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The Rack, the National Portrait Gallery, and Nimitz: November 2019

Updated: Jul 6

The National Portrait Gallery is located in Washington, DC, and is an AAR Must See. It shares the impressive Old Patent Office Building (built in the early 1800s in the Greek Revival style) with The Smithson American Art Museum, so you get two great museums for the price of one. And, oh, by the way, it’s free. There’s a lot of good pieces in the building, Grant and His Generals, the Lansdowne Portrait of George Washington (a copy of which Dolly Madison saved) and the official portrait of Barack Obama. But I wound up spending most of my time checking out portraits of U.S. military commanders, and being a former sailor, I paid particular attention to the portrait of Chester Nimitz.

Admiral Chester Nimitz (by Dean Cornwell, 1944)

Notice anything interesting about the former Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet during WWII, whose leadership and strategic acumen enabled a U.S. victory at the Battle of Midway, “the most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare”?¹ The answer is at the bottom of this Report.

Back in 1993-1995, I was an officer in the Navy and served as the Material Officer at Seal Delivery Vehicle Team One, Detachment Hawaii (SDVT-1 Det HI). It was probably the most interesting and rewarding work I did in the Navy. I was heavily involved with the material readiness of three Dry Deck Shelters (DDS). Each DDS was a 38 foot long, 9-foot diameter steel underwater habitat that was fastened to the back of a submarine to allow Navy SEALs to egress and conduct special operation missions.

During this time I worked with a Senior Chief Petty Officer Tom Smith. Smith was not his real last name, I’ve changed it, not because of fear of embarrassing the good senior chief (“Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent”), but because I cannot remember his last name. Senior Chief Smith was a strange guy, I was never sure what his role was at the Team. He had a desk next to mine but was never there. The infrequent times he was, he either was on the phone with the FBI or acting out his previous night's romantic interludes on the office floor. He was a nice enough guy, but just plain a little odd. I was told by co-workers that he had been involved in some crazy shit as an adviser in El Salvador during that country’s civil war and I could believe it.

Well when it was time for Senior (as all Senior Chief Petty Officers are called) to transfer out, as most service members do, he put himself in for an end of tour award. While this may strike some of you as self-serving, trust me, this is the way it is done in the U.S. military (well at least in the Navy). Service members generally write up their own award recommendations and hand them to their bosses for edits or if you've done it just right, approval – humility is not very helpful in these situations. If you don’t write up your own award recommendation you will never receive one.

Also, you generally recommend yourself for an award higher than the one you think you deserve, in a way this is the start of a negotiation. The interesting part, in this case, was that Senior put himself up for a lesser award, a Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal (NAM). When I asked him why, he replied that he had received numerous higher awards, but never received a NAM (pronounced like Viet-NAM) and this would increase the height of his rack. His rack, I hear you saying? Well in military parlance, these are the rows of ribbons (one for each award, three ribbons per row) worn on a service members’ dress uniform. Guess what? The more rows the better. While I wasn’t completely shocked, I must admit I had never heard of this concept before. Most people in the military like getting awards, the more important the better. But to want a less important award?! It was kind of funny and kind of sad.

A year later, just as I was leaving the Navy, I recalled Senior and his quest for rack height, when I heard about the death of Admiral Jeremy Boorda, the then-current Chief of Naval Operations, on May 16, 1996. Admiral Boorda was the first American sailor to have risen through the enlisted ranks to become the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), the highest-ranking officer in the United States Navy. He was the epitome of the American success story, born to first-generation parents, dropped out of high school to enlist, later commissioned an ensign, and then worked his way up the ranks until becoming the highest rank. He was known as a sailors' admiral, who paid special attention to enlisted sailors.

Boorda was awarded two ribbons during the Vietnam War and for many years wore them on his uniform with two miniature bronze letter "V" (valor) devices. The “V” is worn on a ribbon to denote that the specific ribbon was awarded for heroism in combat or direct exposure to combat. He had received both ribbons while serving on warships off the coast of Vietnam.

In 1996, David Hackworth, a former decorated Army officer was working for Newsweek magazine investigating whether Boorda was authorized to wear these V’s, even though Boorda had stopped wearing the two "V" devices a year prior after he had been informed by the Navy that he was not authorized to wear them. In Boorda’s defense, he had received verbal authorization to wear the "V" devices from Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, the then Commander Naval Forces Vietnam. Though according to regulations wearing the "V" on a specific ribbon requires written authorization on the printed award citation (which Boorda did not have).

