WASHINGTON – Families and friends are mourning the loss of three Maryland National Guardsmen killed in Iraq Friday when a tractor trailer accidentally struck the back of their Humvee, igniting and detonating ammunition in their vehicle.
The soldiers were identified Sunday by the Defense Department as Spc. Bernard L. Ceo, 23, of Baltimore; Spc. Samuel M. Boswell, 20, of Fulton; and Sgt. Brian R. Conner, 36, of Baltimore. They were killed while serving on a supply convoy in the Al Taji region.
It was the first time state guardsmen were killed while on duty overseas since World War II, according to Guard officials. Their deaths bring the number of Marylanders killed in Iraq to 29, not including those with roots in the state living elsewhere or civilian contractors.
The three were members of the Baltimore-based 243rd Engineer Company, a 169-member unit deployed to the region in August to transport supplies. Boswell and Ceo joined the Guard in June 2003 and December 2001, respectively, and Conner had been a member for at least 16 years.
Boswell joined the Guard shortly after graduating from River Hill High School in Clarksville. His brother described him as an optimist who never seemed to get let things upset him, a quality that stayed with him as he grew up the youngest of eight children.
“He was the happiest, most caring person you could ever meet. There was not a bad or mean bone in his body,” said Michael Boswell, 29.
Boswell enjoyed playing computer games and hunting deer with family and friends. While in Iraq, he kept in contact with his brother Michael, who just spent the last 11 months in Iraq as a security contractor for Honeywell International Inc., a technology firm whose major clients include the Pentagon.
“We talked back and forth and hoped that we would cross paths,” Michael Boswell said, adding their duties kept each of them traveling all over the country.
Boswell had looked forward to serving in Iraq, his brother said.
“He was very excited about going and getting different experiences,” he said.
“He always wanted to help people and loved this opportunity.”
Ceo was born and raised with his two brothers in Baltimore’s Cherry Hill area, and lived in South Carolina for six years before returning in 1997. He had a variety of interests: he played football and baseball while in school in South Carolina and was an avid rap music fan, writing and composing his own songs.
After graduating from Woodstock Academy outside Baltimore, he worked for two years at the city’s Kennedy Krieger Institute, where he worked with special needs children. He also taught gym in the city as a substitute teacher.
Rosemarie Ceo, 54, said she spoke to her son by telephone two days before he was killed. They discussed setting up a family gathering upon his return, which she said was scheduled for Thanksgiving.
“We had already made reservations, which we had to cancel,” she said.
Ceo’s service with the Guard arose out of a sense of patriotism that had been reinforced by the events of Sept. 11, 2001. His family’s military service goes back several generations – including his father and several uncles, who served in the Navy and Army – but Ceo’s mother said his decision to join the Guard was made independent of those influences.
“It was something he wanted to do, and he thought it could help with his education,” Rosemarie Ceo said. “He felt it was his patriotic duty.”
Ceo also served in the Honor Guard for the 5th Regiment Infantry, and signed up for additional training whenever he could, including Humvee operation.
“Anything that had to do with the military, he wanted to embrace,” his mother said.
Conner was serving in the Guard while working as a firefighter, a job he held for 12 years in Baltimore’s fire department. He was recently promoted to lieutenant after serving as an emergency vehicle driver. His family could not be reached for comment.
Conner was remembered by colleagues as a selfless leader who would “give you the shirt off his back.” He was a devoted single father of three children.
“He was very outgoing, funny and cheerful,” said Jermiah Richardson Jr., acting lieutenant of the West North Avenue station where Conner was last assigned.
Richardson, who has known Conner for 10 years, said his fallen colleague was always looking for a way to lighten the spirits of his fellow firefighters.
“He would play little jokes on you, all in the fun of work,” he said. “He always wanted to have fun, but he also took care of business. That’s the kind of leadership that every job needs.”
Richardson also recalled Conner’s enthusiasm for his Guard service.
“He loved going to drill. He was always pumped to go to the reserves,” he said.
The tight-knit group at the station has been reeling from the loss, Richardson said, considering that just last week they sent off a care package to Conner after he had e-mailed home about how his tent and many personal belongings had been destroyed by bombers.
“If we had any control over what happened to Brian, we would have been right there with him.” – 30 – CNS-10-17-05