Holidays mark year since Leadville Marine fell
Vail, CO Colorado
Reporter’s note: Dec. 16 marked the one-year anniversary of the death of Lance Corporal Nicklas J. Palmer. After graduating from Lake County High School, Palmer joined the U.S. Marine Corps and was sent to Iraq. There, he was shot by a sniper while conducting combat operations in Fallujah. He was 19.
Nick Palmer is survived by his parents, Brad and Rachele Palmer, and his brother, Dustin Palmer.
LEADVILL, Colorado ” If there is one thing that Brad and Rachele Palmer want people in Leadville to know ” besides how grateful they are for community’s support ” it is that it’s okay to ask about their son, Nick.
“Don’t be afraid to ask us about it. We’re proud to talk about it,” says Brad.
What follows in this article is a description of the Palmers’ year, as told by them ” all of the moments that make up the first 365 days they’ve had without their youngest son, who was killed during combat in Iraq in December, 2006.
When the Palmers talk about the year following Nick’s death, they describe numerous funny moments, countless acts of unexpected kindness, and of course, moments of ordinary and overwhelming sadness.
“I was going through a bunch of papers a month ago,” says Rachele. She stops and explains that when Nick was in high school, he would nearly always go to bed after his parents. Eventually, he developed a habit of leaving them notes.
“Please put my clothes in the dryer” or “lunch money, please” were typical notes.
Rachelle said she saved the scraps of paper in the cupboard so Nick could just pull out the note he needed each night.
“I don’t know what possessed me to save them when I did, but I did. And I was going through stuff and here comes a ‘please put my clothes in the dryer’ note, you know, and it’s like ‘oh, my god.’ So it’s just little things like that.”
Memories of her son can pop up at any moment of the day, she said.
“God, just anything,” says Rachele. “You’re just going along your day and all of a sudden just a thought will roll into your head and it just makes you stop just dead in your tracks. Sometimes you shed some tears, sometimes you don’t.”
The Palmers can’t describe their year without talking about the numerous acts of kindness done them by strangers.
For example, the timing of Nick’s death, coupled with the storms and airport chaos of last December, meant that his coffin was scheduled to arrive at the Denver International Airport at the worst possible time.
“Christmas fell on a Monday. And they called us on … Friday and they said, here’s the arrangement,” says Rachele.
The Palmers were to pick Nick up at the Denver International Airport on Christmas Day.
“I said, ‘No way. We just can’t do this. We can’t pick him on Christmas Day.'”
Fortunately, Earl Graves, one of the board members from American Airlines, was also on the board at the Steadman Hawkins Research Foundation, where Rachele works. Rachele’s boss called Graves, who set up a conference call with an American Airlines executive in Dallas.
“[The executive] kept saying, ‘I don’t know,'” says Rachele.
But two hours later, Graves called back. “Mrs. Palmer,” he said. “Your son will be home tomorrow.”
Then Graves explained that it had taken 18 executives two hours to figure out how to shift freight cargo, passengers and planes in such a way as to make room for Nick’s coffin and his escort.
“I just couldn’t find enough words to express our thanks,” says Rachele.
American Airlines wasn’t the only transportation company that stepped in to help.
When Brad Palmer heard that many of Nick’s friends from Leadville intended to drive to Great Falls, Mont., for Nick’s burial, he started to worry about all those kids on the road in bad weather.
But when he called to see if he could charter a bus, the man from Gray Line Tours was gruff and discouraging, explaining that everyone in Denver was in the middle of trying to dig out from the snowstorm ” that is, until Brad explained why he wanted the bus.
Suddenly, the conversation turned around: the man not only made sure the Palmers had a chartered bus from Leadville to Great Falls, he didn’t even charge them.
The Palmers were equally surprised by the number of people who wrote to express their sympathies.
“There’s a bushel basket still full of letters,” says Rachele.
Many of the letters were from people the Palmers didn’t even know. A woman who was on the plane that carried Nick’s coffin found their address and wrote to express her sympathies. Arnold Schwarzenegger sent a letter, and Maria Shriver sent a signed copy of her book.
And Marine families from all over the country sent condolences. They even received a letter from a family who noticed them at the airport on their way back from Nick’s funeral.
“It’s amazing how many of them said ‘you don’t know us, but’ …the ‘but’ story just blew us away every time,” says Rachele. “Their ‘but’ was … we saw you at the Minneapolis airport. We sat across from you at the boarding gate. And we noticed the picture badge on your coat and the black ribbon and we started putting two and two together, and we just felt horrible for your loss. We didn’t know what to say to you nor did we want to invade your privacy at that time. So here’s a check for $100 for his memorial fund.”
