Conor McDowell wasn't supposed to die this way.
On May 9, the 24-year-old Citadel graduate and Marine found himself leading a light-armored vehicle patrol at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton in San Diego.
The rocky terrain was difficult to navigate during the 10-day training exercise. Despite using all the intelligence at their disposal, the eight-wheeled vehicle began tipping into an 18-foot hole covered by tall grass. As the 12-ton cab slowly turned belly up, Conor pushed the lance corporal who was positioned in the machine gun turret back inside at the last minute. He saved his comrade's life.
But, during the rollover, the newly commissioned first lieutenant was crushed instantly. He would become a number, one of thousands of young men and women killed in training accidents across the nation. Conor's death would end up fueling a mission for some change to the epidemic.
Kathleen Bourque, his fiancée, woke up the following day to several close friends knocking on the door of her San Diego apartment. She reached over to check the time on her iPhone. It was 8:37 a.m., and her screen was filled with dozens of notifications asking if she were OK, if Conor was OK, if everything was OK. She put on her clothes and went downstairs. She didn't have to ask. Nothing was OK.
"I let out a scream where my soul left my body," Bourque said. "They didn't have to say anything. I knew."
July 16 was the one-year anniversary of their decision to move to California together. Conor and Bourque planned to marry in September. He had an engagement ring on order and was planning to give it to her when he returned from training.
His death was shocking and sudden to her and to his father Michael McDowell. And while the tragedy was jarring, it was not uncommon in the U.S. military.
More than 5,000 troops from 2006 to 2018 were killed in accidents, such as the one that took Conor's life. In the past year alone, more than four times the number of troops have been killed while preparing for war than in combat.
Overall, six men were killed in rollovers in a little more than 60 days.
On April 14, another Marine was killed at Camp Pendleton when an ATV-like vehicle flipped over and crushed Marine Staff Sgt. Joshua Braica's spine. Jacob Hess, an Army staff sergeant, died at Fort Polk when his Humvee rolled. A 22-year-old West Point cadet was killed when a truck carrying a dozen of his fellow academy members turned over. Hans Sandoval-Pereyra, a Marine lance corporal was killed in May when his Humvee rolled over as he trained in Northern Australia. One of the latest deaths, on Jun 14, was when an Army paratrooper's Humvee flipped in Alaska.
In the wake of his death and many others, Bourque and Michael McDowell have taken to Capitol Hill to bend the ear of any politician who will listen, begging them to investigate these training deaths.
"There is no reason that they should be dead," Bourque said. "There is no purpose for my lover to die training for a future war that he never even got the chance to fight in, a future war that he trained so hard for."
'More with less'
Five years after the start of operations in Afghanistan and three years after the invasion of Iraq, a total of 16,652 active-duty personnel and reservists have died while serving in the U.S. Armed Forces, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service.
Nearly 32 percent of those fatalities were connected to accidents. By comparison, 16 percent died in combat in that same time frame. The rest includes self-inflicted deaths, homicides, illness and injury.
Congress began seriously investigating military accidents after the USS Fitzgerald crashed into a cargo ship off the coast of Japan in 2017. Seven sailors died, marking the deadliest naval disaster in four decades. Just two months later, the USS John S. McCain crashed into a 30,000-ton oil tanker. Ten more sailors were killed.
That same year, two Marine pilots died in a helicopter crash near Yuma, Ariz., during a routine training mission.
"This crisis is not limited to military aviation," U.S. Rep. Mac Thornberry, R -Texas, wrote in a 2018 report. "This past summer, the Navy lost 17 Sailors in separate collisions involving the USS McCain and the USS Fitzgerald. Navy investigators later found that both accidents were related to ongoing Navy readiness problems."
The reasons behind military accidents can be far-ranging. Sometimes, it can be user error, a slip of the hand or a wrong maneuver when driving in a convoy. On other occasions, it is from over-tired, young soldiers and cadets trying to prove themselves without getting proper rest. In other instances, it can be attributed to mechanical failures.
