A real Memorial Day: The Palmer family, a year later
summit daily news
Summit County, CO Colorado
LEADVILLE ” For most Americans, Memorial Day simply means the beginning of summer. School is almost out and the three-day weekend provides a welcome opportunity for family barbecues and car trips.
For Leadville’s Brad and Rachele Palmer, though, the significance of Memorial Day changed permanently and profoundly on Dec. 16, 2006, when a sniper’s bullet in Iraq ended the life of their 19-year-old son, Nick.
A 2005 graduate of Lake County High School, Lance Cpl. Nick Palmer joined the Marines right out of school. His brother Dustin, 25, believes Nick was fully aware of the risk he was taking,
“He knew the war was in full-swing,” Dustin said recently. “He was one of the few people who joined the Marines and thought he could make a difference.”
When Nick enlisted, Brad and Rachele also knew their younger son would eventually see combat in Iraq.
“Rachele was proud he was a Marine,” Brad said. “But she didn’t want him over there.”
Deployed to the war in July 2006, Nick kept in close touch with his family at first. It wasn’t unusual for him to make phone calls to his big brother early on weekend mornings.
“I’d get that seven o’clock wake-up call, and I knew it was Nick,” Dustin said. Once, when he was unable to reach any family or friends by phone, Nick ordered a pizza from the Leadville Pizza Hut and had it delivered to a local convenience store, “just for fun.” As his combat missions intensified, however, the calls became less frequent.
It had been two weeks without any contact with their son when Rachele opened the door to the Marine Corps messengers that Saturday afternoon.
“My parents were at a Christmas dinner,” Dustin said. “They came back to get potatoes out of the oven.” When he saw dark figures coming down the outside steps, Brad assumed it was Jehovah’s Witnesses and called for Rachele to get the door.
Now, 18 months later, Brad and Dustin both have high praise for how the family was treated by the Marine Corps. The best treatment in the world, though, can’t undo what happened on that December day, and both men acknowledge their lives have been altered forever.
“I know I’ve changed,” Brad, 53, said. “There’s not as many things that get under my skin any more.”
Dustin, who wears his brother’s dog tags and admits he thinks about him “every day,” agrees Nick’s death has affected the way he lives his life.
“I was always edgy and adventurous,” he said. “Now I think I’m more understanding, and I have more patience.”
As a family, the Palmers have sought to cope with the devastating loss in a variety of ways. Dustin finished his active service in the Navy last June and moved back to his parents’ home in Leadville. For Memorial Day 2007, the family participated in the groundbreaking of the town’s veteran memorial. This year, Brad and Rachele traveled to North Dakota for the three-day weekend, to visit the factory that donated a plaque for their RV commemorating Nick’s service.
“We didn’t really want to be in Leadville for Memorial Day,” Brad said. “We decided we didn’t want to keep opening the wound.”
Last Christmas was especially difficult for the family.
“We didn’t want to see trees or any of the commercial things about Christmas,” Brad said. “It was shattered last year, when we got him home on the 23rd.” This year, the family spent the holiday together in Florida.
Problems with holidays are not unusual for the survivors of military deaths, said Ami Neuberger-Miller of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), a Washington-based non-profit group founded in 1994 to help those who are grieving the loss of a loved one serving in the Armed Forces.
“You have to rethink all kinds of things your family does,” she said. In her family, they weren’t able to hang up stockings at Christmas after her 22-year-old brother had been killed in Iraq.
“It was too painful,” she said.
While military families share many of the same issues faced by others who grieve, Neuberger-Miller emphasized the unique position survivors often find themselves in.
“There’s a very different association with this kind of death,” she said. “The person who dies is sent out for all of us.” The loss is not just private anymore, she added.
According to Brad, his own personal loss has also been a loss felt by the whole town of Leadville.
Although born in Great Falls, Mont., and eventually buried there ” near the graves of both his grandfathers ” Nick was a true son of the Cloud City, where he’d lived since 1995. Within hours of hearing the news of his death, more than a hundred locals converged on the Palmer house to share the family’s grief and offer support. In the weeks following, American flags lined Leadville’s main thoroughfare as crowds turned out for both the soldier’s homecoming and his memorial service.
“I think Nick’s death brought reality home,” he said. “I think it changed our community.”
When asked how he feels about Memorial Day today, Brad acknowledges that his perception of the holiday will never be the same.
“Growing up, I always looked at Memorial Day as a three-day weekend,” he said. “For me now, the National Anthem is something emotional. Memorial Day is a proud day, and it’s also a sad day. There’s a reason we have the freedoms we have (in America),” he added. “It’s because of them.”
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