Vietnam Veteran mentors Soldiers in Iraq
Story and photos by Sgt. Chad Menegay
196th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment
13th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary)
VICTORY BASE COMPLEX, Iraq — As a point man during the Vietnam War, Marine Pfc. Willie Yarbrough guided his platoon through rugged jungles and fierce guerilla warfare near the Ben Hai river. He learned a lot about the North Vietnamese soldiers, developed a knack to sniff out an ambush and a capacity to stay focused on the moment.
As a radio operator in Vietnam, another highly targeted position, he became a skilled communicator under pressure and did what was necessary to stay alive.
Later in the war, as a Marine corporal and squad leader, Yarbrough made battlefield decisions and managed men in his squad.
During his 16-year tenure in the U.S. Marine Corps, Yarbrough served as a platoon sergeant, drill instructor, career counselor and a school instructor.
After a 22-year break in service, Spc. Yarbrough, a logistics specialist for the 812th Quartermaster Company, 373rd Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, 3rd Sustainment Brigade, 13th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary), and a Beaumont, Texas, native, now works in the Camp Liberty Oasis water treatment facility at Victory Base Complex, Iraq, to make sure Soldiers receive purified drinking water.
Forty years removed from Vietnam, the 59-year-old Yarbrough volunteered to deploy with the 812th, leaving his home unit, the 1002nd Quartermaster Company, out of Beaumont, Texas, which he joined three years earlier.
“A recruiter asked me did I ever think about going back in,” Yarbrough said. “I told him, man, at my age, you must be out of your mind. He said, no, you could do it.”
He’s done it, and he’s made an impact along the way, mentoring Soldiers.
“Having a Vietnam Vet in the unit gives us a tremendous advantage in terms of experience,” said Lt. Guadalupe Solano, an operations officer for the 373rd, Yarbrough’s former platoon leader, and a McAllen, Texas, native.
“He has personally mentored me on being resilient,” he said. “He is someone I can sit down and have an intellectual and mature conversation with, and talk for hours and hours without getting bored.”
“People are not afraid to come talk to me,” Yarbrough said, “because I just talk to them like a father. I don’t try to judge anybody.”
Cpl. Andrew Garcia, operations noncommissioned officer for the 812th and a Goliad, Texas, native, said Yarbrough has given him advice on leadership styles.
“He has a good impact on the junior enlisted,” Garcia said. “He’s got positive things to say. He’s definitely had an impact on me. It’s awesome to be able to serve alongside somebody that served in the Vietnam War.”
Yarbrough, who grew up in a Marine Corps Family, said he’s glad to be here working for the Army.
“I’ve been in the military all my life,” he said. “Any knowledge that I have that anybody wants, I’m always glad to pass it on.”
Yarbrough qualified as an expert rifleman during his last qualification and still considers himself a Marine Corps infantryman.
“After 16 years, you never get it out of your system,” Yarbrough said.
It’s different in the Army, he said.
“The Army has a mission to occupy and control; the Marines are a straight line, hit, take care of business and pull out,” Yarbrough said.
Yarbrough said he rarely worked around the Army in Vietnam, “but they had good stuff, so we’d go pillage,” he said. “We didn’t throw away nothing. Anything we could get a hold of to make life comfortable, we snatched it up. When we got to some Army guys, and they had that stuff, it was on.”
Yarbrough said the combat gear that the Army has now is good compared to what he had in Vietnam, but that the weight is about the same.
“A basic infantryman load back then was six canteens of water, 27 magazines, machine gun ammo, mortar rounds, a light anti-tank weapon and claymore,” Yarbrough said. “Once you went to the field, you were self-sufficient. You had no resupplies, so if you engaged with the enemy, you had to hold your ground.”
Yarbrough compared the roadside bombs of today to booby traps in Vietnam.
“You still have to worry about ambushes,” he said.
However, most ambushes that occurred during the Vietnam War happened on foot, he said.
“We didn’t ride, we walked,” Yarbrough said. “If we had to go somewhere, we were dropped in by helicopter.”
