Too Many Rushed Judgments On Navy Leader's Suicide

Three weeks before he committed suicide, Adm. Jeremy Boorda talked of suicide.

On April 24, at the annual meeting of the Naval Institute in Annapolis, of which he was president, he talked of a "laundry list"of problems that the Navy was rooting out and trying to solve.

A questioner from the floor raised the issue of the need for a moral compass, not only for sailors, but also for society. In a rambling reply, Admiral Boorda agreed, saying every person in the Navy should be accountable to someone higher.

He then said: "Under those conditions, can a sailor be a member of the Ku Klux Klan and not have the leader know it? No. Can the sailor be committing sexual harassment and not have the leader know it? No. Can the sailor commit suicide and not have the leader know that he or she was in distress? No."

The next day, the featured speaker was former Navy Secretary James Webb, who delivered what was taken by those present as a veiled attack on Boorda. Mr. Webb denounced those who, after the Tailhook sexual-harassment scandal, let distinguished officers be hounded out of the Navy. He spoke of some as "guilty of the ultimate disloyalty" of advancing their careers by currying favor with politicians.

Webb condemned Navy leaders who let politicians interfere with the "sacred promotional process." He continued: "What admiral has had the courage to risk his own career by putting his stars on the table and defending the integrity of the process and of his people?"

Now, I don't know what Boorda's mention of suicide and Webb's scorching denunciation of disloyalty to the old boys' club had to do with Boorda's suicide on May 16. My point is that nobody can know beyond the indication in his suicide note that a Newsweek inquiry about a decoration may have been the last straw.

It's remarkable how many people have rushed to use the suicide to flog their favorite whipping boys. Former Navy Secretary John Lehman said Boorda was the victim of "a relentless lynch mob that has hounded the US Navy." Navy veteran Richard Grenier, now a columnist for The Washington Times, said older officers hated Boorda, believing he bowed to feminist attacks on the Navy.

And then, of course, there is the press-bashing. On the Larry King show, Hillary Rodham Clinton said that part of the blame for the Boorda suicide, as for the suicide of Vincent Foster, must lie with "the relentless and unforgiving glare" of the news media. Retired Adm. Leon Edney, meanwhile, wrote about "character assassination."

How quick they are to read this tragic and complex event in terms of preconceived resentments. Less judgmental was ex-Marine Robert MacFarlane, former Reagan national security adviser, who himself attempted suicide nine years ago during the Iran-contra scandal.

In Time magazine, Mr. MacFarlane wrote about what it is like to bottle up one's problems of ethics and honor and fall into a depression, feeling unable to communicate these problems to others.

That brought me back to what Boorda said in Annapolis about a sailor not committing suicide without letting the leader know about his distress. But he was the leader, the top uniformed person, caught between the old boys and civilian demands for a rejuvenated, nonsexist Navy.

All we know, and may ever know, is that there was no Navy person with one more star on his shoulder to whom Mike Boorda felt he could go.

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