published Sunday, October 24th, 2010

A terrible cost

War took a young Marine's legs, but not his heart

Story by Todd South and photos by Angela Lewis

Joseph Jones was in his workshed, slathering green paint on a patio bench, one of the odd jobs he takes because the brick-laying business is slow.

A relative’s voice stopped his brushstrokes.

“Joe, I don’t want to be the one to tell you this, but there are some Marines here to see you.”

Joseph stepped outside and, across the dead-end road in Dawnville, Ga., spotted his wife on the front porch of their red-brick house. Next to her were men with short-cropped hair, khaki shirts and blue pants.

He went numb. Their presence could mean only one thing.

Joyce Jones stood inches away from the Marines. They were saying something, but her thoughts were on what her son told her a few days before.

“Don’t worry about me because, even if I get a nick on my finger, the Marine Corps will call you. If you see them coming down the driveway, then worry.”

Before the Marines could speak, Joyce told them, “No, you’re at the wrong place, just leave. It can’t be my child. It’s not my son. I know it’s not.”

She slammed her right fist into a brick wall so hard it broke her pinky finger.

Frozen in place, Joseph didn’t want to walk from the shed to the house. He didn’t want to cross the long, green lawn just to hear that his only son had died thousands of miles away in Afghanistan.

“It just hit me. It was like I didn’t have any feelings,” he remembered. “Like I was an empty shell. I just knew what they were going to say — that he was gone.”

As Joseph climbed the porch, one of the Marines read a checklist, asking the parents to confirm the name, address, date of birth and Social Security number of their son — Sgt. Joey Jones.

Joseph listened for a few seconds, then lost patience.

“Is it my son?” he demanded, his voice rising. “Is it my son or not?”

“Yes sir,” the Marine said.

“Is he dead or is he alive?” Joseph asked.

“He’s alive, but he’s in bad shape.”

Two days later, the phone rang in the Jones house. Joyce picked it up and heard her 24-year-old son’s weak voice from a hospital in Germany.

“Momma, I’m coming home,” he said. “Or most of me is.”

On Aug. 6, Joey and his fellow bomb technician, Staff Sgt. Eric Chir, entered the neighborhood near the bazaar in the town of Safar in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province.

Moving cautiously, slowly, step-by-step through the beige maze of streets and alleys, they approached dusty mud-brick huts and storage stalls, some holding spare parts, others with collapsed walls and roofs.

They were looking for bombs.

And bombs were everywhere.

In five days, Joey and his bomb-disposal team had found more than 50 improvised explosive devices — the dreaded IEDs — in the bazaar and surrounding neighborhood. Disarming or destroying one IED a day was the norm until recently.

On this day, the usually busy bazaar was a ghost town. Five days before, two battalions of Marines swept through, clearing out the residents, merchants and probably some insurgents, making it easier for Joey, Chir and others to search the 2-square-mile area.

Most days, the bazaar was a social junction where tribes from the region came to trade food, tools, animals and information. Joey’s commanding officers told him the market held the key to stopping the flow of Taliban fighters, weapons and money into the province. With a mixture of people traveling through and the caravans of goods that traders exchange, there were countless ways to hide almost anything — even people — and transport them across the territory.

For days, Marines and soldiers had scoured the market and its hard-packed sandy footpaths, looking for any signs of bombs or weapons.

When they saw anything suspicious, they called Joey and his team, who hustled over and scanned with metal detectors, probing where their devices would ping, searching for deadly surprises.

“IEDs were laced everywhere,” Joey recalled. “Where we were operating before, there was an IED here and there ... [but] in the Safar bazaar, the IEDs were placed in roads and alleys, everywhere.”

The homemade bombs are cheap-but-deadly weapons whose use has risen steadily over the nine-year war in Afghanistan. In 2002, IEDs accounted for about 16 percent of the U.S. deaths in the country, but in 2009 and so far this year, they’ve accounted for about 60 percent of deaths, according to Department of Defense numbers.

Materials to make the bombs are limited only by the bomb maker’s imagination. Some are simple, 2-foot-wide pieces of wood separated by a rudimentary electrical circuit and packed with five pounds or more of homemade explosive, often cooked up using crop fertilizer.

Insurgents and Taliban fighters bury the bombs among rows of wheat, near trails that sheep have cut through grazing fields, along mountain paths and in village markets.

Anywhere a soldier might step.

***

On their sixth day in Safar, Joey and Chir got their first call of the morning — to investigate a line of storage stalls on a corner at the market.

