CHARLOTTE, N.C. — One day in March 2018, a profile on the dating app Hinge caught Kathleen Bourque’s eye. The photo showed Conor McDowell, a tall, bright-eyed Citadel cadet in uniform. He was at a ring ceremony, his mother by his side.
Kathleen, then 21, was moved to send Conor a message: “This is honestly such a beautiful photo.”
It was three months before she heard back from him.
"He said, ‘I’m so sorry, I just finished the infantry officer course for the Marine Corps,’ " Kathleen recalled to the Charlotte Observer. “He said his friend had set up his (Hinge) profile for him and he was still figuring out how it worked.”
The two of them texted back and forth for hours that night, conversing about their shared Irish heritage and a common passion: the need for better mental health care in the military.
The next night, they had their first phone conversation. Conor, 23, was visiting a friend in Rhode Island. Kathleen had just graduated from Loyola University in Baltimore, where she had studied mental health in the military, and she was living with her parents in Salisbury.
From 10:30 p.m. until 6 a.m., they talked about their childhoods, their families, their dreams. Night after night, the marathon phone conversations went on like that.
“He was just so genuine, you felt you could open up to him about anything and everything,” Kathleen said.
In a little over two weeks, Conor had to report to Camp Pendleton, in California, where he’d be stationed.
He would not face combat there, but he would confront equally lethal dangers in his training. And as quickly as he entered Kathleen’s life, he would leave it.
In one of his early phone conversations with Kathleen, Conor he told her that he wanted to drive from Rhode Island to North Carolina to meet her in person before he left for Camp Pendleton.
“I didn’t take him seriously,” Kathleen said. "I said, "Whatever, dude.' "
Conor persisted. He said he would take her on a date. And if she hated him, he would take her home and be on his way.
Kathleen was in her upstairs bedroom in Salisbury that July 11 when Conor arrived after an 800-mile drive. She could hear him downstairs, talking and joking with her mother. Her 18-year-old sister ran upstairs to deliver her report: “Prince Charming is standing in our living room!”
Butterflies in her stomach, Kathleen started to walk downstairs. There he was: 6-foot-2, curly dark hair, green eyes.
“I stopped and looked over the banister, and that was it,” Kathleen said. “There’s no explanation. Every fiber in my body was just screaming, ‘That’s the one. He’s it!’ I knew I was going to marry him in that moment.”
As she approached, he said, “Hey, what’s going on?”
Kathleen tripped, stepped on his foot and fell forward. She threw her arms around him and he caught her.
Over the next four days, the two of them explored historic Salisbury, went to Carowinds and talked about whether they could sustain a long-distance relationship after Conor went off to California.
Kathleen was terrified of heights. But at Carowinds, Conor persuaded her to ride the roller coasters, despite her fears.
“One thing I’ve learned is you should do something that scares you every single day,” she recalled him telling her.
She fainted on one roller coaster. And on the scariest coaster of all — the Fury 325 — she followed him nervously into the front two seats. He urged her to throw her hands up in the air on the long vertical drop down. Instead, she clutched the bar.
When the ride ended, Kathleen told Conor she wanted to do it again. This time, she threw her arms in the air, holding Conor’s hand.
After they got off the ride, Conor looked into Kathleen’s eyes.
“That’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever witnessed in my life,” she recalled him telling her. “It’s very rare to witness someone overcoming one of their biggest fears.”
He cradled her face in his hands and kissed her.
On July 15th, the day before Conor was scheduled to leave for California, he and Kathleen went to Connolly’s on Fifth, an Irish pub in uptown Charlotte, to share a couple of pints of Guinness Stout.
“I’ve been thinking about something,” she recalled him telling her. “I can’t leave you here. You’re the most wonderful woman I’ve ever met. So move to California with me.”
She took a deep swig of Guinness and a few moments to think. Then — just four days after meeting Conor in person — she gave him her answer: “Let’s do it.”
The following morning, Kathleen broke the news to her mother. “She was mad because she thought the two of us were being entirely irresponsible,” Kathleen said.
Kathleen packed a single carry-on bag with a T-shirt, two bikinis and other essentials. She and Conor hopped into his Toyota Tundra, and they were on their way.
Before they headed west, they traveled to Maryland so that Conor could pick up some of his things and say goodbye to his parents.
En route, Kathleen fretted about whether they were making a huge mistake. Conor wasn’t so nervous.
“We both know we’re insane,” she remembered him telling her. “But at least we’re insane together.”
In Maryland, the couple had heart-to-heart conversations with Conor’s parents. His father, Michael McDowell, told them that he knew they were adults — and that he hoped the two of them would make adult decisions.
On their five-day trip west, the couple rolled through Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. They talked about raising a family with six kids. They listened to Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan. Conor played drums on the truck’s steering wheel. Kathleen played air guitar and sang at the top of her lungs to the Cranberries’ song “Dreams.”
"Oh, my life
Is changing every day
In every possible way"
After arriving In California in late July, Conor and Kathleen found a basement apartment north of San Diego, in a rental house on a hill overlooking the ocean. They got two kittens that they named Max and Missy, and a black lab puppy that they called Ruthie.
They talked again and again about marriage. Conor’s mother gave him two diamond rings that had long been in the family. He planned to take the seven diamonds and set them in a custom-designed engagement ring.
Kathleen knew that Conor’s work was dangerous. He talked frequently about vehicles that had rolled over during field training operations. That’s what worried Kathleen the most.
In journal pages that Kathleen provided to the Observer, Conor spoke of three vehicle rollovers during a December 2018 training mission at Fort Irwin in California.
“It’s a miracle no one was killed,” Conor wrote after describing one of the rollovers. “...This is a reminder that at any moment through careless action even in training Marines can die.”
