US Marine Lance Cpl. Aanesha Connor was killed in a vehicle collision on Nov. 20, 2022, in El Centro, California. Composite by Coffee or Die Magazine.
Marines continue to mourn the loss of a New Jersey lance corporal, killed in a late November vehicle crash on the other side of the country.
Lance Cpl. Aanesha Connor, an administrative clerk assigned to the “Watchdogs” of Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 1 in Yuma, Arizona, died at the scene of a Nov. 20 collision in El Centro, California.
California authorities have charged Joseph Jiansheng Zhou, 24, with felony driving while under the influence and gross vehicular manslaughter, after his pickup truck crossed the center median on Interstate 8 shortly before 6 p.m. on Nov. 20 and struck Connor’s 2020 Kia Forte sedan.
The San Marco man was flown to Desert Regional Medical Center with major injuries, and the Imperial County Sheriff’s Office continues to probe the crash.
“My daughter was a beautiful, beautiful soul,” the lance corporal’s mother, Asia Connor, told Coffee or Die Magazine. “She had such a great spirit. She illuminated a room. She was just a wonderful person.”
Lance Cpl. Aanesha Connor was killed in a vehicle collision on Nov. 20, 2022, in El Centro, California. Photo (left) of Connor with fellow Marines courtesy of Lance Cpl. Joffery Muhammad. Other photos courtesy of Asia Connor.
Connor said she received a call from a friend of her daughter moments after the accident. The friend told her she was on the phone with the Marine when “she heard a boom.”
Connor pinpointed her daughter’s location on her cell phone and then rang the police in New Jersey, who connected her to the California Highway Patrol.
“They were literally pulling up on the accident,” she told Coffee or Die.
First responders called back an hour later and asked her to describe her daughter and the car she drove. Then they informed her that Aanesha had died, and the pain of that moment keeps rippling through their hometown of Rahway.
“I was the first out of all my friends to have a baby, so she was like everyone’s first child,” she said. “We were doing it together. They were helping me.”
US Marine Lance Cpl. Aanesha Connor was killed in a vehicle collision on Nov. 20, 2022, in El Centro, California. Photos courtesy Asia Connor.
Aanesha Connor was raised first in Elizabeth, New Jersey, but the family moved to Rahway after she turned 8.
When Aanesha Connor was a little girl, she told relatives she wanted to become a chef in the White House and thought the Marine Corps was the best way to get there. But she didn’t like cleaning kitchen messes, so she changed her mind, they told Coffee or Die.
Connor's dream of becoming a Marine never disappeared. As a freshman, she joined Rahway High School’s Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps program. And after graduating, she chose the Marines. She enlisted on March 22, 2021, according to her military records.
“She was definitely determined to be in the military,” her grandmother, Keena “Nana” Pompey, told Coffee or Die. “She knew that she wanted to be a Marine. She was very dedicated to that.”
US Marine Lance Cpl. Aanesha Shantay Connor was born May 9, 2002, to Asia Connor and Alterrek Best in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Photo courtesy Asia Connor.
She graduated from Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island in South Carolina on July 17, 2021, and trained to be an administrative clerk at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
She was assigned to Marine Corps Air Station Yuma in late 2021.
Her grandmother said Connor was a “tiny” woman, but she strongly adhered to the Marines’ core values of honor, courage, and commitment.
“I feel like everybody was wanting to take care of her,” Pompey said. “She was tough and strong, but she’s just one of those people.”
The MQ-9A Reaper with Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 1, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, is prepared for disassembly inside a hangar at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Arizona, on Sept. 13, 2022. US Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Jade Venegas.
A fellow Marine, Lance Cpl. Joffery Muhammad, told Coffee or Die Connor was “very funny and straightforward with everything she would say.
In a prepared statement emailed to Coffee or Die, the command of Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 1 said,
“Aanesha was an ever-present and critical part of our Watchdog family and we all miss her dearly. The Watchdogs are truly indebted to her. She will be sorely missed."
During her service, Connor received the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, and a Letter of Appreciation.
US Marines unload an MQ-9A Reaper from Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 1, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, in preparation for the air show at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, California, Sept. 16, 2022. US Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Rachaelanne Woodward.
Aanesha Shantay Connor was born May 9, 2002, to Asia Connor and Alterrek Best in Elizabeth, New Jersey.
She was preceded in death by grandparents Ruby Best and Theodore Johnson. She’s survived by her parents; her brother, Aasad; and her grandparents, Willie and Keena Pompey.
On Nov. 26, a large crowd of the lance corporal’s family, friends, and neighbors gathered in Rahway Park. They held red, white, and blue helium balloons in her memory. They counted to 20, the number of years she lived, while listening to her favorite song, “Computer Love” by Zapp & Roger.
Then they let the balloons go and watched as they soared into the New Jersey sky.
“I did not expect it to be that many people,” her mother said. “It was beautiful.”
Editor's Note: This story was updated to include a statement from Marine leaders.
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Noelle is a former staff writer for Coffee or Die through a fellowship from Military Veterans in Journalism. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and interned with the US Army Cadet Command. Noelle also worked as a civilian journalist covering several units, including the 75th Ranger Regiment on Fort Benning, before she joined the military as a public affairs specialist.
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