22-year-old's 'journey' was cut short

Johnnie Youmans kneels over the grave of his son Marine Lance Cpl. Rodricka A. Youmans, who died in 2004 near Fallujah.

ALLENDALE, S.C. --- There's a framed photo that sits on a coffee table in the Youmans home on Mill Street, and an enlarged copy hanging from a wall in the television room.


It's not the best picture the family has of Marine Lance Cpl. Rodricka A. Youmans, but it has special meaning all the same.

Taken three years before he died in Iraq, it shows him among about 40 Allendale-Fairfax High School students, posing in front of the Hudson River during their senior trip to New York City in April 2001. Behind them, the hazy visage of the Twin Towers rises above the Manhattan skyline.

The students seem carefree and clownish, some oblivious to the camera. In contrast, on the back row Youmans stands sideways, as if at attention, staring intently at something in the distance.

It's not just that the photo shows him in happier times, said his sister, Shalonda Youmans. It's the eerie foreshadowing. So many things represented in the image, real and symbolic, would work together to steer Youmans to his fate.

His then-girlfriend, Taneka Priester, also in the back row, had borne his eldest child by that point, and the obligations of parenthood were bringing Youmans' happy-go-lucky days of cavorting with his friends to an end. A second child with his fiancée would come later, forcing him into a desperate job hunt that would lead him to enlist in the Marine Corps.

And, of course, the towers fell that September, the dawn of the war on terrorism. Youmans would lose his life to it in Iraq, in a mine explosion on a dusty highway outside Fallujah, Iraq.

"It was like the start of his journey," Shalonda, 23, said of the New York trip. "And all of a sudden, his journey came to an end."

HE WENT by "Rah." The middle of Johnnie and Manderlene Youmans' three children, he grew up never wanting for much, despite living in one of the poorest counties in South Carolina. His father worked in a textile plant and served in the South Carolina Army National Guard, and his mother was a machine operator for the Georgia-Pacific paper plant in Rincon, Ga.

As a teenager, Youmans was known for a constant smile and a raucous sense of humor, as a rough-houser who didn't take life too seriously, his family and friends said. He could also be quick with his fists.

He liked to go cruising at night with rap music blaring from his car stereo, or to pick up a six-pack of cheap beer and shoot pool at the former Fleetwood's gas station on South Main Street, said Naemon Youmans, a close friend and distant cousin. On wild nights out, he would be the last to fall asleep and the last to wake up the next day.

He stayed out of major trouble, though there were some close calls. Fights would break out over girls, and when someone started a beef with one of his friends, Youmans would throw the first punch.

"He was my bodyguard," Naemon Youmans said. "He was the kind of guy where, if he was rolling with you and somebody got on you, he was the first to protect."

His best friend and cousin Edric Badger recalled an incident in their senior year when an argument erupted while they were drinking on Flat Street and another boy sucker-punched Youmans. Furious, Youmans ran home and got his father's shotgun, then walked back carrying it over his shoulder.

The group scattered when they saw him coming. Another cousin picked him up in his car and talked him into taking the gun back home before things got out of control.

That aggressive streak probably made Youmans a good fit for the Marines, said Badger, 29.

"He always had that wild side in him," he said.

YOUMANS' PROTECTIVENESS extended to his little sister, who was five years younger. Shalonda said he wouldn't let her talk to any boys, saying he knew what they wanted.

"He was always on my side," she said.

He and his friends used to take road trips to the coast, trekking to Myrtle Beach or Hilton Head. On one trip to Jacksonville, Fla., his father said, someone rear-ended his 1993 Mercury Topaz.

For whatever reason, Youmans never got around to replacing the back bumper. He went on driving around Allendale without one, which became a running joke among his friends.

His senior year he played second-string linebacker on the Tigers football team. He took strongly to an auto mechanics class, so much so that a teacher recommended he make a career of it and attend Universal Technical Institute in Houston.

That year, his girlfriend gave birth to his first child, daughter A'miyah. He and Priester didn't stay together, but they remained friends. Having grown up in a family with a strong father figure, Youmans wasn't about to shirk his obligations.

"He was like, 'I'm about to bring a life into this world, so I've got to step up to my responsibilities,' " Johnnie Youmans said.

Youmans took out a loan and started at UTI, but neither Texas nor college life suited him. He quit after a year and returned to Allendale, where the love of his life, Stephanie Cuthbertson, gave birth to his second child, son Mekhi.

He told his family he would take up classes again at Aiken Technical College. But he needed money to support two children, and when he started looking for work around his hometown, he floundered, learning quickly that in poor rural communities there are far more people than jobs.

HE PUT IN APPLICATIONS but couldn't get callbacks from places that paid well. He applied at Wackenhut at Savannah River Site, and at the now-shuttered Milliken textile plant in Barnwell, where his father worked. Neither panned out.

Youmans got a job at a Dollar General store, but he quit, saying the pay was too low, his family said. He found a temp job making tire rims at Carlisle Tire and Wheel Co. in Aiken, but the work ran out after three months.

"He was kind of depressed," his sister said.

Johnnie Youmans said he was giving him $400 per month to pay his apartment rent. His son hated it.

"He said it was hard for him to do it, but he needed the money," his father said. "He said he was going to quit borrowing it. I told him he didn't have to pay it back."

