Deagan Conrad was the first to get a message last Sunday. It came from the older brother of one of his closest friends, Benjamin Cross.

Cross, a first lieutenant in the Marine Corps, had been stationed in Japan since last year. He was on board an aircraft during a training exercise when it crashed into the Coral Sea off Australia’s east coast. There were 26 people on board. Three did not survive. Cross was one of them, the brother said.

Conrad had talked to Cross only two months earlier, an unexpected phone call that lasted more than two hours. He had looked forward to seeing his friend when he came home, maybe for Christmas.

Now Cross was gone, his life cut short after 26 years.

Ben Cross, a first lieutenant in the Marine Corps, was on board an aircraft during a training exercise when it crashed into the Coral Sea off Australia last weekend. His death left a terrible void for a close-knit group of friends from his high school in Bethel, including Bethany O’Neil, pictured with Cross at a school dance, right. They dated throughout high school and into college and remained close even after they stopped dating. Photo contributed by Bethany O'Neil

Ryan Cross asked Conrad if he would mind making some calls to alert people. Conrad hadn’t yet had time to grieve himself, but said he could.

And that’s how the news of Cross’ unexpected death spread throughout a small and close-knit group of friends from Telstar Regional High School in Bethel, a small town in western Maine best known for its proximity to the Sunday River ski resort.

To most of the world saddened by the loss of a young man they didn’t know, Cross was a man who died too young serving his country. In a photo that appeared on every TV newscast throughout Maine, he is stoic in his Marine dress blues, his lips stretched slightly into a wry smile.

But to his friends, and the people throughout Bethel who were inspired by his drive and humbled by his selflessness, he was just Ben. The guy who took forever to chew his food, who arrived early to set things up and stayed late to help clean and whose email replies were often three times longer than the original email.

He was a standout athlete and student president of the 2009 graduating class. Voted most likely to succeed. Mr. Telstar. But more than that, he was the industrial-strength glue that held together a group of classmates long after their high school days were over. Some had scattered, others stayed closer to home, the same as every town. Like so many friends, they tried staying in touch as they got older and their lives diverged. They found time to get together when they could, even if it was only around the holidays. Cross, it turns out, was among those who insisted on getting together.

Now, he’ll live only in their pictures and memories.

“It was strange to have to make those calls, you know,” Conrad said. “To have to be the one to give that news to people. … It was hard.”

James Kimball was among the first to get a call from Conrad. He knew Cross was always at risk because of his career, but his death still felt like a gut punch.

“You see things like this and you just assume it happens to other people,” Kimball said. “I mean no one deserves this, but Ben, he was just the most positive person I’ve known. Nothing bad came from him.”

Bethany O’Neil, who dated Cross throughout high school and into college but remained close friends after they stopped dating, got a call from Conrad, too. Given the time of day and the urgency in his voice, she knew it must be about Ben.

When he said the word “gone,” she didn’t believe it. She asked Conrad for Ryan’s number so she could hear directly from him. But the news was the same. It was true, Ryan told her.

O’Neil allowed herself some time to cry for Ben before she started making her own calls.

“There were some people I just couldn’t stand the thought of them finding this out on Facebook or on the news,” she said.

Ben Cross, pictured with Bethany O’Neil, was a standout athlete and student president of the 2009 graduating class. Photo contributed by Bethany O’Neil

‘HE ALWAYS STEPPED UP’

To hear his friends tell it, Ben Cross wanted to be a pilot from a young age.

“He was kind of a nerd about planes,” O’Neil said, recalling how he had model airplanes and posters throughout his bedroom.

But it wasn’t just a boyhood fascination. That’s what Cross wanted to do with his life and he figured out how to make that happen.

He was driven about everything he did, even the trivial: He pushed to have a “Dark Knight”-themed winter carnival dance and persuaded the owner of a local salvage yard to donate a car that Cross painted black and tricked out like the Batmobile.

Valerie Forman, who teaches history at Telstar, remembers Cross well.