  • photo
    Therapists Liron Silbert, right, laughs as Sgt. Joey Jones jokes around while she and Stephanie McCorvey, left, work with him at the naval hospital.

Joey said Chir was his “partner-in-crime.” Except for Joey’s short assignment in the northern part of the province, the pair had been side-by-side each day, trudging through fields and riding in helicopters and armored trucks.

When the two arrived at the mud-brick stalls to search for bomb parts, Cpl. Daniel Greer, a 25-year-old Marine reservist and firefighter from Ashland City, Tenn., was waiting. He and his team of engineers had spotted bomb parts.

Joey had met Greer, father of a toddler son, earlier in his tour. The pair had become friends quickly and joked often to keep a light mood during long assignments.

Inside a stall the size of a walk-in closet, stacked tires and boxes couldn’t hide the unassembled bomb-making pieces that Joey and Chir spotted. They searched the rest of the building and found nothing else.

Their work done, the three men walked across the 10-foot-wide alley behind the stalls and waited for their next task. Joey 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.

And onto an IED.

“Everything went white. Sound went away,” he said. “I felt my body moving, but I didn’t know what was going on.”

The bomb blast flung Joey, Chir and Greer nearly 30 feet. Shrapnel sliced all over Chir’s body and shockwaves pounded Greer’s brain — damage that later killed him.

Joey hit the ground and opened his eyes.

“I could tell I’d lost my legs.”

ABOUT THE STORY

Staff writer Todd South, photographer Angela Lewis and videographer Patrick Smith traveled to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., in early September to spend two days with Sgt. Joey Jones and his family. While there, the Times Free Press team was able to capture photos and videos and interview the family and care providers about Joey’s wounds and recovery.

The Times Free Press has kept in contact with the Jones family and is committed to following Joey’s Journey through his recovery as well as the work his family, friends and the Dawnville, Ga., community are doing while he progresses.



Joey Jones at a glance

Dawnville, Ga., native Sgt. Joey Jones is a bomb disposal technician who deployed to Afghanistan from March until August with 1st EOD Company, 1st Marine Logisitics Group, I Marine Expeditionary Force. He is currently assigned to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where he is undergoing physical therapy and rehabilitation.

Marines rushed to him, tightening tourniquets on what was left of his legs — nothing below the knees.

Blood and tissue hung from Joey’s right forearm, his hand flopping. His left wrist bones were dislocated. The right arm had split open, the radius bone crushed, his hand hanging, unable to move under his control.

“Don’t let them take my hand; secure my hand,” he yelled.

He shouted out his kill number, a combination of blood type and other numbers that troops are trained to repeat out loud when they’re hit.

“JJEOD0007OPOS,” he screamed over and over.

He grabbed the nearest Marine, pulled him down with his left hand and asked him to say the Lord’s Prayer. He instructed the Marine to tell his family that he loved them and he’d see them again one day.

He woke up days later, alone in a military hospital in Germany, disoriented, tubes sticking out of his body.

Doctors had kept him stable, replaced pints of blood and injected medication to numb the pain before he could fly back to the United States and start rounds of surgeries on his legs and hands. He was in Germany for two or three days — he can’t quite remember — before returning to the United States.

His mother remembers the first phone call from her son in Germany.

“I told him. ‘You’re coming home baby, that’s the main thing,’” she recalled. “And you’re alive.”

***

As a child, Joey raced four-wheelers in the forest and played football on the lawn in front of his parents’ house, nestled in a rural cul-de-sac ringed by tall pines, hardwoods and dogwoods.

Joseph and Joyce saved for nearly a decade to build the house that would replace their trailer.

  • photo
    Sgt. Joey Jones concentrates as he tries to keep control of a ball in his physical therapy session.

Joey graduated from Southeast Whitfield High School in 2004 and 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.

As far as he could see, the hard-charging days of high school football, playing defensive end and tight end, were behind him. Years in the carpet mills or laying brick with his father loomed ahead.

His high school sweetheart, Meg Garrison, the cheerleader one year behind him in school, had had enough. She’d been there for him since his junior year, someone he could spend hours playing board games with, a part of his family from the start.

But Joey drifted aimlessly, drank too much and gave up college to work more shifts for gas money. He ignored Meg.

She broke it off and gave him the cold shoulder when he tried to make up.

“There was a long time that I pushed him away,” she said. “I think at that point we were starting to have some problems; we weren’t getting along.”

Joey had flirted with the military, talked with family friends who had served, visited recruiters multiple times, but hadn’t made up his mind.

Then one day, lying on an emergency room table as an attendant stitched his head after a fight with a friend, one thought rattled around his brain.

