Hundreds gather to say goodbye to National Guard soldier killed in Iraq

`Grateful for a life of service'


Sgt. Brian R. Conner's funeral honored the many facets of his personality with a ceremony that was equal parts pageantry and remembrance.

It honored Sgt. Conner, the Maryland Army National Guard soldier, whose dedication inspired even commanding officers. It honored Lt. Conner, the 12-year veteran of the Baltimore Fire Department. And, it honored Brian, devoted father, grandfather and motorcycle enthusiast, who gathered on Sundays with his riding partners for a weekly cookout.

Yesterday, hundreds of mourners filled New Psalmist Baptist Church to honor Conner, 36, one of three soldiers of the 243rd Engineer Company of the Maryland Army National Guard killed two weeks ago in a Humvee crash in Iraq.

His family remembered the boy who played with G.I. Joe action figures and firetrucks, the boy who became a proud soldier and firefighter.

Conner joined the Guard in 1989, shortly after graduating from Harbor City High School. He became a firefighter in 1993, most recently assigned to Engine Company No. 20 in Walbrook. He was a member of the Vulcan Blazers, an organization of black firefighters, and worked as liaison for the department's personnel division.

Colleagues and family recalled a "gentle giant," who doted over his three daughters, adored his mother and had a personality as big as his 6-foot-3 frame.

"If I called him for anything, he would be right there for me," said Conner's brother Paul Edwards during the ceremony.

"I was going to sing, `How Do I Say Goodbye' because he liked to hear me sing, even though I didn't think I was that good," Edwards said. Then, choking back tears, he added: "But I'm not going to say goodbye. I'm just going to say see you later."

Conner's daughter Zhada offered a tribute called "My Letter to Daddy," which appeared in the funeral program. She wrote: "Daddy, I just want you to know, when you left, you were just the hero of the family, but now you're my proud, strong, Angel Hero."

The church's center pews, packed with friends, family and motorcycle buddies, were flanked by guardsmen on one side and Fire Department personnel on the other.

Baltimore police officers and dignitaries attended the three-hour service, which included heartfelt tributes and gospel praise.

At times, those in attendance stood up and clapped to poignant renditions of such spirituals as "His Eye Is on the Sparrow."

"I bring you the condolences of a grateful people, grateful for a life of service," said Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley. "There is no higher calling than being willing to give up your life for your neighbor. He fought for a more just city, he fought for a more just country and he fought for a more just world."

O'Malley then presented a flag to Conner's mother.

At the ceremony's end, uniformed soldiers served as pallbearers and bagpipers filed out of the church. Soldiers and firefighters marched in pairs to the altar and together saluted Conner's American-flag-draped casket.

Master Sgt. Robert Haynes, Conner's platoon sergeant, wiped away tears as he walked out of the sanctuary. Haynes said Conner was an "exemplary" soldier, the model he wanted other soldiers to follow. But Conner also inspired Haynes.

"Sometimes he questioned the things I told him to do; he challenged me as a sergeant," he said. "I think it was his being a lieutenant in the Fire Department that brought forth his leadership. He taught me a lot."

Haynes said Conner had a silly side, too. Once, at Fort Drum, N.Y., Haynes gave Conner the day off and Conner used it to retreat to a salon, getting a shampoo, manicure and pedicure.

"Here was this big bear of a man, in flip-flops with his toes done," he said. "We just looked at him and laughed. And he loved that."

Conner always seemed ready for a good time, said Michael Johnson, a fellow motorcyclist.

"We'd have these big cookouts at Flying Point Park in Edgewood, and he and I would work the grill," he said. "In the summertime, we would invite everybody. It was a big party."

Nathaniel Burgess became best friends with Conner when they were teens working at the Inner Harbor.

"We called ourselves `The Harbor Crew,' and we did everything together," he said. "He was just my best friend. Someone who didn't make judgments, someone who was always there."

Childhood friend Reggie Horton said he remembered breaking up with a longtime girlfriend when he was a teenager. It was Conner who supported him through the tough time.

Said Horton: "He was always the one to say, `Be strong.'"

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