Following a lead can be rewarding
Fate, on occasion, has grabbed me like a pair of Vise-Grips, locked me up and screwed me down and demanded that I pay attention -- just before it begged me to accept an invitation.
It happened in mid-September 2001, when a businessman from Omaha named Rob Quillen sent me an email detailing his Sept. 10 Denver-to-Newark flight alongside Jason Dahl, the man who the next day would pilot United Flight 93 and ultimately die in a Shanksville, Pa., field amid the most devastating terrorist attack ever on American soil.
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Dahl's young son, Matt, had suffered from seizures and told his father he wanted to attend a NASCAR race and meet Jeff Gordon. Quillen and I worked with Gordon's foundation to facilitate the meeting at Kansas Speedway -- on a day when Gordon would ultimately win, no less.
At some layer my soul opened to a hunch. I took a flier, and the intuition proved correct. It felt right. And it was right. I felt that again this week, on a random Tuesday night on the shore around 10 or so. I was feeding my infant daughter and the room was pitch-black, save the flicker of the tube-television across the room and the scroll of the Twitter feed on my iPhone.
The first note aimed at me was a happy-birthday-retweet request. I obliged. Had it not been the first @-response in line, I might have missed it. Minutes later a new note popped in, in response to the birthday retweet, from a guy named Joey.
He said he admired my reporting and my style, and appreciates how I "beat to my own drum" and defend myself and don't pay undue mind to what anyone says about me, good or bad.
"I don't even need a RT," he wrote.
It piqued my interest. I checked his profile, which stated his name as Joey Jones and his occupation as a Marine bomb technician. I clicked his photograph. It would stop a train. The image was one of a young man in his 20s, seated, elbows on prosthetic knees, staring into the lens with blank intensity.
It was an image of defiance.
His expression, though stone-faced, screamed it: "Yeah, I got my legs blown off. Try me." The feet of his otherwise-exposed prosthetics were covered by sandy-hued combat boots. I needed to know this man's story. I asked him for it.
His reply was prompt: "Just got in a little tussle overseas. Came out nearly unscathed. Couldn't tell u about the other guy. He never showed his face."
Wow. I got his phone number and called him. He was two days shy of his 26th birthday. It is a conversation I will never forget.
Joey Jones has an indomitable spirit, the infectious kind that makes those he meets better people. He is an American hero of the highest order, a patriot and an inspiration on myriad levels.
Because of his heroism, he has a Purple Heart. And a Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal with Combat Valor award. And a Combat Action Ribbon. He also has a Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal, second award, and a Military Outstanding Volunteer Service Medal.
And because of his heroism, he has no legs.
They were blown off by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan.
Jones admits that could have been the beginning of the end of his story. He could wallow in self-pity. He's seen it happen to his brethren. He chooses instead to lift others emotionally through his experience and improve lives with a mental and emotional fortitude that should give us pause.
Upon graduation from high school, Jones' best friend coaxed him into joining the Marines. He admits he needed to grow up a bit and said that of all the service branches, the Marines boasted the toughest boot camp and the highest expectations. He was accustomed to hard sledding. His old man was a brick mason, and Jones had worked for his father throughout high school.
"I used to joke and tell people I hadn't had a hard day's work since I joined the Marine Corps," he said, laughing. "Working for my dad definitely set me up for success in the Marines. It taught me to enjoy a hard task instead of resenting it, and to enjoy completing something with your own hands."
By August 2010, Jones' hands were steady and true, deconstructing multiple intricate bombs every week. He was a 24-year-old Marine Corps bomb expert serving in one of the most violent, dangerous parts of Afghanistan. It was his third tour overseas and second in the Middle East conflict and by far, he said, the most active. His first two deployments, in 2007 and 2008, were relatively calm by comparison.
Before his 2010 deployment Jones had never had a friend get killed in action. But in June 2010, he received word that a blast had killed one friend and taken both legs from another.
"It was an eye opener for me," he said. "This was just 20 miles away, and two of my buddies got rocked really hard. My next experience, I got rocked."
In early August 2010, Jones explained that he and his partner, Cpl. Daniel Greer, had defused some 40 bombs in five days' time. He was mentally fried, and on Aug. 6 accidentally stepped on a pressure plate that served as an ignition trigger, setting off a huge explosion that would cost Jones both legs just above the knee. Greer died.
