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CRISES IN THE MIDEAST

San Diego Woman Among the Victims

Casualty: Friends remember Lakiba Palmer as a track star and good student. The 22-year-old took great pride in her Navy service, they say.

October 14, 2000|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — Lakiba Nicole Palmer was remembered Friday by her friends and coaches as a track star and good student who joined the Navy seeking stability and a sense of purpose.

"It meant so much to her to wear that uniform," said Shawana Phillips, a friend from the working-class neighborhood of Lincoln Park. "She missed her family, but she was so proud of what she was doing, seeing the world, serving her country."

Palmer, 22, was a seaman recruit on the guided missile destroyer Cole, which was the target of an apparent terrorist attack in Yemen on Thursday. Married with a young child, she was killed in the blast.

"She was a very aggressive, very competitive girl who spoke up for herself and wanted to make something of her life," said Shirley Davis, a counselor and former track coach at San Diego High School, on the edge of downtown. "She talked all the time about wanting to go into the Navy to get stability and some training for life."

Palmer graduated in June 1996 from a school that is within the shadow of San Diego's massive Navy bases. One of the city's oldest and most racially diverse schools, San Diego High has a long tradition of sending graduates to military service and has a plaque on campus as a memorial to those who died during wartime.

"For a lot of our students who maybe aren't ready for college or don't have the money, serving in the Navy is a way to better themselves," Davis said.

A star hurdler and sprinter, Palmer was the anchor on a relay team that went to the regional finals in her senior year. The local newspaper selected her for its academic honor roll of high school athletes.

"She was very popular, very highly regarded for her good attitude and her refusal to give up," said mathematics teacher Paul Locher. "The school is absolutely in shock."

Locher noted that Palmer maintained a top grade-point average despite missing school because she was needed to baby-sit young children in her extended family.

"She was so friendly to everyone, so dedicated to doing well at track, not like some girls who complain about going to practice every day," said Nyla McCray, a former teammate. "She had a great fashion sense too and was always smiling. She leaves behind a lot of people who loved her."

In shock after receiving the news from a Navy casualty notification officer, Palmer's family declined to speak to reporters. A Navy chaplain, assigned to stay with the family, pleaded with reporters to leave the family alone.

Mayor Susan Golding issued a statement asking all San Diegans to "remember the sacrifice Lakiba Nicole Palmer and the others made to protect democracy around the world."

Palmer enlisted in the Navy in October 1997, graduated from boot camp and was assigned to the aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman as a seaman recruit. Recruits on carriers are assigned numerous duties to get them accustomed to the Navy, from working on the mess decks to standing late-night watches to working on the flight deck helping maneuver planes into position.

Palmer joined the Cole, based in Norfolk, Va., in June, and the ship deployed in August on a mission to the Middle East to support the U.N. embargo against Iraq.

Locher said a gathering was being planned on campus in Palmer's honor. He noted that just a few weeks ago, reporters flocked to San Diego High for a joyous occasion: to discuss one of Palmer's former track teammates, Meb Keflezighi, who finished 12th in the Olympics in the 10,000-meter race.

"We were all so happy that day, and now this," said Locher, his voice breaking slightly. "You never think a terrorist is going to kill someone you know."

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