Marine Corps Major also has a PhD

Ed Palm grew up in a broken home in a heavily industrialized area of northern Delaware. His stepfather left when he was a sophomore in high school and “things got kind of grim after that.”

One saving grace was an aunt who, over his own mother’s objections, paid for Palm to attend an all boys Catholic high school specializing in college prep. Despite that experience, though, Palm had no real prospects for going to college and his options were pretty limited.

At the time, Palm says the “Delaware Dream” was to get a job at Dupont which offered lifelong employment with pretty good wages and benefits. The “Delaware Nightmare,” Palm had repeatedly been warned, was to go to work at a union job for General Motors or Chrysler putting the same bolts on the same cars day after day, year after year.

Palm’s dream was to someday become a photojournalist and joining the Marine Corps was one way he figured he could gain some worldly experience toward that end. There were, of course, other reasons for enlisting.

“Frankly, I wasn’t getting along with mother very well and thought a good way to run away from home was joining the Marine Corps,” Palm said. “I had been pretty put down by the way things had worked out. Joining the Marine Corps was a way to show, ‘Hey, I am somebody, not just another bum from the neighborhood. It may be tough but I can earn that uniform.’”

After enlisting, Palm embarked on a journey to North Carolina for training, overseas to Vietnam and back to North Carolina. Eventually, he made his way to the University of Delaware where he enrolled with the help of the GI Bill and earned a B.A. in English in 1973. Two years later, he earned his Masters. Like many others, Palm got an education and made his way back to the Marine Corps to become an officer. Unlike many others, Palm took the unusual and rare, though not completely unheard of, steps of combining a military career with an academic one.

As a Marine Corp officer, Palm achieved the rank of Major. As an academic, he earned a PhD at the University of Pennsylvania and has served as a writing instructor, a professor and a dean. He’s been a newspaper columnist, published in peer reviewed journals, written a memoir about his experiences in Vietnam called “Tiger Papa Three,” contributed to National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” and much more.

And, while Palm, who today lives in Silverdale and teaches full-time online for Strayer University, didn’t ever become a professional photojournalist, he has taken plenty of great photos over the years. It’s a passion he keeps to this day.

“The academic life seemed to me the freest kind of life you could have,” Palm said while reflecting on his journey. “You would get paid to study anything that interested you, regardless of how irrelevant that might be to the world’s commerce. I thought that was a really noble and fine thing and I developed a really strong love for literature. I thought, Gee, to be a professor and professional student of literature trying to impart that to students would be a wonderful thing to do.”

The one thing that made it all possible, of course, was the GI Bill. Palm says that, as his father-in-law, a World War II vet who went back to school after serving to get his Masters, often points out, “The GI Bill was one of the best investments the government ever made because they made all that money back and then some in taxes from people who were prepared to earn much more money than they otherwise would have through the GI Bill.”

Without the GI Bill, Palm doesn’t see how his life’s journey could have ever been possible.

“I was completely naive about college and how it worked,” Palm said. “Because I was eligible for the GI Bill, it never occurred to me to go to the financial aid office and find out what else I might be eligible for,” he said.

It was Palm’s wife, though, who encouraged him to visit the financial aid office where he found out that he was eligible for grant money through the National Science Foundation.

“If I hadn’t found out about that, which I only found out by going to college, I would have thought college was just impossible for me,” he said. “Without that promise of the GI Bill, I’m sure I wouldn’t have gone to college. I wouldn’t have known enough to investigate the other opportunities open to me.”

The only other family member from Palm’s generation that ever went to college was a slightly older cousin who dropped out two weeks into law school to become a poet. Most members of Palm’s working class family of Slovak immigrants didn’t think college made much sense or could ever be worth it after that.

“Having been in both walks of life, I think what’s allowed me to get academic leadership jobs, is that I don’t idealize either one,” Palm said. “Having been in the Marine Corps for a long time and having been in the academic world for quite some time, I see the foibles and problems of both. I’ve come to realize that the academic world is largely all about vanity and publishing things or publishing things that aren’t all that important.”

But, lifelong learning is something that Palm, who read a lot as an only child, embraces wholeheartedly to this day. He says the day he got out of the Marine Corps was one of  the loneliest of his life. Facing an eight-hour drive after taking an early out, Palm had nothing to go back to for five months. He wasn’t getting along well with his mother and asked his career Air Force officer father, who he had only reconnected with while in the service, if he could stay with him in Columbus, Ohio. Once there, he got a job through the defense supply agency on a depot roofing crew.

“I can’t stand the smell of hot tar to do this day,” he said. “It was an awful job there in the heat and humidity of Columbus, Ohio. My father got a kick out of it and liked to tell people I had a high – up job in the government.”

It wasn’t an easy time, but Palm got through it.

“I think my only saving grace was realizing I had some place to go and something to do,” he said. “I had a goal of going to college. I kind of found myself and at the time I wouldn’t have admitted that I was suffering from anything like PTSD, but I didn’t feel normal again until I got started in college and got in that routine of attending classes and doing homework. I finally started to feel normal.”

Not to be too melodramatic, but the GI Bill, just might have saved Palm’s life.

“I guess it really wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that, yeah, the GI Bill really made the difference in my life because going to college just wouldn’t have been possible without it.”