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New Pendleton Chief’s Trial by Fire

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The tall general almost gleefully lifted the machine gun, then his jaw jutted fiercely as he rattled off bullets that wreaked dust-kicking havoc on the countryside.

“You know, we’re all just like kids,” he said with a certain impish satisfaction, the usual warm countenance returning to his face.

Yet Marine Brig. Gen. Michael Neil, more than almost anybody, grimly realizes this isn’t child’s play.

This bloodied hero of Vietnam and prominent San Diego trial lawyer, who suddenly found himself in command of Camp Pendleton nearly three months ago, is somberly aware that the young Marines he is so fond of personally greeting may be sent off soon to a new war.

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Reservist Neil was called back to active duty after President Bush ordered troops to the Middle East, including Marine Lt. Gen. Walter Boomer, who had commanded Camp Pendleton only three weeks before he turned the world’s largest amphibious training base over to Neil.

On Thursday, Neil gave outsiders a glimpse of command as he appeared around the 196-square-mile base, applying his style of tough discipline that’s mellowed by friendly small talk and frequent pats on the back.

One minute he wears a stern, the-man-chews-nails expression; next minute, he’s almost joshing the troops.

After taking a trial run behind the steering wheel of a 14-ton light armored vehicle, Neil stood before a bleacher full of training Marines and intoned, “Did you see me driving this up here?”

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“Yes, sir!” replied the chorus.

“How’d I do?” he inquired.

“EXCELLENT, sir!” the young Marines privates said, as if there were any other answer for a general.

At first glance, this would seem an unusual change of venue for a 50-year-old trial lawyer, the president of the law firm of Neil, Dymott, Perkins, Brown & Frank.

But Neil dwells in two worlds, one with a plush legal office, orderly courtrooms and juries to coddle, cajole and convince.

The other is Camp Pendleton, a scruffy, shopworn expanse that has minted Marines since World War II, a noisy place of gunfire and thundering artillery, yet a place where Neil doesn’t have to plead for a verdict--he gives the orders.

In normal times, 36,000 Marines are stationed at Camp Pendleton, but the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force went to Saudi Arabia in August, and the 5th Marine Expeditionary Brigade is shipping out Saturday.

Neil doesn’t say exactly how many Marines will remain, but he comments that there will be “a very significant reduction” of Marines on base.

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However, there’s plenty of responsibility left for a warrior-administrator, including overseeing the care of 12,000 dependents on base and another 32,000 living in the surrounding area.

It may not be the battlefield command he’s used to, but Neil is sort of a city manager of a self-contained community of barracks, a brig, training areas, 90 firing ranges, PXs and a security force of MPs.

He spreads himself around, noting that “part of being a commanding officer is to make his presence known.” He often stays overnight on base, when he can’t break away to go home to Mission Beach and see his wife, Jan. They have two children.

Thursday morning, Neil visited the School of Infantry where, regardless of the deployment, 22,000 Marine recruits a year receive six weeks of training. Neil wandered around, always strolling up to the officers and enlisted men for a few moments of conversation about equipment, training and hometowns.

Yet no matter where he goes, no matter how many fresh young faces he meets, Vietnam, with its unforgettable agony and camaraderie, is always with Neil.

It is the land where he saw good men die, and where he distinguished himself, winning the Navy Cross for leading his 21 Marines in a desperate firefight with 150 North Vietnamese.

“I don’t think a day goes by when in some manner you don’t think of the men you served with,” he said.

When talking of such things, he uses the word “you” rather than “I” in a way that seems to protect the emotions no one who hasn’t seen combat can possibly share or understand.

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For all Neil saw during his 13 months at war (“seemed like every day you were getting shot at”), he couldn’t put the Marine Corps behind him when he came home in 1968.

“I stayed away a couple of years, (but) I found out I missed being around the Marines, the camaraderie,” he said.

And he was undaunted about combat: “I always thought there would be another war. I wanted to be part of it if there was.”

In a way, that attitude may be natural for Neil, whose father was a 30-year Marine artillery officer who served in World War II. Neil remembers visiting Camp Pendleton for the first time in 1945, when he was 5.

Vietnam was lost, but for Neil, war sealed in him a certain mission to make sure the Marines of today and tomorrow learn their lessons well.

“I certainly believe in being tough, being firm, and in discipline, but at times letting them know you care about them,” he said.

He believes contemporary Marines are better trained than were Vietnam-era troops, and the unabashedly gung-ho general said the Marines he sees are itching for service in the Middle East. He wishes he could go.

“Every Marine wishes he was going, but some have to stay behind,” he said. And, although a Camp Pendleton corporal this week received media attention by seeking conscientious objector status, Neil insisted morale and resolve are high.

He said “there really hasn’t been any change in the (absent without leave) rate that we’ve seen. Basically, they want to go.”

Part of his task in running the base and letting troops know he’s behind them is participating in training and trying his hand with some military tricks that didn’t exist when he was commissioned back in 1966.

Neil scrunched his 6-foot-2 frame and size 13 combat boots into a training light armored vehicle, in which, even in a modified fetal position, he looked more natural than Michael Dukakis during the former presidential candidate’s much-ridiculed campaign tank ride.

Then Neil jammed himself into the simulator to learn how to aim and fire the LAV’s guns. The targets, moving and stationary, were visible on a computer-enhanced screen that showed enemy vehicles and helicopters on sweeping terrain.

Sgt. Richard Parks instructed him, but his first round missed. “Oh, I see what I did,” said Neil. The second shot was high. “I see what I did,” he repeated. The third mock projectile did it.

By the second target, Neil was a real gunner.

“One round, one hit, sir,” Parks said. “Outstanding.”

Neil had just killed a truck.

A little more trial and error, and Neil definitely had the hang of things.

Twisting himself out of the simulator, Neil said: “I think we scared ‘em.”

“Scared hell out of ‘em, sir,” the sergeant replied.


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