G.I. Jane

I Love a Gal in a Uniform

DESFIREX, the Desert Firing Exercise, is a semi-annual celebration of cordite, steel, white phosphorous, and sand held at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twenty Nine Palms, California. During the weeks before, the howitzers and trucks are prepared for the field; They are rushed through a maintenance pipeline that at all other times of the year moves at a snail's pace. Marines suddenly "find" the missing spare parts that the Corps' byzantine supply system has not been able to produce for months: everything from Humvee door handles and windshields to the red tube lights which fasten to the gun barrels and make the cannons legal for the freeway journey from the back gate of Camp Pendleton to the high desert three hours away.

Eleven years ago, I was a second lieutenant experiencing my first DESFIREX. I was running "the box," or Fire Direction Center (FDC). Here—in a seeming chaos of computers, radios, field telephones, maps, slide rides, and charts—is, as Freddy Cannon put it, where the action is. At the eye of the storm is the Fire Direction Officer (FDO), the "mortal engines, whose rude throats dread clamors counterfeit."

My first trip to the desert as an FDO was a baptism of fire, thanks largely to a battery commander fond of quoting (he claimed) Frederick the Great: "A soldier's enemy in peacetime is his commanding officer." We got Frederick the...

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