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TRUE TO THE CORPS : After 31 Years of Service, Marine Maj. Gen. Donald E.P. Miller Still 'Kicks the Tires and Lights the Fires' at El Toro Air Station

December 19, 1987|GEORGE FRANK, Times Staff Writer

The job description might read something like this: Salary up to $70,000, home provided, car and driver. Lots of travel. Respect and big staff. Outdoorsman preferred with hiking and camping skills, yet need strong leadership in indoor executive situations. Should be able to fly a variety of aircraft, including supersonic jets.

Interested parties please write to the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., office of the commandant of the Marine Corps.

Sorry, colonels and below need not apply.

The position is commanding general of one of just three Marine Corps aircraft wings. Every Marine aviator wants the job, but it usually goes to major generals, a select group of 25 officers who wear two stars.

The newest wing commander in the Marine Corps is Maj. Gen. Donald Eugene Paul Miller.

Last September, the 52-year-old Vietnam veteran was promoted from brigadier general to major general. A month later, he took over the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.

Miller oversees 16,000 men and women at air stations at El Toro, Tustin, Camp Pendleton and Yuma, Ariz. He is responsible for 450 aircraft that range from supersonic fighter jets to Super Stallion and Cobra helicopters. The aircraft in his wing cost more than $50 billion.

The general's $5,900-a-month paycheck would draw snickers in most board rooms in corporate America, where chairmen, senior vice presidents and chief operating officers routinely make $200,000, $400,000 and even $500,000 a year, not to mention their stock options, supercharged retirement plans and other benefits.

Still, despite the salary gap, Miller keeps a schedule that would tax any corporate chieftain. During a "sort of typical week," Miller held staff meetings at El Toro and traveled to night desert maneuvers at Twentynine Palms near Palm Springs. He joined other officers for a helicopter trip to a remote Mountain Warfare Training Center in the Sierra, where November temperatures were near zero and snow was already beginning to pile up.

There was a quick trip to Dallas to meet with other Marine wing commanders and flights to the Marine Corps Air Station in Yuma. In Orange County, during nights and weekends, Miller's calendar was packed with official social engagements.

Miller gave two speeches during the week, one to an auditorium full of noncommissioned officers, another to the Society of American Military Engineers at the Disneyland Hotel.

Commanding generals such as Miller, who in a sense have their own air forces, travel in a variety of military aircraft. During the week Miller flew in a military executive jet, a small Cobra helicopter, a bigger CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter and a tiny two-seat OV-10 airplane. A smaller, seven-passenger Beechcraft was used to shuttle Miller and other high-ranking officers to Twentynine Palms. He flies Huey helicopters, and if he makes a quick trip from California to Washington, he might fly himself in a supersonic F-4 Phantom.

It's a demanding pace, but he loves it.

"This is the greatest job in the Marine Corps and possibly the greatest job anywhere," Miller says. "I have a job that people would kill for, especially guys wearing wings. There aren't that many two-star aviators."

In the darkness at Twentynine Palms on a Friday night, a distant mountain ridgeline was fading from view.

Miller took a deep breath of the cold, clean desert air. "I've always said, when I get tired of this (the field), I'm getting out."

For a reporter stunned by the cold, it was hard at first to understand exactly what the general meant. It was cold and getting colder. It was dark and getting darker. The wind was blowing and the loose, flying sand was a constant reminder that this group was in the middle of a desert.

Miller, dressed in his camouflage field uniform and a thick field jacket, stood with Major Gens. Wesley H. Rice, inspector general of the Marine Corps; Jacob W. Moore, commanding general of the 4th Marine Reserve Aircraft Wing; James J. McMonagle, commanding general of the Marine Amphibious Force 1st Marine Division, and Brig. Gen. James D. Beans, commanding general of the 5th Marine Amphibious Brigade.

The generals, surrounded by colonels and lieutenant colonels, were on hand to watch the concluding segment of a major Southern California military exercise. They were waiting for a small Marine force to take control of the airstrip at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center.

In the distance came the faint whopping sound of helicopters. In came the Cobras, low and fast, their turboshaft engines sounding vengeful. Automatic rifle fire echoed in the darkness as big CH-46 helicopters landed on the desert airstrip to unload troops. The Sea Knights kept their long rotor blades spinning in case the enemy overran their position. More shots rang out. The Cobra attack helicopters buzzed the ground like menacing mosquitoes.

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