Long before Mid-County native Sgt. Joshua Wayne Yarbrough rose through the ranks of the United States Marine Corps, those close to him knew he was bound for greatness serving a purpose other than his own.
“He’s always been a good kid,” mother Ruth Trahan remembered fondly of the young man she raised. “He’s always been the kind of person to do the right thing, and I couldn’t be more proud of that boy.”
Now, with three tours of oversea duty, two four-year enlistments, multiple military honors and a Purple Heart to show for his career as a Marine, Mama Trahan says those words just ring more and more true as the years pass by.
Born to be a Marine
Josh Yarbrough was welcomed into the world right after Valentine’s Day in 1986 as his mother’s only son. He was raised in a loving yet unconventional home with two sisters, his mom, and grandparents Beverly and Odis Beckham Jr. Uncle Wayne Colicher rounded out the youth’s support system, taking young Josh on fishing trips and various “boy stuff” outings.
“They taught me a lot,” Yarbrough said of the adults who shaped his childhood. “They were always there for me.”
Aside from Uncle Wayne’s fishing excursions, Yarbrough said he also looks back reminiscently on his mother teaching him how to cook a to-die-for pork chop, his grandmother spending quality time with him while his mother worked to earn a living, and his grandfather regaling him with stories of the time the senior man spent serving in the Marine Corps.
“He never had any horror stories,” Yarbrough said of his grandfather, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1954 to 1956. “He made it seem like it was a good time,” Yarbrough added with a chuckle.
Yarbrough said he knew from a very young age he was destined to follow in his grandfather’s military footsteps.
“I always wanted to be in the Marine Corps,” Yarbrough said. For him, there was never any other possibility. He would be a Marine, and he would be successful at it.His mother said she, too, always knew her son was bound for the Corps.
“He and his grandfather talked about it all the time, and he had the personality to fit it,” Trahan said.
She said little things throughout his youth showcased the man he would one day become.
“One day at school, he was defending this little boy from a bully, when the bigger kid threw him down and broke his arm,” Trahan recalled as an example of the youth’s compassion and courage. “He never even hesitated to step in for that other boy, but that’s just Josh for you.”
Yarbrough was also devoted to his church, First Assembly of God, Trahan said, where he participated in the Royal Rangers, learning how to have good character in life’s daily battlefield. And, while attending classes at Thomas Jefferson/Memorial High School, Yarbrough signed up with the local Marine recruiting office to get training on how to cope in a completely different battlefield.
“I was too young to enlist,” Yarbrough said of his high school days. “But I would go up there and work out and get training because I knew that’s what I was going to do as soon as I graduated high school”
Less than one week after graduation, in June 2004, Yarbrough was bound for California where he would embark on his new life as a Marine.
“It was hard,” Yarbrough said, briefly describing the boot camp new recruits endure to gain entrance into the military’s most elite branch. The teen was subjected to extensive physical training, classroom instruction, sleepless days and nights, long treks in the wilderness and countless mission scenarios – all of which he passed, exceeding expectations on many tasks.
“I was proud, scared …” Trahan said, reeling off a litany of emotions she felt watching her teenager participate in the grandness of boot camp graduation, no longer a boy but a warrior.
“The whole thing was so breathtaking. They go from a boy to a man in such a short amount of time. He was in boot camp for 13 weeks, but I could tell from the letters he would write during that time that he was transforming long before he graduated.”
Although the catalyst driving Yarbrough into the service, grandfather Odis Beckham Jr. passed away in June 2001.
“Wherever he is, he’s gotta be proud of that boy,” Trahan said. “(Josh) did exactly what he said he would do – be a Marine. His grandfather would have loved to have seen that.”
Shortly after graduating boot camp and settling into life as a Marine, Yarbrough embarked on another life-long journey in marrying high school sweetheart Rachael Gaona over the Thanksgiving holiday. A few months later, the newlywed was deployed to Ramadi, Iraq.
Yarbrough spent seven months in Iraq, honing his skills and showcasing leadership qualities that earned him promotions in the field.
“(Boot camp) gives you a guideline, but it doesn’t prepare you for going overseas,” Yarbrough said of his first deployment. “But at the same time, when you’re in the field, you don’t get to call home or just go to the bathroom whenever you like. So looking back, everything we did in boot camp had a purpose. It just doesn’t really prepare you for what it’s like when you’re really out there, exactly.”
