Former Alliance Party leader John Alderdice has been left heartbroken by the terrible news that his godson has died following an accident at a US military base.
It is understood US Marine Corps 1st Lt. Hugh Conor McDowell, a platoon commander with the 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, was killed and six others injured in a training accident involving a light armored vehicle at Camp Pendleton, California.
Lord Alderdice posted details of the tragic incident on Facebook, describing the news of the 24-year-old's death as "completely heartbreaking".
"My godson, Conor, has been killed in an accident at Camp Pendleton in California. 1st Lieutenant Conor McDowell was a very bright, popular, up-and-coming officer in the 1st Division US Marines, commanding a platoon of the 1st Light Armored Reconnaisance Battalion, when he was killed and six others injured in an accident with a vehicle which toppled over during a training exercise," he wrote.
"He was such a fine man and so successful in his chosen career. I will always remember sitting with him in the home of his parents, our good friends Michael McDowell and Susan Flanigan, on Capitol Hill in Washington DC, and Conor telling me, as a little boy, that he wanted to be in the army."
Lord Alderdice posted two pictures of himself with Conor when he was a young child. The images were taken during visits to the US.
"Being in the military was what Conor had wanted to do from the time he was a small boy, and he followed through that ambition with drive and determination, and with singular success," the post continued.
"Like all military parents the perpetual anxiety for Michael and Susan was of course that their only child would be posted to a theatre of war and that there he would be injured or killed. That this terrible tragedy should happen on ‘home’ ground is a completely unexpected and devastating shock. He was making preparations and looking forward to getting married to his lovely girlfriend, Kathleen. It is almost unbelievable.
"For Michael and Susan to lose their only son and Kathleen to have such a wonderful life partner taken away just as that life was starting together is a total tragedy. There are no words to express the feelings, indeed they are so painful that one can hardly allow oneself to feel them. Our thoughts and prayers are with them at this time of profound shock, grief and mourning," Lord Alderdice concluded.
1st Lt. McDowell was the only son of Belfast man Michael McDowell, a former journalist with the BBC who left Northern Ireland in the 1970s and went on to work for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
Mr McDowell, who was awarded an OBE in 2001 for playing a key role in the Northern Ireland peace process, paid tribute to his son online.
The tribute, shared on Facebook, said: "Conor was a warrior, like my father in the Royal Ulster Rifles in the Western Desert, Sicily and Italy in World War Two. Sadly, they never met but Conor felt as if he knew him.
"Conor, since he was a small boy, wanted to be a soldier, and later, a Marine. He excelled. He read broadly and was intellectually curious, and was physically outstanding - slim, fit, six feet plus, and sunny and passionate in personality. He was above all a LEADER and majored in history, minoring in French, at The Citadel, the historic military college in Charleston, South Carolina. Junior cadets, while I served on the college Advisory Board would come up to me and tell me how much Conor had helped them and encouraged them, while holding them to a high standard. He helped and looked out for young women, minorities, etc. There was not a bigoted bone in his body.
"Conor graduated from The Citadel in May 2017 and was Provost Marshal of 1st Battalion and in Al[ha Company.He grew up on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, until he was 3 and then we moved to Chevy Chase, on the DC side, where he went to Lafayette Elementary, and later Deal Junior High, both public schools. He chose St. John’s College High School, near us, the historic Catholic French Christian Brothers school, which had a crack Army ROTC unit. Conor in his senior year became Command Sergeant Major of the unit. He chose The Citadel because it graduated a huge number of Marine officers and had a rigorous physical and academic regime.
"There is a massive hole in our hearts and there will be for the rest of our lives. He was our only beloved child, in whom we were well pleased. We hope to meet again with our son in some way at some time as we pass on, as he has, at so young an age, and with so much of life ahead of him."
Posting details of the tragedy on Twitter, the US Marines tweeted: "We are heartbroken at the loss of a member of our Marine Corps family. 1st Lt. Hugh C. McDowell, platoon commander, 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Marine Division, died during a training event on Camp Pendleton, May 9, 2019. Semper Fidelis, Brother."
1st Lt. McDowell will be buried with military honours at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.