Loved ones of Sgt. Brian R. Conner

Loved ones of Sgt. Brian R. Conner, killed in Iraq, meet at Cherry Hill Homes. Seated is his mother, Hortense Conner. Standing are godmother Pat Ward (left), brother Domenic Conner, sister Cherice Conner Davis and brother Paul Edwards. (Sun photo by Jed Kirschbaum / October 17, 2005)

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.