‘He loved me until the day he died’: A Marine and a Salisbury girl found soul mates in each other

Published 12:10 am Sunday, May 26, 2019

For Kathleen Bourque and Conor McDowell, it really was love at first sight.

When Kathleen walked down the stairs at her Salisbury home last July and Conor stood in the living room waiting to greet her, they recognized it instantly.

“I knew he was the one,” she says. “It was like looking into the eyes of God. When God tells you something, you don’t say no.”

That electrified moment seems as though it was just yesterday — or maybe a century ago. Within four days, the young couple left Salisbury, quickly visited his parents in Maryland, and drove across the country to Southern California, where Conor was stationed as a Marine.

To say their families had misgivings would be an understatement. Kathleen’s mother, Ann, says she and her husband, Peter, “cried for a couple months, trying to get her to come back.”

“Conor and I risked everything because we were willing to choose love,” says Kathleen, 22. “We risked friends. We risked families, knowing we could not spend a moment without each other. We chose love, and he loved me until the day he died.”

First Lt. Conor McDowell, 24, lost his life May 9 during a training exercise at Camp Pendleton. Some reports say he probably saved a gunner’s life before the light armored vehicle his team was training in rolled over.

McDowell, who had been positioned high in the turret, saw the vehicle was going to flip and pushed the gunner, who had come up to join him, back into the belly of the vehicle with four other Marines.

Then the vehicle toppled over, landed on its top and wedged platoon leader McDowell between it and the ground. The five other men suffered only moderate injuries, the Marine Corps reported.

Conor and Kathleen shared an apartment in Cardiff-by-the-Sea with their young Labrador puppy and two cats. Located on a rise, the apartment overlooks the Pacific Ocean. Kathleen liked to call it “our little slice of heaven.”

She was at the apartment when word of Conor’s death reached her from Camp Pendleton. She still resists talking about it.

“I can’t go back to that day,” Kathleen says. “I’m burying that memory forever.”

• • •

Photo courtesy of Ann Bourque Kathleen Bourque, a 2014 graduate of Salisbury High, fell deeply in love with Marine First Lt. Conor McDowell. The couple are shown here attending a friend’s wedding. McDowell died during a training exercise at Camp Pendleton May 9.

The past two weeks have been a blur of grief and travel for Kathleen and the families of the couple.

On May 17, after having traveled to California because of the tragic loss of their only child, Conor’s parents, Mike McDowell and Susan Flanigan, flew back across the country with Kathleen to return to their home in Chestertown, Maryland.

The next day they met the plane, which Ann Bourque had accompanied, that carried Conor’s flag-draped coffin from California to Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

From there, an escort of about 10 vehicles and as many as 20 motorcycles took the family and body on the long ride to Chestertown, where people from the community lined the streets saluting or holding hands over their hearts.

“It was heartbreaking, but so beautiful,” Ann Bourque says.

Flanigan asked that her son’s body be taken by the house first, so he could have a symbolic final trip home.

This past week has included a viewing, wake and funeral, with family members on both sides traveling to Chestertown, located on the Maryland Eastern Shore. Kathleen and Conor’s story has reached major newspapers, such as The Washington Post and Orange County (California) Register.

A yet-to-be-scheduled burial for Conor will take place in June at Arlington National Cemetery. A military memorial service is planned back at Camp Pendleton in several more days.

Meanwhile, Kathleen is staying with Conor’s parents. She says they are taking one breath, one moment at a time.

“I’m here for his parents,” she says. “They’re here for me. We call ourselves the Three Musketeers.”

Ann Bourque says it has to be that way for now. “They are going to try and work through this together,” she says. “They won’t let each other down. His parents are just incredible.”

• • •

Kathleen graduated in 2014 from Salisbury High School, where her mother is an art teacher. Her father, Peter, coaches lacrosse at Catawba College. She has a brother, Brendan, in the military and a younger sister, Molly Ann, still in school.

Kathleen headed off to Loyola University in Maryland, where she majored in psychology with a concentration in military psychological research. In college, she was a member of the crew team until slowed by injuries.

She and Conor first connected through a dating app in March 2018. Kathleen swiped over a photograph of Conor and his mother taken at his commissioning at The Citadel, where Conor was a standout.

Kathleen was struck by how beautiful the picture was, and she sent him a message to say just that. At the time, she was still at Loyola and Conor was in officer training at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, California.

But it wasn’t until June 2018, when Conor was on leave and staying with a friend in Rhode Island, that the couple had their first telephone conversation.

It lasted eight hours. These long talks by telephone would soon become the daily norm.

“I was incredibly impressed at how good he was at conversation,” Kathleen says. “We had so many common interests, and our lives were connected in so many ways.”

Some of the connections were their familiarity with the Baltimore-Washington area, their military interests and their strong Irish heritages.

“I just never got tired of talking to him and just wanted to talk to him more and more,” Kathleen says.

Conor grew up in Washington, D.C., where he attended St. John’s College High School and served as command sergeant major of its Army ROTC.

From childhood, his father has said, Conor wanted to be a Marine and was inspired by World War II stories of his grandfather, who fought for the Royal Ulster Rifles of Northern Ireland.

As a boy, Conor also spent eight summers with his parents in Burgundy, France, picking up considerable knowledge of World War II battlefields. He spoke French and went on to major in history with a minor in French at The Citadel.

