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The suicide of Adm. Jeremy M. Boorda, the Navy's top officer, stirred debate Friday about the legitimacy of his Vietnam combat decorations - and whether Boorda should have known he was not entitled to wear the tiny V-shaped pins.

Just before his death, Boorda abruptly left his Pentagon office troubled by questions he was to face that day about the combat pins.At least one of two suicide notes he left at his home expressed worry about what he feared might become a scandal over the combat decorations, a government source said. Contents of the notes have not been released. The source, who asked not to be identified, is familiar with the contents.

Wearing the decorations "could have been an honest mistake on the part of Admiral Boorda," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Friday. The former Vietnam prisoner of war, interviewed by NBC-TV, said, "For someone to allege that he somehow deliberately distorted what was a superb record to me is patently unfair."

Retired Marine Lt. Col. Roger Charles, who investigated Boorda's record for the independent National Security News Service, said Friday, "It's inconceivable to me that it was a mistake. It may be a real puzzle to civilians. But it would be a major embarrassment for someone to be caught doing this."

Boorda, 57, the widely admired chief of naval operations since April 1994, died Thursday of what police were calling a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest.

Forensic evidence "indicates this case will be classified as a suicide," a Metropolitan Police Department statement said.

Boorda's body was found just after 2 p.m. in a side yard next to his quarters at the Washington Navy Yard. People nearby heard the gunshot and rushed to his aid. He was pronounced dead at D.C. General Hospital a few minutes later. Police said a .38-caliber handgun and a suicide note were recovered near the body.

The Washington Post reported Friday that the suicide notes, one of which was written to Boorda's wife, expressed concern about the disgrace resulting from an impending disclosure questioning whether he had earned two Vietnam-era decorations he had once worn.

The New York Times said the notes suggested Boorda had been driven to take his life by fear that the reputation of the Navy, already battered by a series of scandals, would be further harmed by the disclosures about his medals.

In an unrelated incident, the independent newspaper Navy Times ran an anonymous letter this week saying Boorda should resign. "Every officer from four star to the newest midshipman at the academy has no respect for the man at the top," the letter said.

Also, former Navy Secretary James Webb recently attacked the Navy's leadership in a speech at the Naval Academy. He did not mention Boorda by name.

Boorda was to have met about the time of the shooting with the Washington bureau chief of Newsweek magazine, which was working on a story concerning his medals. The National Security News Service, which had obtained Boorda's records through the Freedom of Information Act, was working with Newsweek on the story.

Administration officials, insisting on anonymity, said there was no evidence the shooting was accidental and no suspicion of foul play.

Boorda's top deputy, Adm. Jay L. Johnson, took over as acting Navy chief after the shooting.

Colleagues and lawmakers who had spoken with Boorda in recent days expressed shock and dismay.

At the White House, President Clinton praised Boorda, the first enlisted sailor in the history of the Navy to rise to its top position, as a man of "extraordinary energy, dedication and good humor."

Navy Secretary John Dalton, the service's civilian chief, said he had met with Boorda a day earlier. "He was in great spirits," Dalton told a news conference.

The questions about the legitimacy of Boorda's combat "V" award - which stands for valor - came at a time when the Navy as an institution has come under fire from critics for moral lapses, starting with the 1991 Tailhook sexual assault scandal and more recently focusing on drug use at the Naval Academy and sexual harassment in the officer corps.

In recent interviews Boorda had emphasized his determination to move the Navy into a new era and away from the controversies that dogged it in recent years.

Rear Adm. Kendell Pease, who was with Boorda a little over an hour before the shooting, said Boorda was to have met with the Newsweek journalist in his Pentagon office at 2:30 p.m. to discuss questions about his Vietnam combat medals.

The implication was that Newsweek was investigating whether Boorda for years had worn a combat "V" decoration that he was not authorized to wear.

Pease said that when he told Boorda about 12:30 p.m. what the subject of the interview was, the admiral abruptly announced he was going home for lunch instead of eating the meal that had been brought to his office.

"Admiral Boorda was obviously concerned," Pease said. He declined to characterize Boorda as distraught.

Pease said he learned after Boorda's death that the admiral had become aware about a year ago that someone was looking into his Vietnam medal awards. Pease said he had no indication of how Boorda had reacted except that the admiral had stopped wearing a combat "V" on his Vietnam campaign medals.

Boorda was awarded commendation and meritorious service awards for his duty in Vietnam, which included combat operations. But copies of the citations released Thursday by the Navy did not mention that Boorda qualified for wearing a combat "V."

Navy regulations say the citation must specifically authorize the "V," and that is solely for individuals who are exposed to personal hazard due to direct hostile actions. Pease said he did not know the details of Boorda's awards.

As Navy chief, Boorda was a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, whose chairman, Gen. John Shalikashvili, said Thursday, "The Navy has lost a great Captain."

Clinton praised Boorda for his work in Bosnia and for showing "unwavering concern for the men and women" of the U.S. military.

Stunned lawmakers took to the Senate floor to praise Boorda and express their grief.

Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, chairman of the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee, said he was "in a state of shock." He called Boorda "one of the bright stars" of the Navy.

As commander of NATO forces in southern Europe, Boorda was in charge of a NATO airstrike against four Bosnian Serb aircraft flying in violation of the U.N. ban on fixed-wing flights.

Clinton appointed Boorda as chief of naval operations, the Navy's top job, in 1994 after Adm. Frank Kelso II resigned. His first mission: to try to restore the service's reputation following the Tailhook sexual assault scandal involving Navy aviators at a Las Vegas hotel.

The grandson of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants, Boorda was born in South Bend, Ind., and grew up in Chicago. He dropped out of high school, fibbed about his age and joined the Navy at the age of 17.

He and his wife, Bettie, have four children.