In 2014, it’s sometimes difficult to find an encouraging, let alone uplifting, news story. As we welcome in a new year I felt it my responsibility and continued service to this resilient community to share with you some good news about each and every one of you.
When I left Dalton in 2005, a graduate of Southeast Whitfield High School and tenured football player, I really had no idea what I was in for. As many of you may already know, after graduating high school and working in a local carpet mill for a few months, I joined the Marine Corps and soon after became a bomb tech working in Iraq and Afghanistan. My dad was a brick mason and I still joke today that I haven’t known a real hard day’s work since leaving Dalton.
In 2010, on my third deployment, five months of disarming bombs in the southern Helmand Province of Afghanistan came to an end when I stepped on an improvised explosive device (IED). In one step, my life and the lives of those closest to me were changed forever.
When I woke up in Germany a few days later, both of my legs had been amputated above the knee, my right arm was in pieces without any feeling and my left wrist was crushed. All in all, you could say I was having a bad year.
Not long after arriving in Washington, D.C., the postcards, letters, get-well-soons and thank-you-for-your-service messages came piling in. Throughout the toughest time in my life — as I struggled to achieve the simplest goals of feeding myself, pushing my own wheelchair or just lowering my pain meds to regain my sense of humor — you all were there with me. Taped to the walls and on the screen of my first iPad were images of people back home: preachers and teachers, cops and firemen, business owners and neighbors, family and friends, strangers and concerned citizens, all there to support me and keep me charging on. Local news outlets drove all the way to Washington to film and interview me, not just because I was injured, but because you all cared!
I can’t fully convey to each of you how invaluable you were to me during that time nor can I explain how wonderful it is to see you all around town when I come home to visit. I can, however, write this small letter of appreciation and acknowledgment to my home, my people. Since my injury in 2010, I have lived in and around Washington, D.C. However, you all have continued to be a part of my life.
I was fortunate enough to become a mentor to similarly injured wounded warriors. As they struggled through the unknowns of life after injury, my duty was to show them firsthand that amputation does not, and cannot, equate to limitation. With your support and encouragement, I became the first severely wounded enlisted Marine to advise Congress by working as a fellow for the House Veterans Affairs Committee. Please don’t hold them against me. I tried, really hard.
My wife Meg and I were invited to have dinner with President Barack Obama for our achievements at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. During dinner that night he asked me one of the most important questions of my life: “What would you do with Afghanistan?”
You see, it wasn’t the context, nor the subject, but rather the message that literally hit close to home for me. The president of the United States asked what I would do with Afghanistan, a hypothetical question at best. My answer was honest and simple: “I can’t speak for all of the region, but where we were, we worked hard to change people’s lives for the good. We empowered them with the security and motivation to create and maintain their own infrastructure, schools, laws and occupations.”
In this simple and direct answer to the most powerful man in the world, I realized these same words resonated with my real passion, my home. I am living proof that the unfairness of life does not equate to the happiness of life. I can’t control the amount of dollars each of you have in your bank account, nor can I justify the disproportionate amount of hardships many of you endure, but I can share with you the lessons I’ve learned.
There are very few obstacles that hard work and determination cannot overcome. Since losing my legs, I have learned to snowboard, acted in the film “Lincoln,” befriended an Academy Award-winning actor as well as the entire NASCAR community, married my high school sweetheart and learned to walk alongside my little boy.
I am a daddy, a husband, a student, a Marine and, most importantly, a forward-looking, contributing member of the greatest society this world has ever known. With a local high school education I will graduate from Georgetown University in the spring and apply to some of the top law schools in the country. I now work with various organizations, industries, celebrities and public figures who each see the value of communities, not unlike our own, in helping save and improve the lives of our severely wounded and returning heroes.
As a son of north Georgia, I have carried the lessons you all taught me through an extensive career in the military and to all four corners of the world. The truth is we are doing it right. People everywhere are taken aback by our consistent respect for other human beings and personal humility. When our neighbors are down we pick them up, when we can’t help them in any other way we simply say, “It’s OK, we’re in this together.”
With 2014 comes the same uncertainty as any new year. Many of us will continue to struggle to pay the bills and earn a living. However, in this community, we face challenges together, we gather in a church, a barn or a VFW and auction our household goods or sell plates of homemade spaghetti to donate to a family in need.
Our community is rooted in occupations that turn raw materials into household necessities. We work hard to provide for our families, and this entire country relies on this small town’s incredible production.
In welcoming the new year, I ask you to take a moment and congratulate yourselves. Your hard work has made our small dot on this enormous map one that counts.
Most importantly I want to thank you. Thank you for supporting each other, and giving this humble Marine a hometown, and personal character, to be proud of.
Happy New Year and God bless you and God bless America.
Retired U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Johnny “Joey” Jones is a Whitfield County native. He now resides in Arlington, Va.