By Jeff Paul

DALLAS (CBSDFW) – He died serving and protecting our freedom.

For the first time, a close friend and fellow U.S. Marine is sharing his memories of Dallas-born Staff Sgt. Joshua Snowden with the public.

On July 16, military members were killed as their plane crashed en route to training in Arizona.

“I will never understand why it happened,” said Ross Hardage, a retired corporal. “I didn’t accept it immediately of course.”

Snowden was one of 15 U.S. Marines, along with one Navy Corpsman, who were on board a military plane when something went wrong over Mississippi.

“We all kept it in the back of our minds that it was possible. But we never thought in a million years that it would be us,” said Hardage.

Having spent all five of his years in the Marines serving next to Snowden, the two were very close.

“He meant everything to me,” said Hardage. “I wanted to be like him.”

It’s why Snowden’s death hit Hardage so fiercely when he learned the plane crashed into a soy bean field 85 miles north of Jackson. No one survived.

“To me it doesn’t make a difference where it happened,” said Hardage. “It’s what he was doing and the reasons he was doing it.”

Together as buddies at Highland Park High School, Hardage said Snowden had his choice of prestigious colleges and career paths.

“He had all of the traits to do whatever he wanted to do and he just kind of laughed it off always,” said Hardage.

The young Marine laughed it off because Snowden knew his calling was to serve.

“He definitely made me a better person,” said Hardage. “He didn’t give me a choice.”

Hardage was inspired by Snowden and enlisted. He said he is just one of the many lives Snowden changed and shaped.

“I think he did such a good job at that and did his job so well and so efficiently that he was just called home early,” said Hardage.

Investigators are still trying to figure out what exactly went wrong.

“When that plane went down, we lost one brother. But this world lost 16,” said Hardage. “They were 16 shining examples of selflessness.”

“As to why he was taken so early? That will never, we will never understand that,” said Hardage. “And we don’t need to understand that. We need to understand that he was a blessing in our lives.”

Snowden’s birthday is Saturday. He would have turned 32.

Friends have set up a memorial page for those who want to help the family.

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