On the day the Iraq war death toll reached 2,000, the family and friends of Maryland National Guard Sgt. Brian R. Conner gathered yesterday at a Baltimore funeral home for the viewing. They plan to do the same today, saying their last goodbyes to the 36-year-old who was a Baltimore firefighter in civilian life.
Conner's death has reverberated through his Baltimore-based Guard unit, the fire department and a city that has endured one sad milestone after another since the war began in March 2003.
Baltimore was home to one of the first service members to die in the war: Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Kendall D. Waters-Bey, a 29-year-old single father who was killed when the helicopter he was traveling in crashed in Kuwait. The city mourned the deaths of two high school classmates, Army Spec. Toccara R. Green, and Staff Sgt. Damion Campbell, both 23, who left Baltimore for the war and died within two weeks of each other in August.
And last week, the Defense Department announced that Spec. Kendell Frederick, 21, of Randallstown, just outside Baltimore, was killed near Tikrit on Oct. 19 when a roadside bomb detonated near his vehicle.
Nearly 100 service members with ties to Maryland, Virginia and the District have been killed in the conflict, according to a Washington Post analysis of Pentagon casualty figures. Eleven have been from the Baltimore area.
Conner was among three Maryland National Guard soldiers with the 243rd Engineer Company who were killed this month when an 18-wheel tractor-trailer accidentally slammed into the back of their ammunition-laden Humvee in Taji, according to the Defense Department.
The other soldiers killed in the accident were Spec. Bernard L. Ceo, 23, of Baltimore and Spec. Samuel M. Boswell, 20, of Fulton in Howard County. They were the first Maryland National Guard soldiers killed abroad in the line of duty since World War II.
Baltimore Fire Department spokesman Kevin Cartwright said of Conner's death: "This has taken an emotional toll on quite a number of members of the department, because he was so well known. We are holding together. We have to work and do what's required of us, but it doesn't take away the psychological and emotional aspect of it. There have been many sad days, and it will be an even sadder day as we lay him to rest."
Perhaps none of the days have been sadder than the two-week span in which Green and Campbell perished. Yesterday, mothers of both soldiers said they continue to mourn, and they questioned the wisdom of the war.
"At this stage, outside of prayer, I don't know what else we can do over there," Yvonne Green said. "I keep hearing people talk about how President Bush says we need to stay the course. But if we keep staying the course and this is what we are getting, we need to change things. What's going to change if we stay over there? Nobody is coming up with what we can do to bring those men and women home safely."
Donna Robinson, Campbell's mother, said she never believed the death toll would reach 2,000. "So many people have died. It's just too much," she said.
Bad news continues to come, week after bloody week. Kenmore Murphy, Kendell Frederick's stepfather, said word of Frederick's death last week was devastating.
Frederick had been struggling in the war, Murphy said, especially last winter when he killed someone for the first time.
"He called and was all distraught," Murphy said. "I mean, he was tore up. The first thing he said was he's going to hell. I said, 'You're not going to hell. It was just something that you had to do. Get on your knees, praise the Lord and He will forgive you.' "
Murphy and his wife have been flooded with condolences and surrounded by family and friends, without whom, he said, "we wouldn't even be able to talk."
They would like to make funeral arrangements but can't, he said, because they are waiting for Frederick's remains to be returned. The body is still being processed at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, the military's mortuary, Murphy said.
And so they wait.
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt and staff writer John Wagner contributed to this report.