Bourque, 24, was McDowell’s fiancee when he was killed in a training mission two years ago. And in her grief, she’s also had to fight for what even the dog knew all along — that Kathleen and Conor were a couple.
Their life together was just about perfect. He was 24, handsome, a child of Capitol Hill and D.C.’s intellectual class who decided to join the Marines. She was 22, a recent college graduate and looking for a life outside her small North Carolina town.
They had a cute apartment in California, wedding plans, two cats and Ruthie, the floppy puppy who loved running on the beach with them.
McDowell, a troop commander with the 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, was supposed to pick up the engagement ring he ordered as soon as he got back from a 10-day training mission.
But on May 9, 2019, he was crushed to death when his light armored vehicle rolled over after it fell into a weed-choked abyss at Camp Pendleton near San Diego. He saved his men, warning them and pushing them to safety. But he couldn’t save himself.
Bourque didn’t learn from the military that her fiance had died. The news came from three friends who came to their apartment the next day. She wasn’t his wife yet, so she wasn’t entitled to an official notification.
Then she couldn’t get the government to include her belongings with his when they cleared out their apartment, because she wasn’t a wife.
And when the funeral procession began through Arlington National Cemetery, one of the officials asked her to stand back because she wasn’t immediate family.
“Excuse me, sir. I am Conor McDowell’s fiancee,” she said she told him. “I might not have had the chance to take his last name, but I am his family. I am going to walk beside his parents and there is nothing you can do to stop me from doing so.”
Bourque went to live with McDowell’s parents in Maryland, sleeping in his old bedroom.
And she found other fiancees who equally struggled with their marginalized roles after a death.
The betrothed don’t get invited to Gold Star events or grief groups or to apply for scholarships or programs to help them piece their lives together after they lost everything. They are at once excommunicated from the support network they never officially belonged to.
“We just want a little damn respect,” Bourque said. “We want to be able to mourn and be acknowledged.”
She found other fiancees like her, women who insisted they be called widows. Seven of them formed a group — the Wids — and they gathered for support, visited their loved ones in Arlington en masse, mourned for the weddings and the lives they never had. She wrote about it in Marine Corps Times and still more fiancees reached out to her. And they found a purpose.
In New Jersey, Chelsea Todd wore her wedding dress to visit her fiance’s grave on their planned wedding day — Nov. 20 — after he died of cancer two weeks earlier.
“As time starts to pass, I sit here realizing that it’s now my turn to fight,” Todd told Connecting Vets after visiting Marine veteran Patrick Duva’s grave. She and Duva’s family believe his cancer was linked to the burn pits in Afghanistan he was around during his deployment.
Todd joins a gathering movement of lawmakers, families and even Jon Stewart who are urging Congress to recognize the long-term impact of those burn pits.
In Texas, Juan Cruz, the fiance of 20-year-old Fort Hood soldier Vanessa Guillén, is fighting alongside her family to confront the military’s abysmal record on sexual harassment.
Guillén was found dead and mutilated last year after she told others she’d been sexually harassed at work.
The main suspect killed himself when police confronted him. Cruz and Guillén’s family believe that the military didn’t make it easy for her to report that kind of abuse.
“We don’t want another family to go through what happened to us,” Cruz, 22, told People Magazine last month. “We don’t want that to ever, ever happen again.”
Bourque, who has been lobbying Congress on preventing accidents during training missions, hopes she can someday help unite all the would-be wives and husbands in their fights, their causes and their grief.
Because they’re not just boyfriends or girlfriends or people who can move on. They’re young and they’ve lost everything they were dreaming and planning for.
Bourque drives McDowell’s pickup truck, with Ruthie by her side. They went to the beach recently, this time on the Atlantic.
As soon as Ruthie smelled the salt air and heard the waves, she began frantically searching, running in circles, sniffing the sand for McDowell’s familiar trail.
“Are you looking for Daddy?” Bourque had asked. “She knew. She knew he was always at the beach with her.” Even the dog knew they belonged together.
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