But when Conor left for his training missions, Kathleen would tell herself a story: He was working a routine 9-to-5 job.
“'He’s fine. He’s safe.' That’s what I would tell myself,” she said.
But on Sunday, May 5, 2019, the night before Conor was set to leave for a 10-day training mission at Camp Pendleton, Kathleen sensed that something was wrong.
Conor said that he felt guilty about leaving her, she recalled, that he loved her and didn’t want to go.
She fell asleep with her head on his chest, listening to his heart beat.
The next morning, Conor kissed her goodbye.
“I love you so much,” Kathleen recalled telling him just before he left their apartment. “Be safe. Please, Conor, be safe.”
On Tuesday, she got a call from Conor, who had just gotten good news at Camp Pendleton: He’d been promoted to first lieutenant. But he didn’t want to put on his new pin yet. He wanted to wait until he was back home with Kathleen so that she could do it.
“I only have a couple of seconds to talk,” she recalled him telling her. “But I want to tell you how much I love you. How much I miss you.”
When Conor was on field training missions, it was his habit to send Kathleen a good-morning text each morning, usually around 9:30 a.m.
But on Thursday, May 9, no message came. Kathleen grew more nervous as the hours rolled by. She used an app to check his location, and it kept showing that his phone was in an office. By 2:30 a.m. the next morning, the phone’s location had not changed.
After a few hours of sleep, Kathleen awoke to the sound of Ruthie barking at the door. Three friends had arrived.
Kathleen left briefly to get dressed. She checked her phone and saw a text message from one of Conor’s friends: “What the hell happened to Conor?” he asked.
Kathleen returned to her three visitors. One of the friends took her aside. Conor had died in a vehicle rollover, the friend told her.
Later, after conversations with other Marines who were injured in the accident, Kathleen and Conor’s father were able to glean more details. Conor had been on a training mission at Camp Pendleton with six other Marines. They were driving through a canyon in a Light Armored Vehicle (LAV), an eight-wheeled piece of machinery resembling a small tank. Conor was in the turret, commanding the crew.
The LAV is an armed, fast-moving vehicle, capable of traveling 60 miles per hour. But that morning, Conor’s vehicle had been traveling at a snail’s pace. Kathleen and Conor’s father believe that’s because heavy rainfall had allowed the grass and brush to grow high, making it impossible for the Marines to see the ground they were approaching.
Conor’s vehicle hit a V-shaped ditch, about 18 feet deep, according to Maj. Edward Ferguson, his commanding officer.
Conor’s father said Marines told him that his son shouted a warning as the vehicle began to flip: “Rollover! Rollover! Rollover!”
He reportedly shoved a corporal under the vehicle’s armor so he would be protected. Conor’s six fellow Marines survived the accident with injuries, according to a statement from the Marine Corps.
But Conor was crushed beneath the 14-ton vehicle. Fellow Marines tried unsuccessfully to save him, but after a crane was brought in to lift the vehicle, they could do nothing but drape an American flag over his head and shoulders.
The Marine Corps is investigating the accident, according to Lt. Cameron Edinburgh, a spokesman for Conor’s light-armored reconnaissance battalion.
Conor was not the first Marine to die in such a rollover accident.
In April, Marine Raider Staff Sgt. Joshua Braica was killed at Camp Pendleton when his tactical vehicle turned over during training.
And in the weeks since Conor’s death, two more U.S. service members have died in rollovers. An Army soldier stationed at Fort Bragg, Staff Sgt. Jacob A. Hess, was killed on May 15 after a Humvee rolled over at a base in Louisiana. And on Tuesday, Marine Lance Cpl. Hans Sandoval-Pereyra died from injuries suffered when a Humvee rolled off the road in Australia’s Northern Territory three days earlier.
Statistics showing how often military vehicles roll over were not immediately available. But one study found that, during the 22 years ending in 2013, there were more than 800 rollover accidents involving U.S. Army Humvees. More than 150 people were killed in those accidents.
In an email to the Observer, Marine Capt. Christopher Harrison said that “vehicles do not roll over that often, and when they do it’s unlikely it will result in fatal injuries.”
Major Ferguson, Conor’s commander, said he’d never before witnessed a rollover in his more than 20 years with the Marine Corps.
But deaths stemming from non-combat exercises appear to be on the rise in the Marine Corps, jumping from nine during all of 2018 to 10 so far this year.
In all branches of the U.S. military, 80 service members died in training accidents in 2017 — about four times the number who died in combat, according to a Congressional report.
Conor’s father says he has learned through conversations with Marine officials that it is standard practice for a safety team to survey the ground over which vehicles will be traveling during training exercises. He questions whether that happened before his son’s death — and whether appropriate information about the terrain was conveyed to his son and his team.
“My son is gone,” Michael McDowell said. “But can we save another 24-year-old?”
In the more than three weeks since Conor died, Kathleen has been living with his parents in Maryland. She’s had trouble sleeping since then. She has little appetite and has lost about 10 pounds.
“The grief is not like a bone you can just reset,” she said at the end of a tear-filled interview last week.
At a memorial service in Maryland on Friday, Kathleen spoke of her love for Conor.
“Conor and I chose to love each other in the hardest, most passionate, most insane way possible,” she told the more than 200 mourners. “Because it’s the only way we knew.”
Conor will soon be buried at Arlington National Cemetery, family members said.
Now 22, Kathleen isn’t sure what she will do next.
“At this point,” she said, “I’m just taking it one breath at a time.”
Conor, she said, had taken all the necessary precautions.
“He did everything he was supposed to do,” she said.
“He promised he’d come back to me. That was the only promise he was never able to keep.”