Conor came to have a pet French name for Kathleen that translated to “My Little Cabbage.”

• • •

Photo courtesy of Ann Bourque During a ceremony at a Fallbrook, Calif., funeral home, Kathleen Bourque pins the first lieutenant bars on Conor McDowell’s Marine Corps blouse. McDowell could have been pinned in the field, but he asked his commanding officers to wait until Bourque could do it. He was killed May 9 before she had the chance.

When Conor received his orders last summer to report to Camp Pendleton, he drove from the friend’s place in Rhode Island to Salisbury for that first face-to-face meeting with Kathleen.

Ann Bourque was in the living room that day, and looking back, she says you can’t deny that her daughter and Conor connected immediately.

“She walked down the stairs in a white dress, and you could feel the electricity in the room,” Ann says. “I thought, ‘Holy crap, what just happened.'”

Ann Bourque was immediately impressed with Conor but terrified about her daughter’s decision to leave with him — and live with him — across the country.

Before heading west, the couple planned to drive the long hours north to Chestertown to see his parents.

Ann did some detective work and tracked down the telephone number for Conor’s folks. Meanwhile, Peter was coaching at a lacrosse camp in Delaware, and since the couple were heading toward the Maryland Eastern Shore, Ann told him to head off Kathleen and Conor on their way.

She hoped Peter could persuade Kathleen to rethink her decision and return to Salisbury with him. Peter Bourque met them in a lacrosse stadium, where they sat and talked at a picnic table.

“They said, ‘We’re doing this. We respect your opinion, but we’re doing this,'”Ann recalls.

Kathleen and Conor continued on their way to meet his parents.

When Ann talked by phone with Mike and Susan, she received some assurances from them that Conor was responsible — an exception and exceptional. He had always been a person looking out for the underdog and trying to protect the weakest, they told Ann.

It was a helpful conversation, but “she’s our daughter, and we did worry,” Ann says.

Over the months ahead, the Bourques came to understand the couple truly were soul mates and that Connor adored and cherished their daughter.

“She was his everything,” Ann says.

• • •

Kathleen and Conor traveled to Salisbury over the Christmas holiday and spent what Ann describes as “a magical holiday” with the Bourques.

It was during that stay that Conor asked Peter Bourque for his daughter’s hand in marriage, though he was waiting to make a formal engagement proposal to Kathleen later.

Ann says Kathleen already was planning to wear the same wedding dress she had worn. And the couple were thinking of the Maryland Eastern Shore as the place to exchange vows.

In February, Ann Bourque flew to San Diego and visited with Ann and Conor.

“I wanted to see for myself that it was the real thing,” she says, “and there was absolutely no denying it.”

Ann says her daughter and Conor were like two lost puzzle pieces who had found each other. She realized Conor deserved every superlative in the English language to describe his character.

He was a gentleman and a born leader.

“Hands down, he was one of the most incredible human beings,” Ann says.

Above all, he loved the Bourques’ daughter. Ann says when they were apart during his Marine duties, Conor would write his field notes as though they were to Kathleen.

“She was his entire life, and she still has those field notes,”Ann says. “It’s heart-wrenching.”

• • •

Photo courtesy of Ann Bourque The body of First Lt. Conor McDowell is rolled onto the tarmac May 18 at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

Conor’s training mission at Camp Pendleton this month was supposed to last 10 days. His fatal accident happened on the third day.

Before he started that training, Conor had gone to a jeweler with some family diamonds his mother had given to him and asked for a ring to be designed. He planned to propose to Kathleen on his return.

Kathleen, who did not know about his plans, has that ring today. The jeweler gave it to her after Conor’s death.

Conor had just been promoted to first lieutenant, and his commanding officer asked if he wanted the pinning ceremony to take place in the field during the training exercise.

He opted for it to be delayed until Kathleen could do the honors.

It was an emotional occasion, but that pinning ceremony took place at a funeral home in Fallsbrook, California, with Kathleen, her family and Conor’s parents in attendance.

Kathleen wore the same white dress Conor had first seen in her Salisbury living room. She pinned the lieutenant’s bars on his Marine blouse, which was draped over a battlefield cross.

Then she wrapped her arms around the blouse, as if to hold him one more time.

• • •

Ann Bourque says the past two weeks have been filled with all kinds of signs she thinks have come from Conor.

In photographs, they have taken the form of butterflies, feathers and orbs that shouldn’t otherwise be there.

When Conor’s “Angel Flight” from California arrived at the airport, the plane was met on the tarmac by a military honor guard, dignitaries, local police and firefighters.

As it taxied to a stop, the plane passed under an arc of water created by water cannons shooting from both sides. It left another sign — a rainbow — and Ann says the escort was met by a second rainbow as it traveled into Chestertown.

Kathleen says Conor always had planned to make the Marine Corps his career — until he met her.

“Everything changed,” she says.

He wanted to serve his four-year stint and deploy with his unit, according to Kathleen, but beyond that he was thinking of leaving the Marines, going to Pembroke College in Oxford, England, for a master’s degree and becoming a journalist.

His father had been a BBC journalist in Northern Ireland before coming to the United States in the 1970s.

Kathleen says Conor often told her he knew on that first day they met in Salisbury he was going to marry her. And she recognizes how crazy it sounds, she says, but she felt the same.

“Our souls were imprinted on each other,” Kathleen says. “There was no other option after that.”

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263 or mark.wineka@salisburypost.com.