This is Chili. I’ve written about him before among others.
This is Chili.
I didn’t see LtCol Benjamin “Chili” Palmer smile often. But we all knew beneath his professional veneer he cared about his team. He meant so much to the team that we changed our official callsign to “Chili” in his honor. We were still nomads as the team had been called under him. But now we answered to his name on the radio. We spoke his name daily. I was intensely humbled to answer to “Chili-6.” I knew I could never fill his shoes. We could only hope to do that together. And we did.
He didn’t have to go. He was the most senior team leader in our batch. I learned later reading in an obituary that he could have ridden out to retirement without deploying again. But he felt the team needed him. I think his wife said that (She also asked me to keep him alive in our memories and when we raise a glass so here goes).
I remember in part of our training a young Cpl fooling around locking him into the bathroom. They thought they were doing it to a peer and when he came out. They were surprised, embarrassed, scared. He wasn’t happy about it, but didn’t light them up or have a Senior Staff NCO do it either. And there were Master and Gunnery Sergeants a plenty that would have.
It may have been the same Cpl that later shot his attacker. Or I may be remembering that wrong and it could have just been some other high spirited young Marine.
Either way, a young Recon Cpl, Sager, was probably the one who shot his attacker (may his name be forgotten) with his pistol in the fusillade that killed Chili.
The way that Cpl Sager came to be on the team may be the second most defining leadership characteristic I observed in him, second hand. He had traded a major on his team that had trained up with his team for a young Recon Cpl that had been detailed to the combined ANSF advisor group HQ (C-10).
I can read that situation a lot better now than I did at first but will never forgive higher headquarters for misreading it so badly.
After the attack that claimed LtCol Palmer’s and Sgt Balduf’s lives, and inflicted 25% WIA casualties on the team, the C10 swapped my team into that position, peeling me off. Initially planning to mandate me to a desk. That same Major was reassigned to lead the team. He requested me as an additional combat replacement and the C10 allowed it I’m still grateful to him for that, despite my other feelings toward him.
But they didn’t listen when the senior 1stLt on the team walked in to plead that they not assign that Major. “He’s gonna get people killed” before being screamed out of the building by another LtCol, in front of said Major.
I joined the team and was shortly made aware of just how inept this Major was. He had crashed two helicopters and been assigned as an advisor as a way to get rid of him. Chili was having none of it, so he arranged the swap. The one that brought the Cpl who shot his killer. It should scream to anyone with some leadership ability what a signal this should be.
But now the Major was back and immediately set to work making tactical errors as I negotiated how to modify his bad plans while keeping his trust and the teams. They had an extra arrow in their quiver though. And although they had started to trust me – they didn’t enough to confide in me that they had submitted a misconduct report to the Inspector General. Then half the team was called on to testify about his misconduct and he was summoned to defend himself. His last significant act before he left? Promoting me to Captain.
So there I was, nick the new guy and ranking officer but only barely (I pinned on the next most senior a month later despite his objections. He didn’t even want to wear the new rank let alone do a ceremony). And I observed the most impressive leadership behavior LtCol Palmer had left behind.
This team was both tough and flexible. They knew when to trust and when not to. We closed ranks. I begged, cajoled, even threatened (subtly, through channels) higher headquarters not to send us another oak leaf. The team would barely tolerate a young Captain and only if he entrusted them and shared the trust, authority, power.
They accepted me and the other combat replacements. We convinced the C10 to leave our team as it was. As we slapped chili pepper magnets on our MRAPS and rogered up to the callsign “Chili” the team demonstrated that judgement in when to trust that Chili had inculcated in them.
We saved lives. 7 Afghans lived through a mass casualty that year that may well have not without our team there. We helped an “other government agency” secure an airfield to swap out a vehicle in the dead of night. We helped escort the Commandant of the Marine Corps at the time to a place he shouldn’t have gone, after we protested, politely. Then we did our duty despite our misgivings. We helped secure the British Base after an active shooter was neutralized in their entry point. We did it calmly, professionally.
We even pulled the US regional Commanding General out of a safe house after a Car Bomb attack. I like to think we developed a reputation as the most warfighting team on the C10 roster at the time. That we did Lt Col Palmer proud for what he taught and for the name we borrowed. That we could help people feel more comfortable, calm, supported, when they heard the radio crackle.
“This is Chili, we’re on the way.”
Remember Gold Star families today.
There’s a few directions I feel pulled to take this PostScript. One is to briefly mention my memory of him, my team’s, is small compared to that of his family. I learned later he had recently called his daughter to congratulate her on what I think was her 16th birthday. She aand the rest of the family have carried on with a challenge I do not know. She has even turned it to serve others, as he did. She works administering scholarships for other children of veterans who were Killed In Action.
There’s much to remember on this memorial day. I wrote a bit more on that here.