Again taking a cue from his father, Youmans came up with a solution. He went to the military recruiting station at Aiken Mall intent on joining the Navy, but he didn't score high enough on the aptitude test.

But he was good enough for the Marines.

Shalonda said she didn't like it.

"The war started in '01," she said. "I knew he was automatically going to get shipped over there."

Badger, his roommate at the time, said he stayed up all night with him once in their Aiken apartment, trying to talk him out of it. Youmans said he wanted to see what fighting in a war was like. Badger told him he could get killed.

"If I die," Youmans said, according to Badger, "I know my kids will always be taken care of."

HIS FATHER DROVE him back to the mall to enlist, then later to Parris Island for boot camp. At the time, Youmans didn't know how to swim.

When he returned after graduating basic training, he was self-assured all over again. His sister said he made a point of wearing his Marine casual uniform around the house.

"He was so proud," she said.

As she feared, it wasn't long before her brother went to war. Seven months after enlisting, Youmans deployed to Iraq in February 2004 with the 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, 2nd Marine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force.

His girlfriend was expecting again -- her second child, his third. Confident he could finally support a family, Youmans and Cuthbertson got engaged, with a wedding date in September when his tour would be over. He said he'd found an apartment near Camp Lejeune, N.C., where he was stationed, and his family would join him there, his father said.

His parents were nervous, especially with him being a scout. In the year since the invasion, the country had exploded in violence.

Johnnie Youmans tried to reassure his wife.

"I said, 'God will take care of him, and the soldiers will take care of each other,' " he said.

THEY LAST SPOKE about a week before he died. Johnnie Youmans, a staff sergeant with the 163rd Support Battalion in Bamberg, had been called to active duty himself, working backfill at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina, and he was home on leave when he took the call.

His son told him he had been fighting for days in Fallujah, which the Marines had recently recaptured in Operation Vigilant Resolve after an incident in which insurgents ambushed a Blackwater convoy and hung the burned bodies of contractors over a bridge.

Youmans said he loved what he was doing and that he had decided to make a career of the Corps and stay in until retirement. His father told him he loved him.

"Be careful out there," he said.

Youmans, a private first class, was part of the Delta Company "Outlaws," which had been written up in the military newspaper Stars and Stripes . Their job was to secure a highway between Abu Ghraib and Fallujah, seeking out remote control-detonated improvised explosive devices that were wreaking havoc on convoys. Or as the newspaper put it, to look for "bombs and bad guys."

On the morning of July 6, 2004, five Outlaws would be done in by both. Youmans was among seven Marines riding in an LAV-25, an eight-wheeled armored infantry fighting vehicle.

According to news accounts, they had just begun a mounted combat patrol. Youmans' father said he was told they had just finished escorting a convoy.

On the outskirts of Fallujah, an anti-tank mine exploded below them. Youmans died within seconds, according to his death certificate.

He had been in the Marines two days short of a year.

"It just shocked me," his father said, "because he had just joined."

Also killed were Lance Cpl. Justin Hunt, who was driving; Lance Cpl. Scott Dougherty; Cpl. Jeffrey Lawrence; and Lance Cpl. Mark Engel, who died 15 days later. Two Marines survived.

SIXTEEN DAYS LATER, Cuthbertson gave birth to Rodricka Youmans Jr. She still lives in nearby Williston, and she did not respond to messages seeking input for this article.

Youmans' mother died in January 2009 of breast cancer. She had been a broken woman ever since a Marine sergeant and chaplain pulled up in front of the house in a van, bearing horrific news, Johnnie Youmans said.

"She was depressed," Shalonda said. "She never did smile."

At his funeral in Allendale, Youmans' high school friends gave the family an engraved plaque, which, like the New York picture, hangs in the television room. It too is a reminder of happier times, the words recalling the days when Youmans would "act the fool" and ride around in a car with no bumper.

"We will miss his smile," the engraving said, "because that's what we always saw first."

Sadness, anger linger years after Youmans' death
Marine Lance Cpl. Rodricka "Rah" Antwan Youmans

Age: 22

Killed: July 6, 2004, on the outskirts of Fallujah, along with four other Marines, when the LAV-25 armored vehicle they were riding in was hit by an anti-tank mine

Unit: 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, 2nd Marine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force, Camp Lejeune, N.C.

Enlisted: July 8, 2003

Family: Daughter, A'miyah, 10; sons Mekhi, 7, and Rodricka Jr., 6; fiancée, Stephanie Cuthbertson; father, Johnnie Youmans; brother, Johnnie Youmans Jr.; sister, Shalonda Youmans; grandmother, Mary Ritter; grandmother, Elizabeth Green

Medals: Purple Heart, Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal with Combat "V", Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal, National Defense Service Medal

Other honors: Posthumously promoted from private first class to lance corporal. On Memorial Day, Allendale renamed a small park in the center of town Smith-Youmans Park, after Youmans and Sgt. Orenthial J. Smith, another Allendale County man killed in Iraq. At Veterans Memorial Park in Barnwell, Youmans has a brick in the walkway with his name inscribed, and a dog tag with his name hanging from a white wooden cross. Both are courtesy of the Blackville-based Vietnam Veterans of America, Salkehatchie Chapter 828.