“I’ve probably had 1,500 students since he graduated, so when he still stands out, that says something,” she said. “He really had this magnetism, not just with peers but teachers, too. And he always stepped up when things needed to happen. He would help set up but he’d also stay behind to clean, which no kid wants to do.”

When she had hallway duty, Forman often got to see a side of her students when they thought no one was watching. But Cross, she said, was always the same. He didn’t raise his voice or step out of line or seek attention.

“He’s the kind of kid you hope would grow up and become your next-door neighbor,” she said.

Kimball first met Cross when Cross and his family moved to Bethel in middle school. The two grew close through baseball – Kimball was a pitcher and Cross was his catcher – but their bond was bigger than sports.

“We all went on to college and had college friends, but there was just something different about the people who knew you from high school,” Kimball said. “They know all the weird things about you and don’t care.”

Kimball, for instance, knew that Cross took forever to eat a meal.

“I think he had to chew his food like 40 times before swallowing,” he said.

O’Neil and Cross started dating when they both were freshmen in high school. Ben was skinny then, long before military life added pounds of muscle, but still strong. When they were juniors, O’Neil lost her dad. Only days later, her family lost their house in a fire.

“He held my hand while literally my whole life burned down in front of me,” she said.

From Telstar, Cross was accepted to Virginia Military Institute on a full scholarship.

O’Neil attended college nearby. She hadn’t planned on going to college because she never figured she would get in, she said. But Ben encouraged her to chase her dreams, too. When she couldn’t pay for the application fee to a college, he paid it for her.

She enrolled at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia, less than an hour from VMI in Lexington. She joined the Army National Guard to help pay for school.

They saw each other every weekend that first year but the romance didn’t work out.

“We just had different dreams,” O’Neil said. “And they didn’t mesh.”

They could have drifted apart after, as so many couples do after a breakup, but they didn’t. They stayed close, maybe even became closer. All of the things that attracted her to him also made him the perfect friend.

“He was always sincere,” she said. “I can’t think of a time when he didn’t tell me the truth. It’s just who he was.”

The crash that killed Ben Cross and two others is still under investigation. Also killed were Cpl. Nathaniel Ordway, 21, of Sedgwick, Kansas, and Pfc. Ruben Velasco, 19, of Los Angeles. Photo contributed by Bethany O’Neil

CRASH REMAINS UNDER INVESTIGATION

By the time Cross graduated from Virginia Military Institute after four years, he was a commissioned Marine and had his next steps planned out. He would go to Washington, D.C., for officer training school and then to Pensacola, Florida, for flight school.

He was stationed at a Marine Corps air base in Texas, learning to fly the hybrid helicopter-airplane known as the MV-22 Osprey, before his assignment overseas at Camp Butler in Okinawa, Japan.

“He loved to travel,” O’Neil said. “If there was going to be something difficult, that’s what he wanted. A challenge.”

Piloting an Osprey presented such a challenge.

Officially classified as a tiltrotor, the aircraft can take off and land like a helicopter but can fly like an airplane. It also has a big load capacity and diverse weapon capabilities. Marines have been training on the Osprey for more than 15 years but they have only been operational since 2007.

During its development as a military vehicle, the Osprey was involved in many fatal crashes but has had a safer track record in recent years.

Cross was assigned to Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 265, part of the larger 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit that is based in Okinawa but primarily deployed throughout the Pacific.

Last weekend’s accident is still somewhat of a mystery and has been characterized by Marine officials as a “mishap.” The Osprey crashed while trying to land on a military ship and plunged into the water near Shoalwater Bay Training Area in Queensland, Australia.

Of the 26 Marines on board, 23 were rescued. Three were not.

Also killed were Cpl. Nathaniel Ordway, 21, of Sedgwick, Kansas, and Pfc. Ruben Velasco, 19, of Los Angeles.

Officials have released no additional details about the accident, which remains under investigation. The wreckage of the aircraft has been located but the three men’s bodies have not been recovered.

