WASHINGTON -- Adm. Jeremy M. "Mike" Boorda, the Navy's top admiral, who killed himself Thursday, left a suicide note contending that he made an "honest mistake" in wearing Vietnam-era combat decorations that he had not earned.
The chief of naval operations wrote that he was killing himself to avoid becoming the center of another Navy scandal.
"He didn't want another reason for any negative perception of the Navy," said a senior Pentagon officer familiar with the note Boorda left to his sailors.
The note, along with a message to his family, was found after the 57-year-old father and grandfather shot himself at his home after learning that his right to wear the combat decorations was being questioned by Newsweek magazine for an article.
"He hoped the service would understand this honest mistake," the officer said of Boorda. "He said he knew some might not understand how this could occur. When he learned of [the mistake], he removed [the decorations]."
His note also reflected his devotion to ordinary sailors, a hallmark of his two-year tenure as chief of naval operations, the Navy's top position. In his suicide note, the Pentagon officer said, "he said he loved the sailors; they were his strength."
Outside the service, however, there was skepticism that the Navy's top admiral and a former chief of personnel, who awarded numerous medals, could have misunderstood whether he was entitled to a combat decoration.
Boorda, the first enlisted man to become chief of naval operations, will be buried in a private ceremony tomorrow at Arlington National Cemetery. A memorial service will be held at Washington National Cathedral Tuesday. President Clinton will attend.
The Navy, meanwhile, was struggling to understand why Boorda, one of the most popular commanders in the modern Navy, would have been driven to suicide by questions over whether he was authorized to wear a "Combat V" on his Navy achievement and Navy commendation medals.
"It was such an incidental thing in a long life," said one baffled Navy officer.
Officials close to the admiral said Boorda had been "grousing" for a couple of weeks about criticism and troubles, ranging from crashes of the F-14 fighter jet to pressures from top Navy officials to appoint an independent board to look into wrongdoing at the Naval Academy.
Letter upset him
He was particularly upset by a recent anonymous letter in the Navy Times that said Boorda had lost the confidence of his sailors and called for his resignation.
This followed an accusation in a speech last month to the Naval Academy by James H. Webb Jr., a former Navy secretary, that the Navy leadership had lost its "moral courage." Webb did not mention Boorda by name but lashed out at the current and previous chiefs of naval operations.
But judging from Boorda's suicide note to sailors, said one official familiar with the note, "It's quite clear that the medal inquiry did push him over the edge."
Boorda's strict punishments for ethical lapses may have caused him particular anguish about his predicament, and about the charges of hypocrisy that certainly would have followed, said a Capitol Hill source.
Last fall, Boorda forced into retirement Adm. Richard Macke, commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, for saying of U.S. servicemen accused of raping a Japanese girl: "For the price they paid to rent the car, they could have had a girl."
"He threw people out of the Navy for not meeting ethical standards," the source said. "Now he's caught in an honor offense himself."
Neither of the citations for Boorda's two decorations directly conveyed to him the right to wear the small bronze "V" pins.
These are awarded for "acts or services by individuals who are exposed to personal hazard due to direct hostile actions." Navy regulations say they are not given simply for "the geographical area in which the acts or services are performed."
As an officer in the 1960s and early 1970s, Boorda served on two ships off the coast of Vietnam. His citations mention involvement in "combat operations" and "combat missions" but do not indicate the key criterion for the "V" pin: that his ships came under enemy fire.
Cmdr. Steve Pietropaoli, a Navy spokesman, said: "We have people out there trying to figure out whether he did or did not rate [the combat pin]."
Military experts mentioned three possible explanations as to how Boorda came to be wearing the two Combat Vs on his chest:
The "V" pin was awarded, but a clerical error omitted it from the citations and his records. This is possible but unlikely, experts said.
As a young lieutenant, he initially erred in thinking he had the right to wear it because the citations mentioned "combat." This is plausible, but after he became chief of Navy personnel, he would have become familiar with the regulations. Yet he continued to display the "V" pins until a Freedom of Information request was lodged for release of his medal citations about a year ago.
He willfully embellished his decorations to portray himself as one who had faced enemy fire.