Thomas Spoehr, a retired Army lieutenant general with almost 40 years of military experience, said combat readiness and preparedness is paramount and should be taken seriously.
"It requires an intense level of training," Spoehr said. "But when you get tired and overworked, that's where accidents happen. Those are the unfortunate facts."
South Carolina is familiar with these types of accidents. A drill sergeant at Fort Jackson fell asleep behind the wheel of an Army truck in October 2017, fatally striking two marching recruits and injuring seven others. The soldier pleaded guilty to charges of dereliction of duty and negligent homicide earlier this year.
The equipment is also, often, overtired. Critics are quick to point out that the military has been in some form of conflict for the past 18 years. Michael McDowell said vehicles from Iraq and Afghanistan often come back and are retrofitted or "cannibalized" to repair other vehicles. They are often in so much rotation, that they don't work as well as they should.
Rick Berger, a defense researcher at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., said the military's fluctuating budget has not helped.
"The military remains overstretched and underfunded," Berger said. "So, we ask them to do less or we give them more money ... and, yes, you can do more with less. But, at a certain point, you just break."
Michael McDowell said he believes that the unreliability of the light-armored vehicle and a failure on Base Camp Pendleton to spot the ditch that caused the vehicle to flip, caused his son's death. The Marine base is still investigating Conor's death, and a general's report that was initially promised to Michael McDowell has been pushed back month after month.
"We've got to stop these young men's deaths," Michael McDowell said.
Conor McDowell attended The Citadel where he majored in history before joining the Marines.
Bourque, a North Carolina native, said Conor met his "life-long friends" at The Citadel. Michael McDowell, who sat on the advisory board of the school until last year, said his son wanted to go there because it offered the toughest military education possible.
After his death, The Citadel offered a statement saying, "1st Lt. McDowell will be remembered as a leader and a patriot who embraced the privilege of serving our great nation."
Oddly enough, Conor had witnessed and reflected on a rollover at Fort Irwin in California. He wrote about it in a journal entry in December 2018, just five months before a similar accident would ultimately take his life. This revelation from his son's journal was shocking to Michael McDowell.
"Blue 1 Platoon had a rollover," he wrote. "No injuries. ... My job just got a lot more serious. ... This isn't the end of the world but we got really lucky. No injuries involved. ... This is the second Charlie Company rollover in two months. One of the Marines was in both rollovers. ... It's a miracle no one was killed. Sounds like someone got fired. The tone in Chain of Command has sombered somewhat. This is a reminder that at any moment, through careless action, even in training, Marines can die. ... All of Charlie Platoon's commanders have now rolled over a vehicle."
With few answers from Pendleton, Bourque and Michael McDowell took to Capitol Hill.
Since Conor's death, they have met with Maryland's Democratic Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen. They've met with Maryland's Democratic Rep. Anthony Brown, the vice chairman of the Armed Services committee. They've met with Rep. John Garamendi, a California Democrat, chairman of the Armed Services' subcommittee on readiness.
But Michael McDowell said he aims to make investigating training deaths a bipartisan issue. He also met with the staff of North Carolina's Republican Sens. Thom Tillis and Richard Burr. Tillis also sits on several Armed Services subcommittees.
McDowell said the responses from lawmakers has kept him "cautiously optimistic." He said Sen. Cardin has submitted an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that demands an investigation into training deaths. Michael McDowell said the ultimate goal is to form an independent accountability office separate of the Pentagon that would investigate the branches when training deaths occur.
On Wednesday, Conor McDowell was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Earlier this month, former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis sent a handwritten note to his parents.
"Mr. McDowell, and Ms. Flanigan, I was saddened to read that we lost your Conor," Mattis wrote. "I write to pay my respects for your lad's devotion and to offer my deepest condolences to you. I cannot summon words sufficient to express my deep sympathy, but please know that you are not alone in your grief."
Bourque said Conor wanted to raise a family with her, have six children with her and start a long and happy life together. But she knew if he was going to die, he would have wanted to die fighting.