By CAPT James “Ros” Poplar III, USN (Ret.)
As a thirty-year Surface Warfare Officer from 1974-2004 I had the opportunity to work for numerous leaders but by far one of the best was Admiral “Mike” Boorda where our wakes crossed twice. First during his tenure as Chief of Naval Operations from 1994-1996 and secondly after his death at Arlington National Cemetery where he is buried next to my first wife Helene A Poplar.
Admiral Boorda was born in land locked south Bend Indiana to second generation Jewish parents who traced their roots back to Ukraine. He dropped out of high school to enlist in the Navy at the age of seventeen and found that the Navy provided the structure he at first disliked but came to embrace.
He was selected for potential commissioning under the Integration Program in 1962, by which enlisted sailors were admitted to the Navy’s Officer Candidate School in Newport, Rhode Island and was commissioned as an Ensign upon graduating in August 1962. He first served aboard USS Porterfield as combat information center officer while a Lieutenant (junior grade).
Then Lieutenant Boorda earned his bachelor’s degree during his first shore tour as a weapons instructor at the then Naval Destroyer School in Newport. In December 1971, Admiral Boorda rose steadily through the ranks to include tours in Vietnam as a General Unrestricted Line Officer (before the designation of Surface Warfare Officer (1110) was created and ultimately commanded USS Farragut from 1975-1977.
Although I spent the majority my of career as a WESTPAC Sailor even though I had never met Admiral Boorda his reputation as a leader and Sailor preceded him. Through my shipmates located on the East coast I had heard of his well-earned ability as a naval ship handler. It was not uncommon for him as a DESRON or CRUDESGU Commander to have “Oscar” tossed from his inbound helicopter and then he would critique the respective ship’s ability to conduct a man overboard drill that he initiated. If warranted, he would then demonstrate to the chagrined Commanding Officer how to properly recover Oscar in a timely and seamanlike manner. I knew I had to meet this black shoe legend.
That opportunity came in 1994 when as a fresh caught Captain, I assumed the duties as a Branch Head (N512 Warfare Policy) on the OPNAV Staff and then Admiral Boorda was the Chief of Naval Operations. As a Fleet sailor and a novice in “The Building” I learned quickly that decisions were made via impersonal point papers and decision briefings for consumption by navy leadership. However, I vividly remember the change in leadership style when Admiral Boorda assumed the duty as Chief of Naval Operations.
Whereas before if the CNO had a question on the product the Deputy CNO (Three Star) would be the one responsible to answer CNO’s query. When CNO Boorda assumed the watch, he would frequently call the Action Officer (AO) directly, invite him down to his office to ask questions over a cup of coffee face-to-face, and then provide some friendly mentorship and career advice at the end of the session. To this day I vividly remember these conversations and the impact it had on me as a future Commanding Officer. He not only talked the talk, but he walked the walk – A Sailor’s Sailor.
I took immense pride as a Commanding Officer of two ships and as subsequently as Commander of an Amphibious Squadron of having a number of the Sailors I served with take advantage of the Seaman to Admiral program which Boorda made possible. My “sales pitch” was that if a white hat without an initial college degree could make it to CNO you could as well and to their credit a number of them did.
No one will ever know why Admiral Boorda took his own life, but he left his mark forever on the United States Navy and more importantly he left his mark on the current CNO Gilday and others who served during his watch. I can still vividly remember serving as an usher at the national Cathedral feeling a mixture of shock, grief, and even anger that our Chief of Naval Operations and the Navy’s senior Surface Warfare Officer took his own life.
Unfortunately, my first wife is buried adjacent to Admiral Boorda at Arlington National Cemetery. When I visit her grave, I marvel at the numerous mementos – medals, flowers, notes, and stones (a tradition of the Jewish faith) that are left on his headstone. Even though he is gone it is still obvious that many still pay their respect from the former Fleet Sailor.
I know Admiral Boorda shaped my experience as a future at sea Commanding Officer. In addition, he touched the lives of many Sailors, letting his simple actions as a deck plate leader who had been there speak louder than his words. Admiral Boorda you taught us well Sir and your legacy continues to this very day.
During thirty years as a Surface Warfare Officer (1110), CAPT Poplar, a 1974 University of Mississippi NROTC graduate, commanded two ships and an Amphibious Squadron, He has served on the Joint Staff, the SECNAV Staff, the OPNAV Staff and attended the US Army War College and has taught at both Vanderbilt University and the National War College.