is in in Washington," said a member of his staff who requested anonymity.

There is also some concern that by concentrating on "people issues," Admiral Boorda may not focus sufficiently on the machines of war. There is a strong constituency for constantly upgrading weapons.

One of the admiral's "hardware" challenges is deciding what type of plane the Navy should be flying in the early 21st century. The Navy is now relying on an upgraded FA-18 fighter. But the FA-18 is not a "stealthy" plane, able to avoid enemy radar and air defenses.

"The Navy's aircraft-modernization plans are in an absolute shambles," said Loren B. Thompson, deputy director of Georgetown University's National Security Studies program.

Admiral Boorda must also decide what kind of force the Navy, lacking a Soviet threat, needs.

Above all, the chief challenge for Admiral Boorda is resurrecting the service's sullied image and reviving morale.

"The Navy is tired of being pummeled," said an officer who works for Admiral Boorda, asking that his name not be used. "We are trying to deal with some of the problems we have had, whether it's cheating at the academy, the Tailhook scandal or sexual harassment."

The admiral said: "There's a lot of talk about having to change the culture. Let me tell you, the culture in the Navy has changed. We pay a lot of attention to things that got us into trouble before."

He has a reputation for personally trying to solve sailors' problems. When a female sailor told him that her husband had left her a week after they arrived in Italy for a three-year "accompanied" assignment, he ordered her tour to be cut to two years -- the normal assignment for a single sailor.

Admiral Boorda asserted in his interview with The Sun that the Navy seemed "to be having trouble getting away from things that happened in the past that we have learned from."

The admiral also attracted attention during his Senate confirmation when he suggested that media coverage of Tailhook and other scandals had "created a public outcry" against the Navy. The public, he said, realized that the scandal was caused by individuals, not the institution.

RTC But Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, a think tank on military personnel issues, accused Admiral Boorda himself of institutionalizing double standards in the Navy by giving preferential treatment to women.

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