Today, Yarbrough, whose expression is all-business, works out of an office. He loads trucks with water, makes sure paperwork is in order and that the trucks are going to the correct place.
“That’s my job here,” Yarbrough said, “but if they say, let’s go on a convoy and … suit up, I’ll say let’s rock n’ roll.”
Soldiers with the 812th describe him as “a hard dude.”
The gray-haired Yarbrough agrees with this immediately.
“I am,” he said.
“He’s a hard old man,” Garcia said. “He’s old school. He came through in a different time.”
Yarbrough is not afraid to take corrective action on Soldiers as needed, regardless of rank.
“I like to see things run right,” he said, “if not, I have a tendency to say what I feel about it, regardless of who it is. If you speak tactfully, you can get your point across to anybody.”
“Every individual that you deal with is unique,” Yarbrough said. “So what I do is, I’ll watch you, I’ll observe you. I’ll find your strong points and your weak points. Where you’re strong at, I’ll use those strengths; where you’re weak, I’ll build you up.”
Solano said Yarbrough’s “demeanor is that of a Soldier who has experienced life in multiple variations of encounters, and knows what it takes to get through difficult ones.”
“My guess is that’s why he’s a cool, calm and collected individual,” he said. “Through him I have learned that those three are extremely important leadership attributes. The fact is he is a direct leader and not one who is reactive nor aggressive. He is one whom Soldiers can go to and seek advice, and he will willingly give it any time, any place. Many of our young Warriors can look up to him as a mentor and benefit from his skills, experience and, above all, demeanor.”
Yarbrough is an example for young Soldiers to emulate, said Sgt. Tim Smith, night shift noncommissioned officer-in-charge of the Oasis, and a Corpus Christi, Texas, native.
“I went in his room one day and opened his wall locker,” Smith said. “Everything’s on hangers three inches apart. Everything’s folded and stacked, just as neat as could be. It was beautiful.”
“He’s got discipline,” he said. “He sees something that needs to be done, he gets up and does it.”
Yarbrough said his strength and discipline were forged as a young adult in the Vietnam War.
“There were a couple times back in Vietnam,” he said, “where I was extremely afraid for my life, but it made me strong and I learned from it.”
Yarbrough said he talks to Soldiers about what to expect when they go off base and how to be ready to react.
“I tell them what it would feel like to have a close friend killed, and you have to carry his body,” he said. “If you get into situations where you have to think, you have to react at the same time, because sometimes you can over think and get yourself in a lot of trouble. Focus on the moment and never let your guard down, things could change quickly.”
Yarbrough plans to retire from the military next year, but doesn’t expect his life to change much. He’s had a good run, he said.
“I’m going to still work with kids,” he said, “with the community and even work with recruiters. I’ll probably do what I normally do and find some kids to mentor; maybe go work at the youth prison again. I can still handle them. They ain’t that tough.”
Spc. Willie Yarbrough, a Vietnam Veteran, now a logistics specialist with the 812th Quartermaster Company, 373rd Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, 3rd Sustainment Brigade, 13th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary), and a Beaumont, Texas, native, works at the Camp Liberty Oasis water treatment facility to ensure that Soldiers get purified drinking water May 18 at Victory Base Complex, Iraq.
Marine Cpl. Willie Yarbrough ended his Vietnam tours with many awards and left the Marine Corps as a staff sergeant. Now Spc. Yarbrough, a logistics specialist for the 812th Quartermaster Company, 373rd Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, 3rd Sustainment Brigade, 13th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary), and a Beaumont, Texas, native, said the only award that matters to him is his U.S. Marine Corps Combat Action Ribbon.
Spc. Willie Yarbrough, a Vietnam Veteran and a logistics specialist with the 812th Quartermaster Company, 373rd Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, 3rd Sustainment Brigade, 13th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary), and a Beaumont, Texas, native, said he has the support of his whole Family. He said they’re just waiting for him to come home and be safe.