Spc. Bernard L. Ceo asked his longtime girlfriend Dajae Overton to marry him "so many times," she said. Yet she insisted they not rush, envisioning a grand family wedding some time next year when Ceo was scheduled to return from Iraq.
But that handsome man with whom she fell in love after a chance encounter at a Harford Road post office five years ago, the man who raised her two children as his own, would never tell her "I do."
Ceo, 23, of Baltimore was one of three Maryland Army National Guard soldiers who were killed in a Humvee crash in the Al Taji area of Iraq on Friday. The others, members of the 243rd Engineer Company based in West Baltimore, were Spc. Samuel M. Boswell, 20, of Elkridge and Sgt. Brian R. Conner, 36, of Baltimore, who was also a city firefighter.
Boswell was on his way to meet his brother, a civilian contract worker in Baghdad, after a prolonged separation. Conner had recently made an early-morning phone call to family in Baltimore. And Ceo had been making plans to spend Thanksgiving dinner with his family.
Yesterday, at Ceo's family home in Waverly, Overton, 30, was overcome with anguish as she remembered the last time she and her fiance discussed their wedding plans.
"I told him, 'Let's wait until you get back; we have time,'" she said, sobbing. She repeated the words. "You know, we were going to wait until he got back."
The wedding would have been a formality; they had been living as a family for some time. Five years ago, when they met, Overton was a single mother of a 1-year-old-son and a 2-week-old daughter.
Where some men his age might have shied away, Ceo became the father figure. He called her son Kierre by his nickname, "Kae," and daughter Jaeda was "Ladybug."
"He was just wonderful," Overton said. "He came along and stepped up to the plate. He took us as a package."
After learning about Ceo's death, Jaeda, now 4, was pouty but didn't seem to fully grasp the loss, Overton said. Five-year-old Kierre had lots of questions for his mother: How did daddy die? I'm never going to see him again? What about his mom? Does she know? Does she miss him, too?
Overton tried to respond to each question directly, while comforting her son.
"He said, 'I miss him,'" Overton recalled. "And I said, 'I know, baby.'"
The family was looking forward to seeing Ceo, who was scheduled to return to Baltimore for about two weeks next month.
"The day after Thanksgiving we planned to go crazy shopping for Christmas presents for the kids," Overton said.
Ceo also saw a life beyond the military. He enjoyed working with children and contemplated being a teacher, his parents said.
From 2001 to 2003, he worked at Kennedy Krieger High School Career and Technology Center, spending time one-on-one with students with special needs.
"He was kind of a thoughtful, introspective young guy," said Aaron Parsons, a school administrator. "Bernard was an excellent employee, and he would have been an excellent teacher."
'He taught me a lot' Conner's older brother, Paul Edwards, credited his younger brother for helping him through some of life's struggles.
"I know I'm the older brother, but he taught me a lot," Edwards said. "And I truly miss him because he gave me so much."
Edwards said that he talked with his brother Thursday, the day before he died, at the usual time: about 3 a.m. Edwards said that his brother often called him early in the morning - even when he wasn't thousands of miles away - just to chat about life.
"I helped to raise him," Edwards said, recalling how as a child Conner had played with G.I. Joe figures and firetrucks and how his youthful fascination led to a successful career as a city firefighter and Army National Guardsman.
"He ended up doing exactly what he wanted to do," Edwards said. "He was blessed. He was good at everything he did."
Conner, who worked for the city Fire Department for 12 years, was assigned to a firehouse on West North Avenue in Walbrook. Family gathered yesterday at a community room at Cherry Hill Homes in South Baltimore - the home of Hortense Conner, Brian Conner's mother - to share memories and begin making funeral and burial arrangements.
At about 1:30 p.m., the family huddled together in the warm October sunshine, arms and hands intertwined, to make a brief public statement. At the center of the group was Hortense Conner, her hand clutching a large teddy bear dressed in combat fatigues.
Cherice Conner Davis said her mother hadn't let go of the stuffed animal since she learned her son was dead. Davis said that her daughter, Tyisha Conner, 18, took her grandmother on her birthday, Sept. 22, to a specialty store where customers make their own teddy bears. Hortense Conner requested that her bear be dressed like a soldier. She named the bear "Big Baby," a nickname for her son.
"That's her baby," Davis said, referring to the toy, which she said her mother had planned to dress in a fire uniform upon Brian Conner's safe return from Iraq.
Davis said that she and her brother were especially close. When he divorced from his wife, she helped him raise his three daughters, ages 10, 15 and 21. He also helped her with her children, taking them on annual vacations to Disney World and spontaneous car trips on the weekends.
Brian Conner was also a grandfather - he had a 3-year-old grandson, she said.
"I want people to know that he was not just my brother," Davis said. "He was my best friend."
A missed reunion Samuel Boswell was on his way to meet his brother, a civilian contract worker based in Baghdad, when he was killed. They never met.
"He was only a couple of miles from me," said Michael Boswell, 29, who has worked in Baghdad for the past 11 months as a security specialist for Honeywell International Inc.
Michael Boswell said he ached to travel to the crash sight but knew that such a trip was impossibly dangerous. Instead, he relied on his co-workers to help him with his grief, at least until he could get a plane ticket home to his family in Maryland.
Michael Boswell said he and his large family - there are seven surviving siblings - have congregated at his father's home on Pindell School Road in Fulton.
"We're a close-knit family," he said. "It's shocking and devastating, but everyone is handling it pretty well."
A 2003 graduate of the technology magnet program at River Hill High School in Clarksville, Samuel Boswell was a computer whiz who also enjoyed playing video games, his brother said.
After high school, Samuel Boswell was focused on getting a college degree but also decided to join the Army National Guard's reserve unit. As violence in Iraq continued, he joined the Army and traveled to Iraq with a different National Guard unit from the one that he had joined as a reservist, his family said.
"He didn't get called up; he volunteered," Michael Boswell said. "He told me that he was enjoying it. He liked being over there, thought it was a neat experience to see different countries. He was having a hell of a good time."
Sun reporters John Fritze, Melissa Harris and Sandy Alexander contributed to this article.