Sitting yesterday in a stone building at the 151-year-old Naval Academy, Midshipman Bryan Swenson fingered the striped ribbons on his uniform, pondering the tiny metal decorations that can come to mean so much.
The three stars, he said, were for his service as a Navy enlisted man in the Persian Gulf war; the two "E"s stood for his qualification at the academy as an expert in riflery.
Then he spoke about the Navy's highest-ranking officer and the decorations he had worn, the questions about their validity and Adm. Jeremy M. "Mike" Boorda's suicide. With a few fellow midshipmen, he struggled to make sense of a devastating blow to a Navy already deeply troubled by issues of personal honor.
"He loved the Navy. He was a very proud man about the Navy," Swenson said. "Now he's thinking, 'My integrity is going to be questioned before the entire nation.' Maybe he just couldn't take that."
Wherever the men and women of the Navy gathered yesterday -- on ships at sea, at bases around the globe, at the Navy Yard in Washington and at the Pentagon -- Boorda's tragedy resonated with an agonizing debate over the values of military service.
And the self-scrutiny was particularly intense at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, where Boorda, as chief of naval operations, next week would have administered to 929 graduates the oath commissioning them as officers.
Since a scandal erupted over widespread cheating on an electrical engineering exam in 1992, the academy has seen a change of leadership and a dramatic revision of the curriculum to strengthen moral training.
Midshipmen attend Integrity Development Seminars, study a revised Honor Concept and carry a handy card with its fundamentals, beginning: "Midshipmen are persons of integrity: They stand for that which is right."
Yet, despite it all, the academy was rocked again this spring by reports of a car theft ring, an LSD scandal, a brigade leader's being accused of sexual assault and an underclassman's arrest for sexual child abuse.
Many midshipmen dismissed the rash of cases as unfortunate instances of individual wrongdoing that did not reflect on the academy or the Navy.
But how could they accept the idea that Boorda, a man many midshipmen revered and one who had climbed from the enlisted ranks to the pinnacle of the Navy, might himself have violated the Navy's code of honor?
"I haven't lost my respect for him, not yet," declared Swenson, a 24-year-old junior. He recalled a moving speech Boorda made to the midshipmen after a parade last September. The message of that speech, Swenson said, was: "I'm the father of the Navy. This is what I'd tell my children to make the Navy better."
Perhaps, Swenson asked, there's more to the story of the tiny "V" pins for valor that Boorda wore until questioned last year, he ++ said.
Perhaps it was a mistake, but a mistake made many years ago by a younger man, he said.
"If that's what it came down to, I think people would have taken it as something that happened long ago," Swenson said.
"Did he at one point legitimately think he deserved it?" asked Midshipman Benjamin Stone, 22, a senior. If not, he said, "I would certainly be very taken aback and very surprised that Admiral Boorda, who I think is an honorable person, did something wrong."
For Stone and his classmates, who have completed a grueling four years, Boorda's death and the questions surrounding it cast a pall over what is ordinarily a time for celebration and a hard-won sense of achievement.
Yesterday's edition of the academy's weekly newspaper, the Trident, was remade at the last minute Thursday, a black-bordered box announcing Boorda's death bumping lower on the page an upbeat headline: "Welcome to Commissioning Week 1996."
Another 22-year-old senior said the Boorda tragedy felt like the culmination of many dispiriting events since the cheating scandal her freshman year.
"It's such a blow," she said. "A lot of people I know came here
with a lot of ideals, and they get disillusioned."
The world the academy graduates will be entering is one that puts great stock in the symbols of personal accomplishment worn on a military uniform.
The man who investigated Boorda's decorations and briefed other reporters on the apparent discrepancies Thursday said that decorations are no trivial matter. Roger G. Charles, a 1967 academy graduate and retired Marine lieutenant colonel who now works for the National Security News Service, himself received the Navy Commendation Medal -- but unlike Boorda, he officially earned the "V" pin for combat valor for his 19 months in Vietnam.
For an officer to wear an unearned "V" pin would be a significant offense, he said. "It does diminish the service, the legitimate, valid combat service of others. That's why it's a big deal," he said.
Leon "Bud" Edney, a retired admiral who served in the academy's second highest post in the early 1980s, said honor in combat can mean the difference between life and death.
"People have to have full confidence in the integrity of the person leading them. That's a fundamental requirement for those below you, and those you serve, because you have a risk of loss of life," Edney said.
Yet, like the much-younger midshipmen, he avoided judging Boorda harshly.
"It's not as if he was trying to wear something and he wasn't there in the war," Edney said.
Last month, in a talk at the academy, Boorda underscored the school's role in setting standards for the entire Navy.
"Although some leaders rise to many high places in the Navy without going to this school, they are affected by what goes on here, because this sets the tone," he said.
Describing to academy leaders their obligation to the midshipmen, Boorda said: "You must explain to them what is right. You must try to inculcate in them the values you want them to have. It isn't easy."
Pub Date: 5/18/96