Nick Jones has known hard times since he was a little boy.
When he was 6 years old, his father abandoned him, leaving him and his mother to fend for themselves.
Throughout his schooling, he lacked confidence and maturity, though he said he remained respectful of his elders.
At West Seneca West High School, his grade point average never rose above a C and he was an equally low achiever on the high school football team as a receiver.
“I never saw the field during my junior and senior years,” Jones recalled. “I never played a down or caught a pass. I was 6-foot, 6-inches and 190 pounds. I was skinny and not very confident.”
It seemed to him that life was passing him by as he sat on the sidelines.
So with few options after high school graduation, Jones decided at 18 years old to enlist in the Marine Corps.
That decision changed everything.
“At boot camp they break you down to the dirt in the bottom of your shoe and then they rebuild you. That was where I started gaining my self-confidence. That is where it began.”
When he arrived in Afghanistan in December 2010, Jones needed all of the self-assurance any human being could muster. He was a newly minted infantry sergeant in charge of an eight-member squad. To the Taliban, Jones and the thousands of others serving in the NATO forces were and still are viewed as infidels who need to be eliminated.
“You would drink tea with the village elder and as soon as you left, he would contact a Taliban leader and they would ambush us soon after. You couldn’t really trust anybody, except for the Marine on the left and right of you,” Jones said.
In the spring of 2011, a major offensive was initiated to destroy the main funding source of the Taliban: endless fields of poppy plants used to produce heroin for the illegal drug trade.
“We hired local nationals and Afghan police to drive tractors through the fields and overturn the plants. We didn’t do it ourselves. The idea was to let the locals handle their own business. The Taliban would shoot in their direction, but if we had gone in, they would have tried to kill us. They didn’t want to kill their own, they just wanted to deter them.”
Aware that the Marines were behind the destruction of the crops, the Taliban sought retribution anyway.
“There was one day where they organized and attacked all of the patrol bases in Marjah, which was a Taliban stronghold. They shot small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades.”
But most of the retaliation took the form of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.
“They didn’t like to shoot at us because they knew we would come at them. They called us ‘the cowboys from hell.’ One of the Taliban leaders named us that because we didn’t run away from their gunfire. We went at them.”
IEDs proved a better arrangement for the insurgents. The devices could be hidden just beneath the surface of the ground, under a pile debris or bush, or up in a tree.
In a tree? The insurgents figured out that with the devices at tree level, the full strength of the blast would strike infantry members in the head.
“The IEDs were ignited either by stepping on them or remotely by someone watching us at a distance,” Jones said.
Four of his squad members would receive Purple Hearts for IED wounds; and Jones, himself, narrowly missed the wrath of an IED.
“It was set off about 15 feet right in front of me. It was directional, so the blast would come right at me. But it had been raining all morning and only about one-third of the explosives in it went off. The smaller shrapnel blew out, but the heavy stuff – spark plugs, 50-caliber rounds, gears from motorcycles – didn’t fully explode out.”
He knows this because he carefully examined the remnants of the IED afterwards.
“What the Taliban will do is take a motorcycle apart and use it for shrapnel.”
Jones, during his seven months in the war zone, developed a keen eye for where insurgents placed their IEDs.
“We found about 50, 10 of them the hard way, exploding within a 50-foot radius of us. The other 40, we spotted and were able to call in the bomb techs and they disabled them.”
In July 2011, he was more than glad to return to the United States and complete his hitch before becoming a civilian in April 2012. This time around, he was no longer a young, tall, skinny adolescent filled with doubt.
He enrolled at Erie Community College South and joined the football team as a tight end. Unlike in high school, he dominated the field, blocking defenders and catching passes. Elected team captain of the Kats, the 250-pound athlete, towering six inches shy of seven feet, had become a force to be reckoned with. The athletic field, he explained, also provided a distraction from battlefield memories.
And that’s not all.
On Tuesday, he begins classes at the University of Texas-El Paso on a Division 1 football scholarship.
But whether it is on the football field or in the classroom, where he has maintained a 3.0 average, Jones says, it is the military that has turned him into a man capable of handling life’s challenges.
“I learned how to deal with adversity in my life. The things I’ve done and seen in the military have humbled me and I’ve learned that hard work and staying focused will pay off in the end,” Jones said.
Jean Jones, his mother, could not be prouder of her only child.
“I could go back to when his dad left and recall that we had to learn to do by ourselves. Nick became my life, my heart, my soul, everything,” his mother said.
“He’s exactly what I dreamed him to be. He’s the son I dreamed of having. Who could ask for more?”