By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – About 190,000 people currently serve in the U.S. Army Reserve.
Fewer than 20% of them are officers, and less than 1% of those individuals have reached the rank of general officer.
It takes years of hard work, dedication and sacrifice to become a brigadier general – an achievement so significant that Noel Palmer compares it to winning the lottery.
“I wouldn’t say I ever really aspired to be a general,” he said. “I think that’s unrealistic. So few people are selected to do that. What I’ve aspired to do is continue to progress, continue to serve and try to be effective and really just be a good leader.”
The Army Reserve member and associate professor of management at the University of Nebraska at Kearney was promoted from colonel to brigadier general last month during a ceremony at Fort Snelling, Minnesota. He’s one of two deputy commanding generals for the 412th Theater Engineer Command, an engineer unit headquartered in Vicksburg, Mississippi, with about 11,000 soldiers and expertise in areas such as survey and design, building, road and bridge construction and physical facilities upgrades.
Prior to his promotion, Palmer served for nearly 3 1/2 years as commander of the 372nd Engineer Brigade based at Fort Snelling.
“Not only was I fortunate enough to be able to command the 372nd, but I was able to deploy with them. I spent nine months in Kuwait with them in an environment where you’re away from family and you’re working hard,” said Palmer, who called the change of command a bittersweet moment.
The 372nd Engineer Brigade mobilized in October 2021 and deployed to Kuwait the following month. As commander, Palmer led a brigade task force consisting of active-duty, Army Reserve and Army National Guard engineer units. Their primary mission was to support Operation Spartan Shield and Operation Inherent Resolve on the Arabian Peninsula.
It was Palmer’s fourth deployment during his 27 years of U.S. Army service.
A graduate of the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York, Palmer was commissioned into active duty in 1995 as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He spent time at Fort Riley, Kansas, and Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, and was deployed to Saudi Arabia for six months as a design engineer.
After 5 1/2 years on active duty, Palmer transitioned to the Individual Ready Reserve and began working as a project manager for heavy highway construction before reaching a crossroads. He didn’t love the direction his civilian career was taking, then the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks occurred.
It was time to make a decision about his future.
“Naturally, I looked back to my time in the military as something I enjoyed, partly because it’s just a unique profession in the sense that you experience things with your co-workers that you don’t typically experience in any other profession,” Palmer said. “You see people at their worst and at their best because that’s often when people shine is in those tough conditions. In some ways, there was the camaraderie that I missed. There’s also a sense of purpose that I think you get serving in the military that I enjoyed and wanted to get back to.”
Palmer was living in Denver with his wife Leane and two young children when he joined the Army Reserve in late 2002. A couple months later, he was sent to Iraq as a company commander with the 244th Engineer Battalion.
That experience inspired him to focus on leadership and his ability to impact others. He wanted to go back to school and become an educator.
“I somehow convinced my wife that was a good idea,” he said with a laugh.
Palmer earned a master’s degree in business from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and was working on his doctorate in management when he got the opportunity to teach at UNK as an adjunct for the spring 2010 semester. A full-time position opened after that, and Palmer was back on campus to interview when he received a voicemail message – his Reserve unit was deploying to the Middle East.
He spent his first year as a full-time UNK employee in Afghanistan.
Palmer, who returned from his latest deployment in August, believes his time in the military has benefited him both personally and professionally.
“It’s been formative in a number of ways, in terms of who I am and what’s important to me,” he said, referring to the seven Army values: loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage.
“It’s an organization that’s explicit about what its values are and how important they are,” he added. “That’s part of what we emphasize in terms of training and developing leaders of character. When you’re in an organization that prioritizes those things, that shapes you, too, whether it’s the tough experiences like deployments, the type of culture and values that you’re exposed to or the type of people you get to serve with.”
His experiences as a soldier make him a better scholar. At UNK, Palmer researches and writes about leadership and ethics. He also teaches business ethics and organizational behavior at the undergraduate level and organizational behavior and leadership as part of the Master of Business Administration program.
“It makes it easier to teach because I have lessons to share from all kinds of experiences,” he said. “I’ve had opportunities to lead organizations, from small, technical-type teams to very large organizations, and deal with all of the issues that come with that – the challenges you face when you’re trying to lead people and establish goals.
“I think in some ways it facilitates teaching and in other ways it gives you some credibility that you know what you’re talking about – and both of those things help.”
Palmer holds a master’s degree in strategic studies from the U.S. Army War College. His military awards include the Legion of Merit, Bronze Star Medal, Defense Meritorious Service Medal, Meritorious Service Medal, Army Commendation Medal and Army Achievement Medal.
He called his nearly three decades of service “a privilege.”
“I feel fortunate to be able to do that, not only that there was this opportunity that I had so many years ago, but that I’m also able to continue serving,” the one-star general said. “I love working with soldiers. I love the Army. I like to just be a part of that and serve. It’s something that I think is meaningful.”
Palmer and his wife Leane live in Kearney. They have three children: Evan, 23, a recent UNL graduate now studying robotics as a master’s student at Oregon State University; Emily, 21, a senior studying visual communication and design at UNK; and Luke, 17, a senior at Amherst High School.