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Navy Calls Boorda’s Medals Earned

June 24, 1998

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Navy has quietly accepted that Adm. Jeremy ``Mike″ Boorda was entitled to wear combat decorations on his uniform _ the challenged Vietnam War awards that led to his suicide two years ago.

Navy Secretary John Dalton put into Boorda’s file a letter from Elmo Zumwalt Jr., the chief of naval operations during the war, which says it was ``appropriate, justified and proper″ for Boorda to attach the small bronze combat V’s to the ribbons on his uniform. The Navy also modified Boorda’s record to list the V’s among his other decorations _ recognition that they were earned.

But that stops short of what Zumwalt sought _ unambiguous public recognition that Boorda violated no regulations.

Nonetheless, Zumwalt, in an interview Wednesday, called Dalton’s action ``posthumous validation of Admiral Boorda’s right to have worn the V’s based on instructions given by me when I was chief of naval operations.″

``My interpretation is that retroactively he has been authorized to wear the V’s,″ Zumwalt added.

Wearing an unauthorized decoration is a severe breach of military protocol.

On May 16, 1996, when his right to wear the decorations was about to be questioned, Boorda, 56, the first enlisted man to become the chief of naval operations in the service’s 198-year history, went home, wrote a note ``to my sailors,″ stepped into his garden and fatally shot himself in the chest.

He acted after learning that two Newsweek reporters were on their way to question him about the matter.

The decision by Dalton, who will retire at the end of the year, to place Zumwalt’s memo in Boorda’s file made it part of naval records.

The ``V″ stands for valor and signifies service in combat. Boorda served on a destroyer, the USS Craig, in 1965 and as executive officer on another destroyer, the USS Brooke, in 1973, both in combat situations.

In his suicide note, Boorda said, ``I am about to be accused of wearing combat devices on two ribbons I earned during sea tours in Vietnam. It turns out I didn’t really rate them. When I found out I was wrong I immediately took them off, but it was really too late.″

He added: ``I couldn’t bear to bring dishonor to you.″

The matter is complex. The regulations were ambiguous and evolving and Zumwalt said in his memo that his directions authorizing the wearing of the decorations were delivered verbally ``in over 100 visits to ships and shore stations″ rather than in writing.

Zumwalt’s memo and Dalton’s were not made public. The Washingtonian magazine reports on them in its forthcoming July issue. The magazine made copies of the memos available to The Associated Press.

Advised by the Navy’s Office of Awards and Special Projects in 1995 that he was not entitled to the decorations, Boorda removed the V’s from his uniform.

In 1965, Boorda did not qualify for the Combat V, the Washingtonian said. But in 1967 the Navy retroactively upgraded all Navy Commendation for Achievement ribbons awarded between 1961 and 1967, making Boorda eligible for the award.

``Admiral Mike Boorda’s citations for awards of the Navy Achievement Medal and Navy Commendation Medal plainly state they were awarded for service including `combat operations’ and `while operating in combat missions,‴ Dalton’s memo said.

Zumwalt’s said that during the war, his ``statements as the official military spokesman for the Navy made it appropriate, justified and proper for Mike to wear the V.″

Despite the intense attention paid to Boorda’s suicide, the Navy made no acknowledgment of Dalton’s action until questioned Wednesday. Dalton’s ``memorandum for the record″ was dated April 3, 1998, almost two years after Boorda’s suicide.

Boorda’s widow, Bettie, could not be reached for comment. She has an unlisted telephone number. Her son, Edward, captain of the USS Russell, reported on duty in the Arabian Gulf, could not be reached. Dalton did not respond to requests, made over three days, for an interview.

In a 20,000 word investigation of the Boorda suicide in 1996, Nick Kotz wrote in the Washingtonian that the decorations dispute may have been only one factor pushing Boorda toward suicide. He cited hostility from the Navy’s ``old guard,″ who considered him a ``political admiral″ and felt he had appeased politicians in his handling of the Navy’s Tailhook sexual harassment scandal.

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