Boorda was upset by this investigation to such a degree that he committed suicide. His suicide took place shortly before he was to have met with two Newsweek reporters that day regarding his wearing of the "V" devices. He was said to have been worried that the issue would cause more trouble for the U.S. Navy's reputation. Interestingly enough, Boorda committed suicide in the backyard of the CNO Quarters at the Washington Navy Yard, across the street from the Military Sealift Command HQ, where I would serve after being recalled to active duty during the Iraq War. I worked with a number of people who heard the gunshot that day.

To me, the issue about these ribbons and the “V” all seem like a non-story. But Newsweek later reported that "Hackworth believed that wearing an undeserved combat pin for valor was a grave matter of honor in the military, 'the worst thing you can do.’”. I can understand where Hackworth was coming from, but we can all think of "worse things". A journalist should choose his words more carefully. To make this whole tragedy even richer, but yet even sadder, Hackworth was later found to have blamelessly, but ineligibly worn a Ranger tab on his uniform.

Boorda was survived by his wife, Bettie Moran Boorda, four children, and eleven grandchildren.

All this pain and suffering for a ribbon! It was not funny but quite sad. Also a little unsettling, as this was the highest-ranking member of the Navy, a husband, and a father, and he committed suicide over a ¼-inch letter V.

Years later, when General David Petraeus was testifying in Congress during the Iraq War, I recalled Senior and Admiral Boorda when I read this paragraph of Dick Cavett’s column in the April 11, 2008 issue of the NY Times:

I can’t look at Petraeus — his uniform ornamented like a Christmas tree with honors, medals and ribbons — without thinking of the great Mort Sahl at the peak of his brilliance. He talked about meeting General Westmoreland in the Vietnam days. Mort, in a virtuoso display of his uncanny detailed knowledge — and memory — of such things, recited the lengthy list (“Distinguished Service Medal, Croix de Guerre with Chevron, Bronze Star, Pacific Campaign” and on and on), naming each of the half-acre of decorations, medals, ornaments, campaign ribbons and other fripperies festooning the general’s sternum in gaudy display. Finishing the detailed list, Mort observed, “Very impressive!” Adding, “If you’re twelve.”

After reading the article, I looked for a photo of General Petraeus testifying before Congress, I have to agree with Cavett (and Sahl), General Petraeus looks ridiculous, with a large portion of his ribbons covered by the lapel. If he were to get another ribbon (Senior, you feelin’ me?), where would it go, on his back? It was as if war had become a game of dress up with our military leaders starting to channel the Shah of IranMuammar Gaddafi, Idi Amin, the Sultan of Brunei, or Admiral-General Haffaz Aladeen.  It was funny and sad.

General Petraeus and his sartorial brothers in arms

So here I am one brisk, but sunny November day in 2019 at the National Portrait Gallery. I wasn’t there to look at anything in particular when I journey into The Civil War section and I come across two portraits, one of General William T. Sherman and the other, General Ulysses S. Grant. Sherman’s is clearly the better of two as he exudes a “don’t bother me, I’ve got some burning to do” vibe. Also, all the campaigning appears to have kept him in shape.

Ulysses S. Grant (by Samual Waugh) & William T. Sherman (by George Peter Alexander Healy)

Note how two of the United States’ greatest generals, the two men most responsible for bringing the War of the Rebellion (for you southern sympathizers, that means The Civil War) to a close, wear only one ribbon between them – how did they do it without (so many) more ribbons?

Two floors up there were portraits of the WWII commanders: Generals Eisenhower, Marshall, Patton, MacArthur, and the best for last, Admiral Nimitz (a former Submariner I might add, note the "Dolphins" on his chest). Note the paucity of ribbons, though Patton does have a few (which is the exception that proves the rule) - also note the riding crop and ivory-handled pistol, as they nicely complement his Rack. It all made me think of Senior, Admiral Boorda, and General Petraeus, one more time.

The WWII Commanders

It all seems so absurd, with all our current military commanders looking like the dictator from a Mission Impossible episode. What do they think, when, as all good service members do, they look in the mirror to check their uniform before going out the door? Does their heart swell with pride for that Romanian Chief of Defense Honor Ribbon that is hidden under their lapel or do they laugh and wonder when it got out so out of hand or do they spare a thought for Jeremy Boorda?


1. The National Portrait Gallery is open daily from 10:00-18:00, Friday until 21:00.

2. Visitors can use the AAR Must Load Smartify app to provide context and details relating to the art they view.

3. Check in with the front desk, as free guided tours are given daily (one of the days that I toured the museum, I was the only person on the tour).

Endnotes: I wanted to provide some very specific details which while vaguely interesting did not contribute to the overall narrative. Perhaps just wait until the end to read.

¹ John Keegan, The Second World Wad (New York: Penguin, 1989)

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Jan 19, 2021

Another fine AAR !! Interesting, informative, a must read!! I give this one a full rack

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