The Palmers have made numerous tripsp during the last year. They’ve visited Nick’s grave, his Marine base in San Diego and other families who have experienced a similar loss.
“Because being in Leadville we’re a 100 miles away,” says Rachele. “It’s not so easy just to hop in your car after work and go to a therapy group session or something and then come home.”
Their first journey was up to Great Falls to visit Nick’s grave for his birthday, just six weeks after his burial.
The night before they left, they called his brother, Dustin, who was in Washington, to tell him they planned to drive to Montana for Nick’s birthday. So they were more than a little surprised when Dustin and his cousin stepped out from behind a tree at the graveyard.
“I [had] told them I had to work and I couldn’t get out of it,” says Dustin, grinning.
On Feb. 16, Nick’s platoon was scheduled to return from Iraq, an event Brad and Rachele had been anxiously planning to attend before Nick’s death. So even though Nick wouldn’t be there, they decided to go to the homecoming.
One of the officers introduced Brad and Rachele Palmer as Nick’s parents.
“Of course Brad and I, we lost it at that point. And all the other parents ” they realized, wow, they’re here. Their son is not. How lucky are we that our son is. So once the troop was dismissed, every single one of those soldiers and every single mom, dad, wife, whatever, came over, tears just rolling down their face giving us hugs and condolences.”
The second time they went to San Diego, they had a chance to spend some time with Nick’s friends from the Marine Corps. On May 23, the Palmers went to Camp Pendleton for the Memorial Day service celebrating the lives of the three Marines that Nick’s combat engineer group had lost in the previous year.
“After the memorial, I told this lance corporal, I said, round up people who knew Nick and were friends of Nick,” says Brad. “Not just acquaintances, they need to know Nick. I says round them up and get me a number of how many’s coming.”
Twelve of Nick’s friends joined the Palmers for a steak barbecue on the beach.
“They were a lot more relaxed that night. Because they knew us then,” says Brad. “They were sharing a lot of stories. You know, his buddy, Prada … he starts telling me about the day’s events … what happened [when Nick died].
“And you know when he was shot, he was laying down in the bed of the Humvee and blood all over him because he got shot in the neck and you know everybody just frantic and panicked … because one their guys was down.”
Nick was given his last rites on the scene, said Prada, and pronounced dead in the medical evacuation helicopter.
“I’ve become very open-minded,” says Dustin Palmer, when asked how the experience of losing his brother has changed him. “Very tolerant of the things that are happening in this world, my life, other people’s lives. I’ve become more understanding. More patient….There’s a lot more out there than just me and my life.”
But Brad said it’s harder for him to feel sympathetic when people complain about minor issues. Rachele agrees. “What seems to be a problem to [others] is so minor to us.”
And they can’t hear about the death of a soldier on the news anymore without being truly moved. “You actually stop and listen and your … heart sinks … and it just breaks all over again,” says Rachele.
When asked what he remembers most about Nick, Dustin talks about hide-and-go-seek at the National Mining Hall of Fame, sledding in the alley next to their home and games of croquet.
Asked what he misses most about his brother, Dustin says “just our camraderie. We were the best of friends and the worst of enemies. For sure.”
The Palmers aren’t the only ones who have fond memories of Nick. They have a DVD of Nick’s memorial service in Fallujah, which took place on Dec. 29. In an auditorium full of Marines, a few of those closest to Nick speak of their memories of him.
Calling him “Nick James,” they remember his bright red Snap-On gloves, the fact that he always carried a granola bar or an Otis Spunkmeyer cookie, his ability to ‘plop down’ and fall asleep wherever he was. And they speak with pride about the fact that he was the first to volunteer for missions, the third best in his platoon at finding caches of enemy weapons.
One of the Marines tells a story about being driven around the narrow streets of Fallujah in a Cougar, an enormous 6×6 vehicle that can carry up to 12 men. He was noticeably nervous, and Nick sensed it.
“Don’t worry, sir,” Nick said to him. “If Palmer can’t drive this thing, no one can.”
Rachele says that she sometimes wakes up in the morning, thinking the whole thing was a dream, just as she did in the first few days after Nick’s death.
“Dustin, yeah, he was gone, but he’s come back home. We sent Nick away and you know, he did come home, but not the way we expected … So it’s almost like he’s still out there somewhere. We’re still waiting for him to come home. So knowing that he’s not, that’s been really tough. Really tough.”
“It’s been a rough road,” says Brad. “It’s going to be a better road.”