From the time he was in elementary school, Taylor Conrad had wanted a military career, even writing a poem in the third grade about joining the U.S. Marine Corps.
Years later, the Central native realized that dream, but at the age of only 24 died Tuesday in a helicopter crash during a routine training exercise.
Lance Cpl. Taylor Joseph Conrad was one of four Marines aboard the helicopter that crashed outside of El Centro, California, a few miles from the border with Mexico. All four died.
"Taylor was proud to be a Marine, and we are proud of the man that he was," Conrad's sister, Colleen Brown, said in a statement on behalf of the family.
Conrad, a CH-53 helicopter crew chief assigned to Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 465, joined the Marine Corps in May of 2016, according to the Marine Corps press release.
The Marine Corps is still investigating what caused the crash.
The other Marines killed in the crash with Conrad were Capt. Samuel A. Schultz, 28, of Huntington Valley, Pennsylvania; First Lt. Samuel D. Phillips, 27, of Pinehurst, North Carolina; and Gunnery Sgt. Derik Holley, 33, of Dayton, Ohio.
“These 'Warhorse' Marines brought joy and laughter to so many around them,” Col. Craig Leflore, commanding officer of Marine Aircraft Group 16, said in the news release. “They each served honorably, wore the uniform proudly and were a perfect example of what makes our Marine Corps great — its people! They will forever be in our hearts and minds.”
Conrad, who graduated from Central High School in 2012, was the youngest of five children and had one daughter of his own named Annabelle, Brown said.
"Being part of a big family, it isn’t easy to make time for everyone, but he always made each moment with his brothers, sister, nieces and nephews special," Brown said. "He had a gift of spreading love and joy. His heart was full and his passion was strong for everything he did."
In high school, Conrad competed in football, baseball, wrestling and powerlifting, even winning second in the state. Joey Jarreau was Conrad’s football teammate until they graduated together. Jarreau, who returned to the team as a coach this year, said Conrad was the type of player who embodied the team’s ideals of hard work and grit.
“There’s a story about if you’re hanging off the side of a cliff and you're holding on the end of a rope, who would you want the other guy on the side of the rope to be. … (I) would want Taylor,” Jarreau said.
Conrad also spent time during high school volunteering with Best Buddy, a club that pairs special needs students with their peers. Special education teacher Tallie Fresina doesn’t remember exactly how Conrad started volunteering with the students, but she knows he came into her classroom, which is next to his own mother’s class, and stayed.
Conrad had a particularly special relationship with a student named Scott, who is nonverbal, Fresina said. Whenever Conrad came to visit him, Scott would end up laughing out loud, something that his teachers Fresina and Renee Fauver never saw him do with anyone else.
Conrad also escorted a special needs student named Alyssa when she was on homecoming court. Brown said her brother worked at Charis Hill summer camp for children with special needs after he graduated high school.
“He had to be one of the most compassionate, loving humans I’ve ever known,” Fauver said. “The one thing that made Taylor such a special friend with our kids is he didn’t approach them in a way that he felt sorry for them. He approached them in a way where he truly wanted to be their friend.
“There’s not very many young male students out there that can connect on the level with the special need kids like he did,” Fauver said. “It was God given.”