Nine years after war took Marine's legs, he's found purpose in family, friends and inspiring others
By PATRICK FILBIN | Chattanooga Times Free Press, Tenn. | Published: November 16, 2019
DALTON, Ga. (Tribune News Service) — There's a joke that Joey Jones likes to use when he feels the need to ease the tension in a room or in his own head.
To calm himself down, he uses it to remind himself of the obstacles he's had to overcome. When he faces challenges today – big or small – it brings him back to a time when the stakes were higher.
Jones will feel out a room before using the line. For nearly a decade, Jones, 33, has told his story to thousands of people, given motivational speeches to NFL teams and acted alongside a three-time Academy Award-winning actor.
On Tuesday afternoon, he stood at the front of a classroom at his alma mater, Southeast Whitfield High School in Georgia. The room was crowded with about 30 honor students.
It took about 20 minutes, but Jones started to get more comfortable as the room warmed up to him. A student asked about how he deals with post-traumatic stress disorder.
"I believe in post-traumatic growth," Jones said. "That means you go through tough and difficult situations and on the back end through recovery, you learn strength."
At this point, the students were hanging on every word. He talked about staying positive, building confidence as a public speaker, his time in Afghanistan and about the one explosion that changed his life forever.
"I could stand in front of 3,000 people or go live on TV to talk about it and the first thing I tell myself is ... "
He pauses for half a second.
"At least it's not a bomb."
A HOMETOWN WELCOME
As a high school kid in Whitfield County, Jones was never the most coordinated person.
He played football and ran track and field but said he was never great at either. He wishes he played more baseball because of his hand-eye coordination.
He wasn't the greatest student but made do, becoming the first in his family to graduate high school in 2004.
After graduation, Jones got a job as a forklift operator at flooring manufacturer Beaulieu of America. He took a few classes on and off for two semesters at Dalton State College but, realizing that years in the carpet mills or laying brick with his father was ahead of him, he decided to join the U.S. Marine Corps.
As an 18-year-old, Jones left for Parris Island, South Carolina, for basic training. Five years later, after a deployment to Iraq, he found himself in a neighborhood near the bazaar in the town of Safar in Afghanistan's Helmand Province.
It was August 2010 and Jones and his fellow bomb technicians, Staff Sgt. Eric Chir and Cpl. Daniel Greer, moved cautiously through the beige maze of streets and alleys before they approached dusty mud-brick huts and storage stalls, some holding spare parts, others with collapsed walls and roofs.
In the five days before, Jones and his bomb-disposal team had found more than 50 improvised explosive devices, commonly known as IEDs.
Jones said he liked working as a bomb tech because it combined the brute persona that comes with being a Marine and the analytical skills he had developed over the years.
On the sixth day, Jones and his team searched a stall the size of a walk-in closet. Inside, stacked tires and boxes were covering unassembled bomb-making pieces. Jones and the team found it and cleared the stall.
The three men walked across a 10-foot-wide alley behind the stalls and waited for their next task. Jones leaned his back against a 3-foot-tall wall, squatting slightly, briefly relieving the strain of 110 pounds of gear strapped to his body: water-filled pouches, ammo, food, a bulletproof vest, a metal detector, his rifle, a kit for marking bomb locations.
His skin damp with sweat from the heat, stress of the work and weight of the gear, he took a breather, if only for a moment. Minutes later, Joey readjusted his gear and stepped away from the wall to the right --and onto an IED.
GETTING BACK ON HIS FEET
Nine years later, Jones' story is well-documented.
The explosion took both of Jones' legs above the knees and caused severe damage to his right forearm and both wrists. Shrapnel sliced all over Chir's body and shock waves pounded Greer's brain – damage that later killed him.
Jones spent weeks at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, and then was assigned to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where he spent five weeks undergoing physical therapy and rehabilitation.
He had an incredibly tough time in the hospital. The feeling of helplessness often angered him, the countless surgeries were draining, and not being able to do the simple things by himself were frustrating. With confidence, perseverance and the support of his family and friends, he made it through.
After his rehab, Jones was fitted with permanent prosthetic legs. Just like anything else, he said, it took a lot to get used to, with years of rehabilitation and physical therapy. He then downplayed it a bit and compared it to having braces.
"At first you're super uncomfortable and after a while it's all you know," he said. "Sometimes I don't remember what it's like to have feet."
He deals with phantom limb pain, phantom limb sensations and nerve pain, the latter being the hardest to deal with.
"It feels a little bit like a knife and you made it electrified," he said. "I have that quite often."
Jones started making changes in his life after the accident. He ate healthier, quit drinking, stayed in shape, spent a lot of time at the gym and made sure he was both as mentally and physically healthy as possible.
As he recovered in the Washington, D.C., area, Jones officially retired from the service. In eight years of active service in the Marine Corps, he served combat deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He stuck around Washington and graduated from Georgetown University in 2014 with a degree in liberal studies and social and public policy. While in the nation's capital, he made a habit of making his way over to the U.S. Capitol Building and started introducing himself to politicians.
Without an official job, Jones would hang out on Capitol Hill and used his expertise and charm to get work with the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs. Early on, his contributions resulted in direct policy changes within the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense, including one that allowed severely wounded service members to remain on active duty while holding their critical skill jobs.
Jones made such a name for himself that in 2012 President Barack Obama invited him to the White House to discuss challenges facing active duty and retired service members.