Cross’ family was told Ben was co-piloting the plane when it went down but officials have not confirmed that.

For military families, the prospect of their loved ones dying in active combat is acute but the possibility of dying during training less so.

Conrad, who enlisted in the Marines after high school and spent time in Afghanistan in 2011, said such accidents are part of military life.

Last month, a cargo plane full of Marines crashed in Mississippi, killing all 16 people aboard in one of the deadliest military aviation accidents in decades.

If Cross, who already had been awarded the National Defense Service Medal and the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, feared death, he never let on, his friends said.

“I don’t think that’s something he would think about, but even if he did, he wouldn’t burden anyone with it,” O’Neil said. “He would always tell people he was safe.”

Ben last posted on his Facebook page on July 29, a photo taken from an airplane in flight. There are clouds and blue sky above and ocean below – a glimpse of a propeller in the top of the frame.

‘SURE DIFFERENT WHEN IT’S YOUR HOME’

The Cross family got the notification of Ben’s death in person, standard protocol for service members.

Robert and Valerie Cross, and their older son Ryan, have been grieving all week, opening the door of their Bryant Pond home to visitors.

The Crosses even let television crews into their home early in the week, eager to show the world who Ben was, but there was a numbness to their words.

Ryan Cross, also a veteran, and his wife recently had a child who’ll never get to know his uncle. Ryan will never get to return the favor and be the best man at his brother’s wedding.

In their small corner of the state, news of Ben Cross’ death spread quickly.

Ron Savage, a local builder in Bethel, has known the family for years. He heard about Cross on Sunday and visited his parents briefly the next day.

“You can’t help but feel for them, but at the same time you don’t really know what to say, either,” Savage said. “They were enormously proud of their son and they should be.”

Savage said everywhere he has gone in town the last several days, talk has turned to Cross.

“You know when any military member dies, it’s a shame,” he said. “You see this in another state and you feel sad, but it’s sure different when it’s your home.”

Forman was in New York when she received an email from the Telstar school superintendent. All she saw was Cross’ name and the word “perished,” before she closed her computer and wept.

“I think I didn’t want to believe it,” she said.

She still remembers stopping by the local bank where Cross’ mother was a teller. She couldn’t resist telling her how nice her son was.

Ben Cross’ friends say he wanted to be a pilot from a young age. Photo contributed by Bethany O’Neil

‘HE GOT TO LIVE HIS DREAM’

For Cross’ friends, his absence will likely be felt most strongly around Christmastime, when he and his friends always got together to reminisce, blending old stories from high school with new ones from their adult lives.

Cross used to bring gifts for everyone. Nothing big, just enough for everyone to know he was thinking of them.

When he was living in Texas, he was really starting to buy into the lifestyle, his friends said.

“Everything is bigger in Texas, right?” Kimball said. “So he got us all these ridiculous oversized beer cozies.”

It wasn’t about the gifts, though. Kimball said, even in a roomful of people all talking at once, Cross always gave you his full attention. He listened and asked questions and held eye contact. When they exchanged emails, Cross would always send back emails that were three times longer than the ones Kimball wrote.

Conrad can’t help but think of the phone call Cross made a couple of months back, out of the blue.

“It made me feel really good to hear from him,” Conrad said, his voice choked with emotion. “Here he was, with all this stuff going on and he still made time to check in.”

O’Neil last saw Ben more than a year ago, when he flew her down to Texas so she could help him pack up his stuff and put it in storage while he was in Japan.

She’s sad that she won’t get to see her friend again or hear his voice. Sad to think that he didn’t get to live a full life.

“But I’m happy, too, in a strange way,” she said. “He got so much more life in 26 years than most of us. He got to live his dream.”

Before they went off to college in the fall of 2009, Cross wrote O’Neil a letter, something she has kept close ever since.

“Don’t miss me,” he wrote. “You can remember me, reflect on me, and think about me, but don’t miss me. If you find this hard, try to occupy yourself with something else.”

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

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