AUBURN, Neb. — Two Green Berets hugged members of Sgt. Jason Palmerton's family here Saturday and promised they wouldn't forget the man or his loved ones.
“You're still in our hearts, filling us with the strength to carry on,” Capt. Will Wright said.
Palmerton, 25, of Auburn was shot and killed by an insurgent while on patrol eight years ago with his Green Beret detachment in Afghanistan.
Wright and Chief Warrant Officer II Johnny Glenn returned from Afghanistan this spring and visited Auburn on Saturday. They gave the Palmerton family a framed tribute to the sergeant during a ceremony at Legion Memorial Park. The two Green Berets, who didn't know Palmerton but served later in the same small detachment, told the family they have named an eastern Afghanistan fire base, or outpost, “Camp Palmerton.”
They knew, Wright said, why Palmerton was a Green Beret: He longed to protect the American way of life and help people in faraway lands who were born not into the privilege Americans take for granted, but in spots where repression and brutality rule.
“Nothing can replace him,” Wright said. “Johnny and I will forever live in your debt.”
The wind blew through the town of 3,400, tempering the heat of the early summer afternoon. The 30-minute ceremony included the playing of Taps and “Ballad of the Green Berets,” and the singing of the National Anthem and “America the Beautiful.”
Auburn community members gave Glenn and Wright a framed collection of photos of the Nemaha County Veterans Memorial, which stood just behind the ceremony.
The memorial is a plaza dedicated two years ago that includes black granite walls containing 1,200 veterans' names and murals of soldiers, battles, planes, tanks, battleships and famous war scenes, such as the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima. Palmerton's name is etched on one wall.
Jason Palmerton's grandfather, 80-year-old Tom Palmerton, stood near the end of the ceremony to make an announcement. The sculptor from Brownville, Neb., said he intended to raise funds and create a life-sized statue of his grandson in his military uniform. Asked later when he made this decision, the artist said: “Right here today. I'll have it in about a year.”
Amanda Falvey, Jason's sister, said before the ceremony that her brother wanted to live with inspiration rather than regret. He liked to say that you shouldn't “live your life with your eyes closed,” Falvey said.
Falvey, now married and living in Denver, said her brother had a good sense of humor and tried to be a stand-up comic for a while. She and her brother lived together in an apartment in Lincoln about a dozen years ago. He was a generous guy and astonished her by giving a neighbor $300 to pay the fellow's rent.
Her brother was working as a maintenance man in a meat processing plant at the time and had just broken up with a girlfriend. It was a tough time for him. The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks also moved him. One day in 2002 she came home to their apartment and heard on the telephone answering machine a recruiter giving Jason some instructions. Her brother had signed up to join the Army.
“And I was like, 'What?'” she said.
“He said, 'Don't freak out.'”
He wanted to move on with his life, do good things. And he did like the Army, Falvey said. He loved the camaraderie and challenge. He seemed quite happy and had met a veterinary student while he was based at Fort Bragg, N.C. She became a serious girlfriend.
It's just a shame, Falvey said, that his adventure ended after only 25 years.
Kandi Rohrs, a teacher in Auburn schools, recalled Jason Palmerton as a reliable, respectful boy. She taught him in eighth grade, and he was quiet, smart and could be funny, but he didn't push it to obnoxiousness, Rohrs said.
Now, almost every year on Memorial Day week, Rohrs takes a group of Auburn students to Washington, D.C. They visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Holocaust Museum and the U.S. Capitol, and they attend a play.
They go to Arlington National Cemetery and visit the Tomb of the Unknowns and the eternal flame at John F. Kennedy's gravesite. They watch the Changing of the Guard. But the students love most of all to visit Palmerton's grave at that cemetery, Rohrs said. They place a wreath on it that says, “Auburn High School.”
It connects them to the vast burial ground, she said, and makes it personal for them. They know one of their own rests in that profoundly sad, beautiful place.