Growing up in Modesto, Benjamin J. Palmer enjoyed playing soprano bugle. So he thought of joining the Marine Corps in hopes of becoming part of its elite drum and bugle corps.
Instead, he became a Marine Corps specialist in air command and control and rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel.
Palmer was three weeks into a yearlong deployment in Afghanistan and just three days shy of chalking up a quarter-century with the Marines when he was shot and killed May 12 inside an Afghan civil order police compound in Lashkar Gah, the capital of southern Helmand province, on the Pakistani border.
He was one of two Marines who died in the attack, carried out by a gunman dressed in an Afghan police uniform.
Palmer, 43, and Sgt. Kevin Balduf, 27, of Nashville, had just sat down for lunch with other members of a Marine advisory team when the attacker opened fire, Marine Corps sources said. The shooter was wounded in an exchange of gunfire before being tackled; he was taken into custody by Afghan police.
The incident is being investigated, although “the actions of this individual do not reflect the overall actions of our Afghan partners,” Marine Maj. Gen. James Laster said in a statement after the shooting.
Palmer was assigned to Marine Wing Headquarters Squadron 2, 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force in Cherry Point, N.C.
His death left shaken the Marines and sailors he worked with, members of Marine Air Control Group 28. Nine days later, they dedicated their compound at Afghanistan’s Camp Leatherneck to his memory.
A tall marker erected outside the fenced-off encampment designates it “Chili’s Corner,” referring to Palmer’s Marine radio call sign. That moniker is said to have come from the movie “Get Shorty,” in which John Travolta plays a character called “Chili Palmer.”
“Chili was a passionate man who worked hard and played hard,” Lt. Col. Thomas Bajus, the group’s detachment commander, said when the marker was dedicated.
“He challenged his Marines with realistic training. He was not only hard, but he was fair. He cared about his Marines — he’d have Christmas and Easter celebrations just making sure his Marines were well taken care of.”
Palmer was a 1986 graduate of Modesto’s Downey High School. As a teenager, he honed his bugler’s skills with the Valley Fever Drum and Bugle Corps. He joined the Marine Corps on May 15, 1986, with an eye to trying out for its drum and bugle corps, according to the Modesto Bee.
But he decided to study humanities at Cal State Sacramento and take his military training in the summer through a platoon leaders class at officer candidates school in Quantico, Va. The program leads to a commission as a second lieutenant.
While in college, he joined the Sacramento Freelancers Drum and Bugle Corps.
Once on active duty, Palmer earned his master’s degree in administration at Central Michigan University, said Marine Corps spokesman Michael Barton.
Palmer’s Marine career included three tours of duty in Iraq. His personal decorations included the Republic of Korea Joint Service Commendation Medal, Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal with two gold stars, the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal with gold star and the Defense Meritorious Service Medal.
Before his Afghan deployment, Palmer served as commander of the 2nd Low Altitude Air Defense Battalion at the Marines Corps Air Station at Cherry Point, N.C., as some of its units were sent to Afghanistan as a provisional infantry security force.
As he relinquished command in December, Palmer credited those under him for their accomplishments. “It’s not me, it’s what they’ve done,” he said.
Those who knew Palmer well said that attitude could be expected of him.
“Chili was very stable, level-headed, pragmatic, not easily ruffled or agitated. Definitely not a whiner,” said former Marine Corps naval aviator Lt. Col. Carl Reynoso, who continues to fly for the Department of Defense in Iraq.
“He was quite analytical and would take a step back before making a decision, if conditions permitted. Yet he could be very decisive when required. He enjoyed having fun and laughing with us … I have no doubt his Marines would not hesitate to follow him anywhere.”
That also was among the messages delivered at a May 23 memorial service for Palmer attended by some 500 friends and fellow Marines at the Cherry Point Air Station’s base chapel.
“Over the last 12 days, I have discovered firsthand the profound impact of Ben Palmer on the Corps,” said Col. Peter J. DeVine, commander of Marine Air Control Group 28, according to the Havelock News, a weekly in Havelock, N.C. “Ben’s passing reverberated across the operational forces. Ben meant so much to so many people.”
Palmer will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery in ceremonies tentatively planned for August, a Marine spokesman said.
He is survived by his wife, Leafa, and their three children, Katie, 13, Jack, 11, and Jenna, 9; a son, A.J., 19, of Orlando, Fla.; his mother, Linda, of New Bern, N.C., and a brother, Joseph, of Martinez, Calif.