Local Hero

Nick Palmer was a local son:

Last week a letter in the paper ran off the usual list of oppressions and deletions of basic liberties, including “the coffins we are not allowed to see.” It reminded me of a conversation I had in Arizona with a Marine, whose family was also staying at my in-laws’ house. (Their daughter played with Gnat, and was one of the Ghosts of Christmas in the play.) He had just returned from accompanying the body of a Marine back to his home town for a memorial. Lance Cpl. Nick Palmer, 19, was killed by a sniper in Fallujah. The vehicle had stopped to defuse an IED, which had been placed to fix the Humvee in place. Flypaper. Lance Cpl. Palmer was manning a gun on the back of the Humvee when he was hit. The shot came from an industrial building a good distance away; whoever killed him had particular skill. It could have been one of those ordinary Iraqis so enraged by the occupation they quit their jobs as an insurance actuary or auto mechanic and went to sniper school, perhaps. Or maybe it was a Ba’athist “Minuteman.” Or an imported Iranian merc. You have to admit it’s possible.

The networks may not have shown footage of the coffin as it arrived, but it certainly had the opportunity to show the funeral and the ceremony that preceded it. The Marine, who was Lance Cpl. Palmer’s commanding officer, described the event: they arrived at night. Both sides of the street were filled with townspeople, gathered to greet the soldier. Every light in every window was on; every pole had a flag.

The church pews had no empty seats. “Amazing Grace” was played and the Purple Heart presented.

Everyone was allowed to see the coffin, and reflect on what it stood for.

The local TV station’s website has a video interview with the parents, which manages to work in Vietnam in the first six seconds. If the TV station filmed the homecoming, it doesn’t appear to be on the site. I can’t think of any reason why they wouldn’t have shown the homecoming, unless they regarded the interview with the grieving parents as the full measure they were required to give.

The Commanding Officer who appears on the phone call is the Marine who told me the story. It’s a very short part of the television story, but it was an intensely private moment and we need see no more. You might not get a sense of the CO's emotions from the voice on the other end. Trust me: it’s a wound, and it’s deep. He didn’t just make a phone call; he left his family at Christmas time to accompany the body and speak at the service – then drove a rental through a storm to get to the airport to rejoin his family for the few days he had left stateside.

So the next time someone talks about the coffins we’re not allowed to see, consider all that.

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