About Respect in the Ranks. A Quora Question.

Admiral Mike Boorda
Admiral Mike Boorda, Official Navy Photograph

Recently I had the opportunity to answer another Quora question on navy life. This answer brought back a flood of memories from my life in Naples, Italy, and working with NATO. The question was “As an enlisted service member, what did an officer do to earn your respect?” I felt this was an interesting question, as the person asking seemed to know enough about military life to know that respecting position is required, but respect for the person is earned.

My Answer

I was assigned to NATO Armed Forces Southern Europe ( AFSOUTH) (Naples, Italy) as a Senior Chief (E8). Admiral Mike Boorda had taken over as Commander Southern Forces Europe and Commander in Chief Southern Forces NATO about six months after I arrived.

Well, Tailhook happened. For those too young to remember; Tailhook was a fraternity of carrier-qualified navy pilots and every year they got together for a “convention,” aka “drunken orgy.” This particular year there were six female pilots in the Tailhook club. One night, during the festivities, things got a little out of hand and these female pilots later reported being sexually assaulted and even gang-raped by the male pilots.

The investigation turned into a massive mess of finger pointing and denials, all playing out in the full glare of CNN and the New York Times. After several months of this, Navy JAG released their report.

The next day Admiral Boorda called an All-Hands meeting. Officers were ordered to attend, no excuses allowed. Enlisted people were invited. I came in from leave to be there even though I didn’t really have to. At that point I had been in AFSOUTH almost two years and honestly didn’t know we had so many Navy officers running around.

The Admiral got up and started talking about the results of the Tailhook investigation. He laid out the finding in all the gory details. He then went on to say:

“For the enlisted people here, I want you to know the only thing you should be ashamed of is that this happened in your Navy. The fault is with the officer community and the shame rests strictly with us.”

There were over 200 people in the auditorium, and you could have heard a pin drop, the room was so quiet. I wanted to applaud, but was afraid that would turn into a standing ovation by all enlisted people there, and that probably would not have been a good thing.

It was the very first time in then 18 years service that I ever heard a commissioned officer take responsibility for something bad.

After that, Admiral Boorda became a hero figure to me. He went on to become CNO a couple of years later, then shot himself just before his tour was over and he would have been retired. I had retired from active duty one week before he died. When the news broke, I felt like I had lost a family member.

Quora: As an enlisted service member, what did an officer do to earn your respect?

Background on Admiral Boorda

For a bit of bonus background; Admiral Boorda’s story was that he lied about his age and enlisted at 16 as a “Seaman” (E-1). As a First Class Petty Officer (E-6) he earned a seat at the US Naval Academy and earned his commission. From there, he worked his way up the Naval ranks to become our first Four-Star admiral who was former enlisted, and our first former enlisted Chief of Naval Operations (CNO).

He never forgot where he came from. Literally his first act as CNO was to create the “Seaman to Admiral” program; a program that allowed mid-rank enlisted to gain a commission as unrestricted line officer. This program was deprecated by his successor CNO, but not eliminated and there are hundreds of officers today who started out as enlisted. Which seriously pisses off those Navy officers who never had to dirty their hands with actual work.

I can honestly say that Admiral Mike Boorda is one of my heroes.

13 January 2021: I received some feedback on this post from reader JH.

First Great post and very much appreciate  the story of Admiral Boorda addressing tail hook so forthrightly. One correction to  the post script information. Admiral Boorda did not attend the Naval Academy but got his commission by applying through a direct commissioning route called the Integration Program. Those selected were commissioned and after an indoctrination they went to a Division Officer tour and then went to finish their degree at a college of their choice (inside certain  selection limits). Admiral Boorda got his degree from a Rhode Island college.  The Sailor to Admiral Program was patterned to be exactly like the old Integration Program which he used.  Thanks again for a great post.

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