"I woke up in a hospital, and it was a completely different world from the one I knew," he said. "It was my new reality. And it seemed like every month after that, a really good buddy of mine would lose his legs or his life."
It takes a year to complete explosive ordnance disposal training. The Marines live together in the same neighborhood, are mostly all the same age and same rank. It's a close-knit group. Those who complete EOD school believe they have one of the most important jobs in the Marine Corps.
"There's a lot of camaraderie in that," Jones said. "And it was guys from my school getting hurt or killed all the time -- every month. It took a long time for that to not affect my week. We put nine guys on the wall last year, and seven or eight more this year."
"On the wall" is EOD code for killed in action.
"There are only 500 guys, total, in the Marine Corps EOD field," he continued. "You either know these guys personally or know of them. That's the toughest part."
Only weeks after his own accident, Jones' best friend died covering the area for which Jones and his partner were responsible before they were hit.
Jones figures he has undergone more than two dozen surgeries. He has endured excruciating pain, including "phantom pains" that he said feel like his toes are being crushed by a grinder and the grueling sensation that his feet are being twisted around backward.
None of this has slowed him down. He snowboards. He's an extra in "Lincoln," the film starring Daniel Day-Lewis as the 16th president of the United States, due out in December. Day-Lewis is a method actor, meaning he stays in character for the entire filming process -- even when off camera and even when off the clock.
Day-Lewis lived Abraham Lincoln, Jones said, to the degree that he carried a porcelain cup and saucer everywhere and every person on set -- from director Steven Spielberg on down -- was explicitly instructed to address him as "Mr. President." And above all else: no autographs and no pictures.
Spielberg wanted U.S. wounded warriors to portray wounded warriors in "Lincoln." Jones played a different role every day. He was a dead Confederate soldier lying in a battlefield one day and an amputee Union soldier in a hospital bed the next. The last day Jones was used in a White House scene, and several other wounded veterans joined him -- one of whom hadn't been briefed about the whole method acting thing. It got interesting.
The warriors were in a small room where Day-Lewis as Lincoln visited them individually, one at a time. Spielberg arranged the scene so that the wounded warriors would get some time on the big screen, and Jones, as the most injured of the group, was positioned on a bed right next to where Lincoln would sit. Day-Lewis was so deep in character that Jones swore Abraham Lincoln shook his hand.
That's not even the cool part. Jones explained that EOD students learn the methodical approach to improvised explosive devices used against the Irish Republican Army. Day-Lewis is Irish. It made for quite a conversation.
"We talked for two hours," Jones said. "It was amazing to learn how his past and my profession tied into each other."
Back to method acting: When shooting of the White House scene wrapped, the wounded warrior who hadn't been briefed asked for an autograph. Lincoln -- Day-Lewis -- looked puzzled, and said, "Why, yes. Yes you can. " Jones recalled Day-Lewis summoning his assistants to conjure up items to sign. Manila luggage tags and Sharpies arrived.
"He doesn't just write a signature, he writes a full note," Jones said. "It takes a while. He asked for everyone's names."
When it came his turn for some ink, Jones respectfully declined.
"I said to him, 'I just spent two hours getting to know you as a friend. I don't want to leave as a fan. That piece of paper means nothing. Our conversation does,'" Jones said. "He asked for my information. I gave him zip codes and phone numbers -- I made sure if he wanted to get to me he could. He sent me a long, poetic text. His texts changed over time, too, from 'AL' to 'DDL.' It took him three months to get out of being 'The President.'
"The craziest opportunities come at me from the craziest places," Jones continued with a chuckle. "Out of this, I have done some really cool things -- like developing a friendship with Daniel Day-Lewis. Here's the most reclusive actor in the world, and he texts me once a week."
One key opportunity came by way of the Armed Forces Foundation, by which Jones was invited to Las Vegas for the Salute Our Troops campaign. While there, he met AFF president Patricia Driscoll and Driscoll's boyfriend -- NASCAR driver Kurt Busch.
Jones cornered Driscoll. He wanted more, and asked to volunteer for AFF. He wanted to help the countless wounded warriors who struggled to transition back into society as well as he did.
