Young love lost, an only son gone, after fatal training accident at Camp Pendleton
DEL MAR — Kathleen Isabel Bourque sat on the edge of a rock outcropping at the beach.
Wearing a white, eyelet slip dress and a camouflage Marine Corps blouse, she urged eight-month-old Ruthie, her black Labrador puppy, to jump up next to her.
The place was a spot where the love of her life and soulmate, Marine Corps 1st Lt. Conor McDowell, frequently photographed her — sometimes in the same white dress.
“He called it my angel dress,” Bourque said. It was what she was wearing the first time they met — on July 11, 2018, in her hometown of Salisbury, N.C.
“I saw him and it was like looking into the eyes of God,” she said, Wednesday, May 15. “I just knew he was the one. He had on his Captain America shirt, khaki pants and his favorite pair of brown boots. He was tall, built and he had the most intense eyes; they were beautiful bright green. He had the thickest, darkest eyelashes and gorgeous thick, black curly hair.”
That memory is one she will cling to forever because physically, Bourque, 22, will never see McDowell again.
McDowell, 24, a platoon leader with the 1st Light Armored Battalion at Camp Pendleton, died May 9 during a training exercise on the base.
He and six Marines under his command were riding in a light armored vehicle, with McDowell positioned high in the turret with a gunner to his right. According to reports, the vehicle was traveling slowly along rough terrain, into a heavy marine layer that made it difficult to see.
McDowell sent the gunner down into the vehicle to see if there was better visibility. As the gunner came back up, McDowell yelled, “rollover, rollover,” and pushed the gunner back into the vehicle.
“The vehicle flipped head over heels and landed on its top, wedging Conor between it and the ground,” said his father, Michael McDowell, who visited the base and spoke with the surviving Marines. “As the vehicle flips, the gunner tries his best to pull Conor back into the vehicle but is unable.”
In the end, the six other Marines were rescued after suffering moderate injuries. McDowell is to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery in June.
The incident comes as training accidents have spiked and on-duty deaths have exceeded military deaths in combat, a trend that began in 2015.
Lawmakers on the House Armed Services Committee said that in 2017, for example, nearly four times as many military personnel died in training accidents as were killed in combat. In all, the committee reported, 21 service members died in combat while 80 died as a result of non-combat training-related accidents.
McDowell’s accident is the fourth fatal rollover training accident for the military this year and the second at Camp Pendleton. Staff Sgt. Joshua Braica, of the 1st Marine Raider Battalion, was killed April 13 when his tactical vehicle rolled over at Camp Pendleton. Two other Raiders were injured.
Army Staff Sgt. Jacob Hess, of the 97th Civil Affairs Battalion (Special Forces) died on May 15, in a Humvee rollover at Fort Polk, Louisiana; 12 other soldiers were also injured. And in January, Army Spc. Octavious Lakers died when a Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle rolled over at the Army National Training Center at Fort Irwin.
Michael McDowell and his wife, Susan Flanigan, of Chestertown, Md., said they worried that the increase in training accidents could be a threat to their son.
“I want to know how rigorous the inquiry will be,” McDowell said. “I want to make sure he didn’t die in vain. If there’s a problem, let’s get it fixed.”
Marine Corps officials and the Navy Criminal Investigative Service are reviewing the accident.
“We worried more about his deployment,” Flanigan said. “But we know in training there is a possible risk because he was preparing for war.”
Drawn to the military
Flanigan and McDowell, a former journalist with the BBC who left Northern Ireland in the 1970s, said their only son, born and bred in Washington, D.C., had wanted to be a Marine since childhood. Stories of his grandfather’s military career during World War II inspired young McDowell.
“Conor was a warrior, like my father in the Royal Ulster Rifles in the Western Desert, Sicily and Italy in World War II,” McDowell said. “Sadly, they never met, but Conor felt as if he knew him. Conor, since he was a small boy, wanted to be a soldier, and later, a Marine.”
Flanigan recalled her son’s response to 9/11.
“He was in first grade and I brought him home from school,” she said. “He was into Legos so I used them to build two towers and explained what happened in New York to the Twin Towers. He told me, ‘When I grow up, I’m going to protect my country.’”
His parents said he was an avid reader and intellectually curious. He loved military history and spent eight summers in a village in Burgundy, France, learning about battlefields. There, he listened to stories from Frenchmen and Americans who fought in WWII.
McDowell majored in history and minored in French at The Citadel, a historic military college in Charleston, S.C. He chose the college, his parents said, because it graduated a high number of Marine officers with its rigorous physical and academic regimen.
“I’m very proud he showed himself to be a leader, not just as a Marine but as a cadet at the Citadel and a Junior ROTC cadet at St. John’s College High School,” his father said. In his senior year at St. John’s, Conor McDowell became Command Sergeant Major of the Army ROTC Unit.
Recently, his parents learned their son was being promoted to 1st lieutenant in the Marine Corps.
His commanding officer asked if he wanted to be pinned in the field during the 10-day training maneuvers that began May 6, his father said, but McDowell said he’d rather wait until Bourque could pin him once he returned.
He, likewise, had something he wanted to give her.
McDowell was having a ring designed for Bourque with family diamonds given to him by his mother. He told his mother on May 4 he would propose to Bourque on his return from training.
“They were unofficially engaged,” Flanigan said. “Conor asked Peter (Bourque), Kathleen’s father, for her hand in December.”
On Tuesday, when Bourque and McDowell’s parents went to see his body at a funeral home in Fallbrook, his commander organized a small pinning ceremony.
Bourque, wearing McDowell’s favorite white dress, pinned his Marine Corps blouse — draped over a battlefield cross, the memorial for a Marine who has been killed — with his 1st lieutenant’s bars.
A whirlwind romance
A day later, at the beach, Bourque talked about their wedding plans. She told of how they met and how their short, whirlwind romance turned into what both thought would be forever.
They got to know each other through a dating app when Bourque swiped on his photo — a picture McDowell took with his mother after he was commissioned at The Citadel.
“I wrote, ‘This is honestly such a beautiful photo,’” she said, recalling that first interaction in March 2018.
McDowell was taking the Infantry Officer Course at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms; Bourque was specializing in military psychological research at Loyola University in Maryland.
After her March message, she didn’t hear back from McDowell until June, when he was in Rhode Island on leave with a friend.
After some messaging back and forth, they exchanged numbers. Their first phone call lasted eight hours. They talked about their Irish heritage, about a thesis Bourque had presented and they laughed.
For the next few weeks they spoke every day.
“We were both so goofy and quirky,” Bourque said. “We had the same exact personality.”
Then, when it came time for McDowell to transfer to Camp Pendleton, McDowell told Bourque he had to meet her. He drove 18 hours from Rhode Island to North Carolina. After four days during which their bond grew even stronger, Bourque recalled, McDowell asked her to move with him to California. She agreed.
“I know it sounds insane and we only met four days ago,” McDowell told her. “I will take care of you.”
“Yes, let’s go,” she told him.
The young couple stopped off in Maryland, so Bourque could meet McDowell’s parents. Then they drove cross-country.
They settled in a house in Cardiff with Ruthie and cats Missy and Max.
“Many (times) he would tell me how much he wanted to propose to me right there,” Borque said Wednesday, walking from the beach they often visited. “But he always said he wanted to give me the moment girls dream about.
“Now, he never will.”