“I was worried about him,” Trahan said of hearing her only son was going to war in Iraq. “But I didn’t cry,” she quickly added. “I wanted to, but I didn’t.”
Tears did well in Trahan’s eyes, however, when in October 2006, grandson Sean was welcomed into the family. His father, on deployment in Okinawa, Japan, was only able to enjoy his firstborn via phone calls and Yahoo Messenger. Sean was 3 months old before Yarbrough ever got the opportunity to meet him in person.
Throughout the remainder of his enlistment, Yarbrough was given accolades for his weapons expertise and proficiency, and for exceptional service to his country. By the time he completed his four-year commitment, Yarbrough had attained the rank of corporal and was leading squads of his own. But he had no intentions of quitting there. In June 2008, Yarbrough extended his contract and re-enlisted for an additional four years.
“It’s stressful,” Yarbrough said, “but I enjoyed doing it.”
‘I just lost it’
On June 16, 2011, Yarbrough’s wife and mother were on a family vacation when the call came that their loved one had been injured while under heavy fire on a mission in Afghanistan. The 25-year-old was a member of a small squad on foot patrol in the battle-worn country when the attack occurred. According to reports from military officials, Yarbrough suffered severe injuries when he came in contact with an IED (Improved Explosive Device), as did other Marines in the tactical group. Yarbrough was praised for his bravery in the assault, pulling a fellow Marine from danger before succumbing to injuries himself.
“I just lost it,” Trahan said of getting the call she feared since learning of the dangerous career path her son had been called to. Her next move was to call Uncle Wayne, who had been a father figure throughout Yarbrough’s life.
“He gave me the best advice,” she said. “He told me to stay calm, and I did. It was hard, but it was the right thing to do.”
Yarbrough’s wife, Rachael, said she, too, was on the verge of hysterics.
“They didn’t think he would make it,” Rachael said. “He was pretty bad off.”
Yarbrough’s injuries were massive – he lost both legs above the knee, the use of one hand, and blood clots coursing through his vital organs were threatening his life. The day after the attack, Yarbrough was transferred to Germany. His condition was touch-and-go for what felt like an eternity, according to Trahan, but was actually closer to a week.
When the Marine was finally stable enough for travel, he was transferred to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., where his mother, wife and uncle flew to be by his bedside for his nearly two-month stay at the hospital. Patrick McGrath likewise made the trip to check on his friend and offer support.
“He was hooked up to a ventilator, feeding tube, (and) suction machine tubes in legs and arms,” Rachael said of her husband’s condition the first time she was able to see him in Maryland. Son Sean remained in Texas because, according to Rachael, “It was something a 4-year-old shouldn’t have to see.”
Once a Marine, always a Marine
Now, less than four months after the battle that briefly incapacitated him, Yarbrough is at a veteran’s facility in San Antonio learning to walk again with the use of fitted prosthetic legs, and undergoing therapy to enhance the range of motion in his hand.
“It’s a blessing,” Rachael said. “When we got that call, we didn’t know what was going to happen.” She and Sean are excited their Marine is home and are looking forward to the future of the Yarbrough family, she said.
Yarbrough said he hopes to complete his therapy within the next two years and get started on a new passion – coming back to Southeast Texas to work on a degree in psychology.
“Therapy is going to take longer than I would like, but working out is helping me. I also hope to have full range of motion in my hand by then,” he said. “At least by then, I should be able to know what my new ‘norm’ is.”
What will always remain the “norm” is Yarbrough’s commitment to serving his fellow man. He plans to use his degree in psychology to council other veterans returning from war with emotional and/or physical scars of their own to overcome.
“I want to come back and work with others who have been injured in battle. Who better to talk to than somebody who’s experienced it,” Yarbrough asserts.His mother wasn’t surprised by the revelation.
“I think it sounds like Josh,” Trahan said with a laugh, “always wanting to help somebody. He’s always happiest when he’s helping others.”
Through good and bad times, Yarbrough said he never lost the belief that he did the right thing in following his dream to be a Marine.
“The Marine Corps made me a better man,” he said. “I think it’s good for anybody to have more discipline – it gives you pride and self confidence in yourself. I’d like to still be able to do it, but with the physical aspect, I just can’t anymore.
“I’m sure everyone’s experience is different, but I always knew I was going to be a Marine.” And, he added, “I’ll always be a Marine.”