Jones tells a story about when Obama asked him if there was anything he would have done differently while overseas.
"Anything?" Jones asked.
"Anything," Obama said.
"Well, Mr. President," Jones said. "I would have stepped left."
Over the last nine years, Jones has worn many hats, but none more prominent than the one he wears while working for multiple nonprofit organizations that help veterans and their families.
In the years since he retired, Jones moved to Texas to become the chief operation officer of Boot Campaign, a national nonprofit that helps raise money for veterans and their families. He also helped develop and pilot a Warrior Week military transition program as the senior advisor at singer Zac Brown's Camp Southern Ground.
Jones works as the senior advisor for military programming there and has since been lucky to call the country star a friend, he said.
Through his public speaking, nonprofit work and policy writing on Capitol Hill, Jones has found himself in some surreal situations.
One of those was on the set of Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln." Jones was cast as an injured soldier without a line, but on the day of shooting, someone told him to pretend like he was talking and to come up with a line.
"We didn't have a script or anything," Jones said. "They told me 'Don't worry, we're going to narrate over this."
When he saw the final cut of the film, there he was, standing alongside Daniel Day Lewis, one of his generation's greatest actors.
"Not only do I have a speaking line in the movie 'Lincoln,' I wrote the line," Jones said.
Day Lewis ended up attending Jones and his wife Meg's wedding in 2012 at the Historic Marine Corps Barracks 8th & I in Washington, along with NASCAR driver Kurt Busch.
"Everyone at our wedding from Dalton were falling over themselves to meet Kurt Busch. Everyone from D.C. were falling over themselves to meet Daniel Day Lewis," Jones said. "Those two groups of people did not know who the other celebrity was."
USING HIS VOICE FOR GOOD
Back at the high school on Tuesday morning, Assistant Principal and Athletic Director Mark Lentych escorted Jones from the parking lot to the school's gymnasium, where the entire student body waited for him to speak.
"I love you on Fox News," Lentych said. "I send your clips to my kids all the time."
Jones thanked him and added that it's nice to have a platform where he can speak confidently about things he's passionate about.
"There was a stretch there when I thought I'd be on there for the last time," Jones said. "But they kept inviting me back. I think I'm a little more docile than they're used to."
In July, Jones nabbed the most high-profile job of his career as a contributor to Fox News.
He contributes analysis and opinions on military and veterans services across all of Fox News' platforms. He's a regular guest on "Fox and Friends" and contributes columns to the network's news sites.
Jones compared going on live TV to his old job in the Marine Corps.
"When that green light turns on, it's a lot like being a bomb tech," he said. "I'm responsible for everything I do. I'm responsible for everything that comes out of my mouth."
Jones said he's proud to represent veterans on such a popular platform. He works hard, does his homework, makes sure to do his research before going on air and has learned a lot in his short time on air.
He's been featured on CNN, ABC's "Nightline," "CBS Evening News" and several other national news programs. He's been a part of short, televised debates on networks that lean both left and right, and he says he has learned from every one of them.
Jones said that even though he was raised a Republican and still holds many of those beliefs, he's more critical of the right these days because he wants to see the party the way he believes it should look: more civilized, earnestly patriotic and policy driven.
"When I go on television, I have one rule that I tell myself," he said. "Do not let my unique ability to form sentences outrun my experience and information."
Jones said he has no problem with saying he doesn't know the answer to something if he's asked.
"I wish my peers felt that way," he said. "In my opinion, most people who go on TV want to go on and impress other people that go on TV. Every time I go on TV, I think I'm talking to someone that has very little in common with me and does not agree with me."
There's an certain empathy that Jones brings to his broadcast interviews that are rooted in his military background. In the service, men and women have no choice but to see beyond where someone comes from or what they look like. There's no room for judgment or bias, Jones said, especially in the tight-knit atmosphere the Marine Corps creates.
When Jones was in the hospital, he ate lunch every day at noon. He would politely ask friends and family to leave so he could have some quiet time to himself.
"I would ask everyone to leave and then I would start cursing everyone," he said. "God, the devil, the Taliban, Obama, myself. Everyone I thought that could have responsibility for what happened to me."
Fifteen minutes would go by and he would will his positive attitude to return.
Jones has learned how to compartmentalize those moments. Today, he finds himself wrestling with negativity, especially in today's political climate. Jones said he has considered running for Congress but now isn't a good time.
"I want politics to be in a better place before I put myself there," he said. "I would love to be in Congress one day, but I'm still weighing [my options]. We'll see where the world is in a few years because I think it's changing."
Jones and his family live in Newnan, Georgia. He and Meg had a daughter four months ago and he is raising a 10-year-old boy with the boy's mother. He's a full-time Fox News contributor and the owner of his own company, JJJ Consulting.
For now, he'll stick to being the best husband, father, brother, son and political correspondent he can be.
"I believe I can be more honest, genuine and have a better impact in the media than I can in government right now," he said. "No two ways about it."
After the assembly and on his way to the honors class, Jones is stopped multiple times in the hallway by students and faculty. One girl gives him a handwritten Veterans Day card and asks for a photo, another shakes his hand and thanks him for his service.
As he turns the last corner, one final student stops him.
"Not a lot of people make it through something as difficult as what you did," the kid says.
Jones, all optimism, says that many people do make it through and are stronger on the other side.
The kid then makes a joke about being appreciative to get out of class for a bit.
"That's what I'm here for," Jones jokes back. "To put a smile on people's faces."
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