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Key player in peace mourns US Marine son killed after his tank rolls over

Michael McDowell's son Conor was killed in an incident in California
Michael McDowell's son Conor was killed in an incident in California
Conor McDowell

By Lisa Smyth

A major player in the Northern Ireland peace process has called for a full investigation into the death of his US Marine son who was killed while on exercise.

Michael McDowell, a former BBC NI reporter and the architect of the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC), has spoken of his devastation at the loss of his 24-year-old son, 1st Lieutenant Hugh Conor McDowell.

He was travelling in a light armoured vehicle at Camp Pendleton in California when it rolled over during a battalion training exercise on Thursday.

Six other Marines were injured and taken to hospital for injuries not believed to be life-threatening.

Lt McDowell was a platoon commander with the 1st Light Armoured Reconnaissance Battalion, and his devastated dad described him as a "patriot", "leader" and an "exceptional Marine".

He told of the heartbreaking moment he received the news from the US Army that his only child had been killed.

"They started to say the words 'the President and the Secretary of Defence', and I said: 'Stop, please tell me my son is still alive,'" he said.

"What I'm proud of, he was a leader, he loved leading the young kids and he never allowed them to be beasted or bullied.

"Did he die pointlessly, did someone make a mistake, was the equipment faulty?

"I will not be satisfied unless it is a very rigorous investigation.

"He was defender, a patriot, but a patriot in the right way."

Mr McDowell, who was awarded an OBE in 2001 for his contribution to the peace process, and his wife Susan Flanigan were at Conor's former base in San Diego last night preparing to bring home their son's remains to Chestertown, Maryland, near Washington, DC. He will be buried with military honours at Arlington National Cemetery, the final resting place for more than 400,000 US service members, veterans and their families.

In a poignant tribute on Facebook, Mr McDowell wrote: "Our beloved and only child was killed yesterday in a bizarre accident (details to follow) on manoeuvres, leading his new platoon.

"The light armoured tank which contains six enlisted Marines and one officer, toppled over, and Conor was crushed underneath.

"He died en route to hospital.

"Conor was due to announce his engagement and marriage to the love of his life, Kathleen Bourque, a beautiful, tall, slender, accomplished psychology graduate headed for a PhD.

"They were deeply in love after a whirlwind romance which began in North Carolina in July of last year, and settled in an apartment near the ocean outside San Diego, with their dog Ruthie and cats Missy and Max.

"Susan, my wife and I, loved Kathleen, having hosted her during Thanksgiving and over the Christmas period. She is a wonderful warm steady person and adored our son, equally.

"Conor was a warrior, like my father in the Royal Ulster Rifles in the Western Desert, Sicily and Italy in World War Two.

"Sadly, they never met but Conor felt as if he knew him.

"Conor, since he was a small boy, wanted to be a soldier, and later, a Marine.

"He excelled. He read broadly and was intellectually curious, and was physically outstanding - slim, fit, six feet plus, and sunny and passionate in personality."

Mr McDowell continued: "There is a massive hole in our hearts and there will be for the rest of our lives.

"He was our only beloved child, in whom we were well pleased.

"We hope to meet again with our son in some way at some time as we pass on, as he has, at so young an age, and with so much of life ahead of him."

Military officials released a statement expressing heartbreak at the loss of a member of the Marine Corps family.

Lt McDowell's death was the second at Camp Pendleton in a rollover-related accident in recent weeks.

In April Staff Sgt Joshua Braica, a 29-year-old from California, died when an all-terrain tactical utility vehicle flipped over.

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