He’s seen war up close.
He’s had to help students out of abusive family situations.
And he’s had to cope with his son’s suicide.
But Maj. Jeff McDonald’s personal pain doesn’t seem to encumber the U.S. Marine and educator of 30 years. On Thursday morning, McDonald, who is retiring from Whitfield County Schools at the end of the school year, was filled with nothing but joy, he said.
Southeast Whitfield High School staff and students went to great lengths to salute his service as a veteran and as an educator during Senior Honors Day, a time of reflecting on graduates who are leaving the school system.
McDonald said he thought his own farewell would be simple. Some words and maybe a few hugs. Then he saw the Marine escort enter the Southeast gym to present an American flag, one that had been flown over Congress in Washington, D.C., in his honor.
Then he saw his family.
Then he saw a former student — a “second son” — named Joey Jones.
“Lord, that was just something,” he said. “I didn’t have any idea any of them would be here.”
Jones, also a Marine, met McDonald in the late 1990s when McDonald coached at Eastbrook Middle School, before he taught broadcast and engineering classes at Southeast. Jones said McDonald’s “passion” for the military is why he enlisted. During sixth grade, Jones remembered McDonald showing students a slide show of his time fighting in Kuwait during the Gulf War.
“Without that slide show I would not have had the courage to go into the Marine Corps when I did in 2005,” Jones said. “And although I lost my legs in Afghanistan there’s not one day, one minute, one second, one lesson in the Marine Corps that did not enhance my life one hundred fold over the physical injury I suffered.”
Jones, who served in the Iraq War, lost both his legs in 2010 when he stepped on an explosive device during a bomb disposal mission. Today though? Jones is graduating from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. He came back to north Georgia for a quick visit after Chris Anderson, a Coahulla Creek High School teacher, contacted him about the plan to surprise McDonald.
McDonald said he sees a bright political future for Jones. Maybe even a presidency.
“This kid is going to make it,” he said. “That’s what motivates me. When I can touch kids like that and get them fired up.”
Both McDonald and Jones knew that there was an absence Thursday. Chris McDonald, Jones’ “best friend” and McDonald’s son, returned from the Iraq War with wartime post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In March 2010, Chris took his life. He was 25.
“He came back all messed up,” Maj. McDonald said. “Joey tried to help him, we all tried to help.”
Jones and McDonald are active in raising awareness about the psychological impact war can have on soldiers. They both act as advocates for several organizations including the Armed Forces Foundation, the Boot Campaign and Wounded Warriors.
McDonald said he’s likely to rest after the end of the school year and already has a part-time job lined up to work with computers, something he enjoys.
“I’ve just had a lot of personal tragedy in my life. I’m dealing with a lot right now,” he said. “And I think it would be good for me to just close this chapter in my life and go on and do something else.”
And while his retirement is bittersweet, Thursday morning “felt really good,” McDonald said.
“It meant someone realized what I’ve been trying to do all these years,” he said.
He’s seen war up close.
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