'Gave His Life In Everything He Did'
March 19, 2010
- Staff Sgt. Joshua Rath gave his life for that unit and mission in Operation Enduring Freedom on Jan. 8, 2009,
- "Every so often ... there's a ceremony or a tribute that reminds us how special Josh was. That makes it easier."
- "Josh gave his life in everything he did. He spent his life making sure other people were OK."
- "When he was packing, he became a Soldier. I could see the Soldier in him."
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- Staff Sgt. Joshua Rath and his family never got the chance to celebrate his 23rd birthday.
Instead, Rath's family and friends in Decatur spent his birthday, Jan. 17, 2009, saying goodbye to a young man known for his friendly, fun loving and easygoing ways, and for his dedication to his Army unit and their mission in Afghanistan.
Rath gave his life for that unit and mission in Operation Enduring Freedom on Jan. 8, 2009, when he and Spc. Keith Essary, 20, of Dyersberg, Tenn., and three civilians were killed and as many as 21 civilians wounded when a suicide bomber linked to the Taliban detonated an improvised explosive device in an open bazaar in Maywand, Afghanistan. Rath's body returned to Decatur on Jan. 16, with visitations Jan. 17-18 and the funeral on Jan. 19.
Now, just over a year since Rath's family and friends said their final farewells to an American Soldier, Rath's parents, Leroy and Darlene Rath, and his girlfriend of five years, Kimberly Taylor, agreed to be interviewed by the Rocket to talk about their loss and the struggles of accepting life without their Josh.
"It's not an easy thing for anybody," Darlene Rath said of enduring the death of a son buried with full military honors at East Lawrence Memorial Gardens.
There have been many tributes to the second oldest of Darlene and Leroy Rath's five children, including a State Senate resolution, recognition from several local military organizations and a memorial that has been erected just inside Point Mallard Park, where, as a teenager, Rath spent summers as a lifeguard.
"Every so often, there's something to look forward to, there's a ceremony or a tribute that reminds us how special Josh was. That makes it easier," Darlene Rath said.
"He was proud to serve his country," Leroy Rath added.
Rath is Decatur's hero, a sacrifice the city unwillingly made in the nation's fight against terrorism. He served his country for 4 1/2 years, with a tour in Germany and a deployment in Iraq before deploying to Afghanistan in July 2008. At the time of this death, Rath was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division at Fort Hood, Texas.
Rath is also a cherished son of the Rath family and the beloved brother of older sister Joy, 27, and younger siblings Jimmy, 20, Joel, 17, and Julia, 13. He is the engaged-to-be-engaged boyfriend of Taylor. He is the Austin High graduate who's been awarded several military honors, including the Purple Heart with Valor and Bronze Star Medal. He is one of the best lifeguards in the history of Point Mallard, and the guy who inspires both military veterans who survived other wars, and young men and women interested in joining today's military. His outgoing nature made him the best friend of many, both at home and in the Army. His dedication made him a leader within his Army ranks.
"He wasn't all Army," Darlene Rath said. "He was a person, besides being a Soldier. He was such a neat guy.
"Every once in a while, I get stopped by other kids who say they joined up, that Josh was their inspiration. They saw the honor that Josh got. They know he died for a worthy cause. They know that serving is about giving yourself for something bigger than yourself, to a higher purpose. Josh gave his life in everything he did. He spent his life making sure other people were OK."
As a teenager, Rath had dreams of going to college. But after graduation from Austin High, he wasn't quite ready for another four years of classes and studying. And then there was the issue of paying for a college education.
"He wasn't sure what he wanted to do right out of high school," Darlene Rath recalled. "I suggested the military. But he didn't like the idea of cutting his hair.
"Then, out of the blue, he and a friend signed up. They went into the Army under the buddy system. And, it turned out, he loved the challenges and the physical fitness the Army offered him. I asked him 'Why the Army'' and he said he did it for the infantry. He said if he was going to go in he wanted to be where the action was."
The promise of adventure, the chance to travel and see the world, money for college and the hope for a better future all played into the reasons Rath joined the Army, added Taylor.
"I was very proud of him and very proud of the reasons he joined the Army," she said. "I didn't like his absences. But I was willing to wait. I loved him and I knew what I wanted."
Under the buddy system, Rath and now Sgt. Jeffrey Pool went to boot camp together and were assigned to the same unit. They served together for their first three years. But in 2007, Rath's promotion to staff sergeant sent him on another track.
"I knew anything Josh did, he would do well. He was promoted to staff sergeant at the age of 22. That was really unheard of," said Leroy Rath, recalling his son's advancement through six military ranks in four years.
"He always had the highest PT (physical training) scores," Taylor added.
"It wasn't even a competition. But he made it a personal competition," Darlene Rath said of her son.
On his first deployment in 2005, Rath spent six months in Kuwait and then six months in Iraq, serving as a driver. During one mission, Rath's sergeant was killed and a close friend seriously injured when their vehicle traveled over an IED. Rath saved his friend's life by applying a tourniquet to stop bleeding in his arm.
