Service dogs change the lives of American military heroes

Veterans Voices

CHESAPEAKE, Va. (WAVY) – An American hero is using his story to help veterans across the country. 

Toby Yarbrough has seen his fair share of struggles since he was severely injured while protecting the United States in a deployment in 2002. Yarbrough’s 20-year military career came to a halt during Operation Enduring Freedom following the September 11, 2001 terror attacks. He was on a mission to recover a front-end loader in Afghanistan when the operation took a turn for the worse. 

“In the process of repairing it, it shifted and when it did, it pinned me down, and when it did you had over 2,000 tons on your back,” Yarbrough said. “I don’t remember anything after, but I know that I was medevacked to a hospital in Germany. When I woke up, they had me strapped down. I couldn’t move. I was paralyzed.”

The front-end loader crushed his back in three places and Yarbrough also suffered a severe brain injury, losing his short-term memory.

“I had to learn how to talk again, and how to walk, and almost everything. I don’t feel anything from my neck down,” he said.

He now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and seizures as a result of his brain injury. However, he thanks his team for getting him to a hospital in Germany, where he’d stay one year recovering.

“My crew saved my life. You’ve got your battle buddies; they’ve got your back and you have theirs. I get emotional talking about it,” said Yarbrough.

Now, Yarbrough has other battle buddies, in the form of service dogs, whom he credits with saving his life after war. That included Duke, a German shepherd that Yarbrough paid $40,000 for when he returned home from Germany. Duke would become his best friend at home, and his caretaker around the clock during his long road to recovery. 

“He lets me know ahead of time if I [was] having a seizure. He [brought] my medication bottles to me. He [woke] me up at nighttime, and if I feel his mouth with my pill bottle, something tells me I’m going to have a seizure,” Yarbrough said. “If it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t have gone on a cruise. I wouldn’t do public speaking. He’s done so much for me. I’ve had him for 14 years. If it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t have met two Presidents of the United States. We have pictures with them.”

Duke was a European German Shepard, a gentle giant weighing 108 pounds, and at his prime he was 140 pounds. He’s been featured in documentaries, three books, countless articles, and he even has a college degree. Duke takes the phrase “man’s best friend” to a new level, according to Yarbrough. 

“Fourteen years. He’s been my wingman for 14 years,” Yarbrough said. “He’s saved my life and knows that.”

In June 2018, Duke passed away. Yarbrough sad Duke will always live in his heart and he is forever grateful for the time they shared.

Today, Yarbrough has another service dog named Sasha. He has also made it his mission to help other veterans find their perfect companion. Yarbrough said doctors, health specialists, and veterans from across the country team up with him to find the right service dog. Yarbrough receives countless calls and roughly 100 emails a month with requests for help. 

“[The dogs] are a blessing in disguise. I went from having Duke and he really changed my life,” Yarbrough said. “He made me live life to the fullest and go places I never would have gone. This is my story and it needs to be heard. Us veterans, we need all of the help we can get.”

Yarbrough published a book about his dog Duke titled, “A Quiet Healing.” Just this year, that book has been turned into an award-winning documentary about the impact service dogs have on veterans who need them.

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