A year after their son's death, a young Marine's parents ask if his death was preventable
By PETULA DVORAK | The Washington Post | Published: May 26, 2020
Conor McDowell did not have to die.
That is a common sentiment for the loved ones left behind after an untimely death, certainly.
But it's not one you always hear on Memorial Day, when the men and women who die in uniform are honored for dying for freedom, for country, for making the ultimate sacrifice in the name of democracy and for millions of fellow Americans.
In Conor's case, though — and it has become ever clearer to his family after a year of deep research and work following his death — it is absolutely, devastatingly true.
The smart, handsome, newly engaged 24-year-old should not have died.
It was May 9, 2019, when 1st. Lt. H. Conor McDowell, a troop commander with the Marines' 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, was crushed to death seconds after his light armored vehicle (LAV) fell into a weed-choked abyss at Camp Pendleton near San Diego.
"Conor died because the range safety unit at Pendleton failed to identify a vast hole completely concealed by 8-feet-high grass, weeds and shrubs," his parents, Susan Flanigan and Michael. McDowell, wrote in an opinion article for the Los Angeles Times last week. "That cover had sprung up over two weeks, following unusually heavy rains. Conor was leading a group of LAVs on daylight training maneuvers."
As Conor felt the vehicle tipping, he yelled "Rollover!" and saved the lives of the other Marines with him. He was killed instantly — the other Marines there knew it. And they covered his head and torso with an American flag until help arrived.
It was a training accident.
They keep happening — military training deaths have outnumbered combat deaths 4 to 1, according to official statistics —- in a military that has also seen five years of increased funding.
Conor's parents have spent the year since his death pinpointing the failures that led to the great, unimaginable loss of their only son.
"We have a sense of purpose in bringing in safety measures, which are long overdue and now the Pentagon can't resist anymore," said Michael McDowell, a respected former BBC journalist.
I met McDowell on another story years ago and knew how proud he was of his son.
This death is remarkable because it was one of 15 rollover deaths that McDowell can trace in military training in the past year.
For me, it's personally poignant because Conor grew up playing in my own kids' favorite District of Columbia park and because he watched his mom explain the 9/11 attacks in Legos and instantly said he wanted to go fight terrorism. I could imagine both my sons as young Conor.
After his death, I spent a long evening on the phone with the love of his life, Kathleen Bourque, and she told me the whole, whirlwind, cinematic love story. She hopped into his truck four days after they met and moved across the country with him. And I was swept away with them, smitten with their beautiful and daring love story.
He had a ring made for Kathleen out of his grandmother's diamonds and was planning to give it to her when he got back from that 10-day training exercise.
She moved in with his parents in their Maryland home after he died. And for 10 months they grieved together. She visited his childhood home — the one not far from mine in D.C. — and walked the rooms, imagining her love as a toddler in the historic home. She moved to Washington.
Conor's parents have been working with lawmakers on Capitol Hill, pinpointing the fixable things they believe led to their only child's death.
Thanks to their agitation, the Government Accountability Office launched a year-long forensic investigation examining a decade of rollovers, which the Pentagon calls "mishaps," but McDowell and Flanigan call "preventable."
The military tactical vehicles are top-heavy and laden with extra armor and weaponry that make them prone to tip over, they said.
"Thousands of these vehicles now in use are up to 30 years old, worn out by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and repaired by taking parts from other vehicles," they said in their opinion piece. "Too often they are pushed through maintenance inspections, which they should fail. There are precious few new vehicles available. For example, new LAVs [lightweight amphibious vehicles] are years from arrival."
The "mishaps" keep happening.
In March, Marine Cpl. Eloiza Zavala, 20, died minutes after she was catapulted out of a tactical vehicle as it hit a road bump during a training exercise in the United Arab Emirates.
Zavala, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, was attached to a Camp Pendleton battalion, had been swiftly promoted to corporal and was widely popular. But her funeral in her hometown of Sacramento, California, was restricted to only eight family members and a small Marine honor guard because of the coronavirus.
She didn't have to die, either.
May 9 was a difficult day for McDowell, the first anniversary of his son's death, he told me.
"You can't 'move on,' but you adjust a bit and go forward," he said. "But his loss will never leave us on any day, ever."