A second deployment in July 2008 took Rath to Afghanistan.
Looking back, the family said they knew Rath was in danger on this mission. An R&R visit home in December provided signs that Rath was indeed worried about returning to the war front.
"You could look in his eyes and see that he was savoring every minute he was home," Darlene Rath said. "It was like he wasn't coming back. He knew the danger he was in. But he didn't want to tell us. He cherished every minute of that visit. He barely slept."
Taylor said she can see the tension on Rath's face in the pictures taken during their goodbyes at the airport. She said his last kiss told her something was wrong.
"It wasn't anxiousness or worry. It was pure sadness," she recalled. "There was no fear. It was complete dread."
But the Soldier was in that farewell also, his mother said.
"He loved being with us. But he was also determined to get back to the guys," she said. "When he was packing, he became a Soldier. I could see the Soldier in him. He had to get to the airport on time. He had to go be a Soldier."
On that day in January when the Rath family received the visit that brought them the news of Rath's death, the family clung to each other and their faith. The family is active in Cavalry Assembly of God in Decatur. Taylor attends Westmeade Baptist Church in Decatur.
"Joel wanted to go to church," Darlene Rath recalled. "I was crying all the way there. And I was thinking 'Lord, we don't even have the money to bury Josh. What are we going to do''"
That worry, among many others, was taken away when, the next day, the Rath family was informed by Redstone Arsenal Casualty Assistance that there was a funeral allotment to cover expenses.
Casualty Assistance was the first of many support groups to come to the Rath family's aide. Among those groups were the Patriot Guard Riders, several limousine companies and other local businesses that provided services free of charge, strangers who lined up along the roads of Decatur to salute the family as they brought their Soldier home, about 1,000 mourners who attended the funeral, relatives who traveled long distances to be part of a bittersweet and unplanned family reunion, and family friends who found ways to care for the family in the weeks and months following those dark days of January 2009.
"We had a wonderful funeral," Darlene Rath said. "Everyone was so helpful. We were really able to give him honor. Josh was the kind of person who brought people together. Even in his death, he brought people together."
But no matter how touching the funeral was, it could not alleviate the loss that shadows the Rath family. In some ways, it's hard to even think that their Soldier - once so full of life and happiness and plans for the future he would share with Taylor -- is gone.
"I was engaged to be engaged to Josh," said Taylor, who wrote to Josh frequently during his deployments. "I was planning to walk down the aisle with him. I didn't expect to walk down the aisle for another reason."
The lives of each family member changed in the moment of Rath's death. In their sorrow, much was let go. Darlene Rath dropped out of her final semester in college, Taylor let go of plans for graduate school in Chicago, Jimmy Rath stopped attending classes at the University of North Alabama, Joel Rath asked to continue his high school education through home schooling and Leroy Rath lost his job as a an operations technician at a local oil company.
"Losing a job was nothing after losing Josh," Leroy Rath said.
But slowly, the family is putting their lives back together.
"I decided to work with plants at Home Depot," Darlene Rath said of her life in the first few months after her son's death. "They are therapeutic because physical activity releases the same hormones as crying. I was even comforted by the dead flowers because they reminded me that everything in life dies eventually."
While the Rath family finds ways to cope with their loss - even going hang gliding at the urging of older sibling Joy - they are also finding inspiration from Rath's life to live more completely, more lovingly and more hopefully. They continue to receive support from several military organizations, including Army Community Service and Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. Taylor recently returned from a weekend widow's retreat sponsored by TAPS in Anchorage, Alaska, where the dog sled teams in the Iditarod Great Sled Race are each riding with a ribbon representing a Soldier killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom or Operation Enduring Freedom. Rath's ribbon is now riding with one of the teams.
Darlene Rath did go on to complete her student teaching and graduate with a degree in special education in December. She hopes to work in the local school system. Taylor, a University of Alabama graduate, is now planning to pursue her master's degree in psychology and can envision a fulfilling career counseling other Army families someday. Jimmy Rath is now in Texas studying to be a children's pastor. Leroy Rath is in the job market. Joel Rath, now a high school junior, is looking at a possible future serving in the Air Force, and Joy - the oldest sibling - and Julia - the youngest -- are keeping busy and are happy.
"I know this is what Josh would want. One of the last things we talked about was that he was proud that I was getting my education," said Taylor, who is now applying to graduate schools. "He didn't want to hold me back."
Rath's memories - and the loss of such a young life - are with his family. The first year of missed holidays - Valentine's Day, his dating anniversary with Taylor, Christmas, his birthday, and especially the one-year anniversary of his death - have all been tough.
"On the anniversary date of when he died, seven of his military buddies came to visit and spent the day with us. That helped us a lot," Taylor said.
"It really helps to stay in touch with them," Darlene Rath added. "They need to see that we're OK as much as we need to see that they are OK."