Families mourn soldiers

Part of a Guard company from West Baltimore, the three, who were killed Friday in Iraq, are remembered as loving fathers, sons and brothers

October 18, 2005|By KELLY BREWINGTON AND LYNN ANDERSON | KELLY BREWINGTON AND LYNN ANDERSON,SUN REPORTERS

Spc. Bernard L. Ceo asked his longtime girlfriend Dajae Overton to marry him "so many times," she said. Yet she insisted they not rush, envisioning a grand family wedding some time next year when Ceo was scheduled to return from Iraq.

But that handsome man with whom she fell in love after a chance encounter at a Harford Road post office five years ago, the man who raised her two children as his own, would never tell her "I do."

Ceo, 23, of Baltimore was one of three Maryland Army National Guard soldiers who were killed in a Humvee crash in the Al Taji area of Iraq on Friday. The others, members of the 243rd Engineer Company based in West Baltimore, were Spc. Samuel M. Boswell, 20, of Elkridge and Sgt. Brian R. Conner, 36, of Baltimore, who was also a city firefighter.

Boswell was on his way to meet his brother, a civilian contract worker in Baghdad, after a prolonged separation. Conner had recently made an early-morning phone call to family in Baltimore. And Ceo had been making plans to spend Thanksgiving dinner with his family.

Yesterday, at Ceo's family home in Waverly, Overton, 30, was overcome with anguish as she remembered the last time she and her fiance discussed their wedding plans.

"I told him, `Let's wait until you get back; we have time,'" she said, sobbing. She repeated the words. "You know, we were going to wait until he got back."

The wedding would have been a formality; they had been living as a family for some time. Five years ago, when they met, Overton was a single mother of a 1-year-old-son and a 2-week-old daughter.

Where some men his age might have shied away, Ceo became the father figure. He called her son Kierre by his nickname, "Kae," and daughter Jaeda was "Ladybug."

"He was just wonderful," Overton said. "He came along and stepped up to the plate. He took us as a package."

After learning about Ceo's death, Jaeda, now 4, was pouty but didn't seem to fully grasp the loss, Overton said. Five-year-old Kierre had lots of questions for his mother: How did daddy die? I'm never going to see him again? What about his mom? Does she know? Does she miss him, too?

Overton tried to respond to each question directly, while comforting her son.

"He said, `I miss him,'" Overton recalled. "And I said, `I know, baby.'"

The family was looking forward to seeing Ceo, who was scheduled to return to Baltimore for about two weeks next month.

"The day after Thanksgiving we planned to go crazy shopping for Christmas presents for the kids," Overton said.

Ceo also saw a life beyond the military. He enjoyed working with children and contemplated being a teacher, his parents said.

From 2001 to 2003, he worked at Kennedy Krieger High School Career and Technology Center, spending time one-on-one with students with special needs.

"He was kind of a thoughtful, introspective young guy," said Aaron Parsons, a school administrator. "Bernard was an excellent employee, and he would have been an excellent teacher."

`He taught me a lot'

Conner's older brother, Paul Edwards, credited his younger brother for helping him through some of life's struggles.

"I know I'm the older brother, but he taught me a lot," Edwards said. "And I truly miss him because he gave me so much."

Edwards said that he talked with his brother Thursday, the day before he died, at the usual time: about 3 a.m. Edwards said that his brother often called him early in the morning - even when he wasn't thousands of miles away - just to chat about life.

"I helped to raise him," Edwards said, recalling how as a child Conner had played with G.I. Joe figures and firetrucks and how his youthful fascination led to a successful career as a city firefighter and Army National Guardsman.

"He ended up doing exactly what he wanted to do," Edwards said. "He was blessed. He was good at everything he did."

Conner, who worked for the city Fire Department for 12 years, was assigned to a firehouse on West North Avenue in Walbrook. Family gathered yesterday at a community room at Cherry Hill Homes in South Baltimore - the home of Hortense Conner, Brian Conner's mother - to share memories and begin making funeral and burial arrangements.

At about 1:30 p.m., the family huddled together in the warm October sunshine, arms and hands intertwined, to make a brief public statement. At the center of the group was Hortense Conner, her hand clutching a large teddy bear dressed in combat fatigues.

Cherice Conner Davis said her mother hadn't let go of the stuffed animal since she learned her son was dead. Davis said that her daughter, Tyisha Conner, 18, took her grandmother on her birthday, Sept. 22, to a specialty store where customers make their own teddy bears. Hortense Conner requested that her bear be dressed like a soldier. She named the bear "Big Baby," a nickname for her son.

"That's her baby," Davis said, referring to the toy, which she said her mother had planned to dress in a fire uniform upon Brian Conner's safe return from Iraq.

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