"Patricia treated me like the person I am, not the injury I am," he said. "Not everyone gets hurt and never really misses a beat like I did. I never let myself believe I was down and out, or even down at all. So I want to help other guys get over the hump."
I noted quickly that Jones has an innate and rare ability to compartmentalize heartache. Tremendous heartache. He lost not only brothers in war but also his best childhood friend -- Sgt. Christopher McDonald -- to drug addiction and, ultimately, Jones said, suicide.
"Going through school, we thought he'd be president one day," Jones said. "Straight A's. The best fullback in the area. He could chew bullets. He was Superman. He had some troubles and emotional struggles in high school, but we were so young we didn't understand it, thought it was a phase that he couldn't deal with failure.
"Chris had two things going for him that ended up killing him: He did everything 110 percent, and he couldn't accept failure. That caused him success professionally but failure personally."
McDonald joined the Marine Reserves because his father was a Marine, Jones said. He was deployed to Iraq in 2008 and while overseas suffered a back injury that Jones explained required prescription pain killers. He got hooked, Jones said, and in March took his own life.
"I haven't been able to understand how I deal with these things. The people I lost in war -- that makes sense. That was war. It's the fact that Chris didn't have to die, and did, that is most troubling to me.
"I don't feel like I have [post-traumatic stress disorder], because the traumatic things I understand. They're in a certain place in my mind and that's where they'll stay."
Jones is a country boy from Dalton, Ga., and a lifelong NASCAR fan. That's how he found me. Naturally, he loves Awesome Bill Elliott. His grandfather ran moonshine down the mountain from Ellijay, Ga., to just north of Atlanta. That got him interested in dirt track racing and ultimately NASCAR -- a love he passed on to his sons, who passed it on to their children, including Joey.
Pawpaw raced a Dodge Dart and learned the shine trade from Popcorn Sutton, the ol' boy down the holler who ran the most famous white-lightnin' still this side of Wilkes County, N.C. Jones' uncle, incidentally, still races dirt cars at the local short track.
On Memorial Day Weekend 2011, Busch invited an AFF crew to his home in North Carolina, an outing that Jones and his fiancee, Meg, attended. Jones had been in the Marine Corps for eight years. He knew nothing about Busch other than that he was a champion. That's it.
When Jones arrived in North Carolina, Busch pointed to his fleet of jet skis and his pool.
"He just said, 'They're all yours,'" Jones said.
For two full days he and Busch never talked racing. Instead, Jones said Busch was eager to learn about his story and his recovery. Anywhere Jones wanted to go, he said Busch was attentive to helping. The relationship grew from there, to the point that Busch brought Jones along to the Nationwide Series event at Road America to spot for the No. 54 team.
Jones also had the fortune to bring his NASCAR-crazed family to Charlotte this year. Through the AFF, NASCAR invited Jones and Meg, his grandmother, dad, uncle and aunt to the Coca-Cola 600. It was magical for them.
"My grandmother probably said hello to Jeff Gordon a million times as he came in and out of the garage for practice," Jones said, laughing. "They were absolutely starstruck. They could meet Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt, and it wouldn't be close."
On Aug. 1, Jones received a promotion in the Marine Corps, and recently received the paperwork that enables him to leave the service if he so desires. He was recently accepted into undergraduate studies at Georgetown University. He hopes to work at the Pentagon and attend school. If he is granted that wish, he will remain enlisted. If not, he'll leave the Marines and be a student. He loves law and figures law school is an obvious choice for his future.
He will marry Meg in September in Washington, D.C., and is father to 3-year-old Braiden.
And he is an advocate for guys like him.
"It's a huge sense of fulfillment for me, because I feel like I can stand there, understand what they're going through, smile at them," he said. "I can't tell you it'll get better. I can't tell you it won't. But I can tell you that if you'll let it, today can be the worst day of your life if you'll put the effort into it.
"It's not about being fair. If you let yourself worry about fair, you'll drive yourself crazy. It may not be fair, but it's the way it is. You have to be able to segregate what you can change and control, and can't change and control. You can't change that you're in a wheelchair, but you can decide what you do from that wheelchair."
The enemy took Joey Jones' legs.
They could not touch his soul.
My spirit is richer and my priority scale better because I met him.
I'm glad I listened to fate.
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