By Matthew Rice
Like many Americans that September day 10 years ago the first inkling Steve Palmer had something was wrong came from a news report about what seemed to be an improbable plane crash.
Over the next few hours the National Guard member made contact with his unit, knowing he would likely be deployed to help with what had just happened or what ever it was that came next.
“Like all of the other members of my unit we reported to the armory,” he said.
“I had just transferred into my unit (the 466 ASMC) in July that summer and I believe it happened on a Tuesday, I remember it being in the middle of the week somewhere and I knew right away it was a circumstance that we would be called for state duty,” Palmer said.
At the time, transitioning from nursing towards a full-time teaching job at Granville, Palmer was working jobs in both fields.
That morning he was at home having coffee getting prepared to go in to school when he saw the news. Having a radio on with a New York City station tuned in, Palmer said the deejay thought the reports were some kind of hoax; when the host was convinced, the television came on.
Even before it was clear exactly what was going on, Palmer said he was sure he was getting deployed.
“Any kind of natural disaster that happens we get deployed in the state. Automatically I was thinking we’ll probably be activated,” he said.
As he had been trained, Palmer did not wait to get a call, he called in to report he was ready for duty.
Palmer said he was given some time to get his family matters in order before deploying for something – no one knew exactly what the unit might be doing or where or under what circumstances.
Coming from a training mission in Louisiana, the unit’s gear was not on station, but located up in Fort Drum.
The unit met their gear in Syracuse en route to Camp Smith where they grouped to wait for the mission to be finalized.
At that point Palmer knew he was going into the city and that his mission would be medical, but little else.
About three days after Palmer and his unit rolled into the city. The scene just 72 hours after the collapse left an impression with Palmer.
“I remember going, having this very surreal feeling when traveling through the city, because I’ve been in the city before a couple of times, and there was just no traffic. Even in the dead of night when I’ve been traveling through, there’s always traffic, but there were no other vehicles on the road and you just knew that it was not a good situation,” Palmer said.
“Even to this day when I think about it, I’ve been in some hairy situations you know, the war being one example, but there have been other times where things were somewhat scary; but even talking about it now it makes my hair stand up still – the devastation, the post apocalyptic aspect of the whole scenario,” he said.
The area Palmer ended up, Battery Park, where he would be one of the troops manning an aid station for troops working at Ground Zero, made and impact on every sense.
“It’s a few blocks away (from Ground Zero) four or five blocks away. We couldn’t exactly see it from that perspective, but when we made the rounds we could see it,” Palmer said.
“As you got closer you got this taste in your mouth, the air was different, the lighting was different, you didn’t know what to expect, we could have another attack any time; everyone’s senses were all on alert,” Palmer said.
Being a medical job, Palmer helped provide aid to sick or injured troops working the recovery site as well as patrolling to guard stations to see how those troops were doing. A big part of their mission was to keep an eye on how everyone was holding up just days after the single largest terrorist attack on American soil.
“We were making sure that people were doing what they’re supposed to and that they were ok as far as staying hydrated, but the big thing was mental health,” he said.
Palmer as NCOIC for the station was charged with having his people look for signs of mental stress in other soldiers.
While the duty was not especially hazardous, the area in and around Ground Zero was dangerous in itself.
“You had to wear your helmet all the time, the big thing was glass. Even though the windows got shattered, there was some of it that didn’t fall out,” he said. “There were certain streets that you could not go down because it was so heavy with that stuff.”
“It was unbelievable, the carnage of the whole thing. The loss; being even in the war I went on convoys and the devastation there was something out of a movie set than what’s found in a war,” he said.
At times the dust from the debris forced those working at the aid station to have to use respirators to breathe.
Palmer said another part of the mission was to go out into the city and just walk around, do things like go to dinner; to see and be seen as a presence around the city. “If we were going to go out and look at things or go out to eat we were told to wear our uniform,” he said. Although it was a small gesture, he said he found it touching that when he would go out to eat in public the check was always taken care of by someone as a way of saying thanks.
“We got a lot of support. I didn’t expect it, I was always kind of surprised, I wasn’t looking for that, but then you’d go out and people would buy you dinner,” Palmer said. That reaction was a ways from the one National Guard members from another era might have received, not Vietnam War era hostility, simply indifference. It was good to know they were appreciated.
“I came into the National Guard in the 80s and there were some issues with how the guard was then, they were kind of rag tag, weekend warriors from that point there was a change and with 911 we got to show how far we’d come over time with all of the training we’d had,” Palmer said,
Palmer said he’s got his 20 years in and can retire, but one thought keeps him from doing so.
It has been 10 years since Sept. 11 and there are fewer and fewer Guard members who were in then still around.
“I have these experiences and want to make sure that the troops down the road know what they need to do, they need to have guys like me in so that’s kind of driven me to stay in,” Palmer said.
As someone who has deployed to Iraq, Palmer said he thinks that taking the fight overseas along with increased security measures has helped to prevent another attack against the United States.
The bottom line for Palmer is the action planned to invoke terror instead strengthened resolve when so many civilian lives were taken outside of a combat area.
“It draws up a lot of different emotions, you have a lot of anger about that those kinds of actions in any kind of war are just not justifiable, no matter what their philosophy was that’s just not the way you carry out aggressions,” Palmer said.
A decade later the attack has proved more galvanizing than terrifying.
“Terrorism tries to invoke terror but it’s just a bad way of doing things it just makes people, in uniform anyway, more determined to make it better,” Palmer said. A decade later he said enlistments particularly for the guard are at capacity.
“I think it drew people together even more…the city has a culture of its own, but as New Yorkers, I think as Americans, we all came under a larger collective of thought that we’re a bigger entity, that we have a bigger mission in life and we have standards for our lifestyle and we want to defend it,” Palmer said.