“This isn’t it,” he told himself. “If I want this girl back, this isn’t how I do it.”

He looked at his parents standing beside him in the hospital and knew they had sacrificed too much to give him an opportunity to make something out of his life.

“That was pretty much the defining moment, laying on that table,” he said.

His parents initially fought his decision to join the Marines.

“My mom took it pretty hard,” he remembered.

With wars raging in Iraq and Afghanistan and caskets arriving back in the United States each week, they couldn’t understand why their only son would want to put himself in such danger.

But on April 24, 2005, Joey left for Parris Island, S.C. He was 18 years old.

***

Two years later, after working on a security team for bomb disposal units in Hawaii, he landed in Iraq on his first combat tour.

In Iraq’s Al-Anbar province — where U.S. troops faced regular attacks from insurgents — Joey’s team guarded bomb units during missions. He manned a .50-caliber machine gun, standing in a turret atop a mine-resistant truck that rolled out with bomb technicians to investigate an explosion or disarm roadside bombs.

The first time he saw the aftermath of an explosion, the image stuck.

  • photo
    Sgt. Joey Jones, right, talks with his mom, Joyce Jones, in his hospital room.

An Iraqi Army pickup truck had hit a roadside bomb. The hull of a white Ford Ranger lay torn open like a can of tuna. Charred metal and bloodstains dotted the wreckage strewn along the road.

“It made me recognize what was at stake and what could happen to me,” he recalled. “It just brought home the idea of getting blown up by an IED.”

Joey realized that other Marines, soldiers, Iraqis and their children lived because the bomb techs put themselves between the bombs and others, risking their own lives each time.

He made another decision about his future and, after his eight-month deployment in Iraq, he was accepted at the Eglin Air Force Base bomb disposal school near Destin, Fla.

After graduating from the bomb school, Joey was sent to Afghanistan. In the third month of his tour, Joey saw a Marine trigger an IED as he was leading a bomb-sniffing dog across a footbridge. The blast hurtled the Marine into the canal and killed the dog.

Joey jumped in and pulled the screaming Marine’s face out of the water.

“He was yelling and his face just looked like blood,” Joey remembered. “And when I got him up out of the water, I saw his legs were intact, [and that was] a big sigh of relief right there. That was a really good moment, because I didn’t want him to lose his legs. ... I didn’t want to see that.”

A little more than a month later, Joey would be the Marine carried from the battlefield.

***

Joey’s family arrived at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., the day after he did. Meg traveled with them, having reconnected with Joey while he was in Afghanistan.

Joseph’s voice cracked as he remembered seeing tubes “coming out everywhere” and massive amounts of painkillers pumping into his son’s body.

“We didn’t know whether he’d make it or not,” Joseph said. “He was just tore up so bad.”

For the first time in a long time, Joseph prayed. The whole family prayed.

  • photo
    Sgt. Joey Jones crosses the street with parents Joyce and Joseph on his way back to his hospital room after visiting the commissary.

Doctors had Joey on a cocktail of painkillers that was five times the amount his mother received for her injured hand. But it wasn’t the pain that bothered Joey most. It was what he couldn’t do.

The once-6-foot, 185-pound Marine needed help bathing, brushing his teeth, opening a bottle of water.

“I can take the mutilation, because I know there is a light at the end of this tunnel,” Joey said. “But being a burden to the people that I love ... the way I show love is doing things for people.”

With his mother having to bathe him, he would tell her he had no dignity left.

She would shake her head.

“Son, I have bathed this body since Day One, so it’s nothing new to me. I’m momma. You don’t have to worry about your dignity with me.”

Joyce manages a tired smile and clutches a golden Jesus that hangs from her neck. It hurts to see her son’s pain, but she’s happy he’s alive.

In the first weeks, Joey allowed only his father to lift him onto the toilet and off again. The weight pained Joseph some, but he couldn’t let on to his son.

“He’d ask me every time, ‘Now Daddy, if this hurts don’t do it, we’ll figure out some other way to do it,” Joseph said. “But I didn’t tell him; I just kept doing it.”

The feeling of helplessness angered Joey.

“He’d get mad sometimes. He’d say, ‘Hell, I can’t even wipe my own ass,’” Joseph said. “He said, ‘It’s all on account of one step, and now look at me.’”

Months later, at home in Dawnville, Joseph does what he knows — working with his hands. He’s tearing up brush and cutting down small trees to make room for an addition to their family home. They want to build a place for Joey to stay, where he can drive his wheelchair around and continue his physical therapy.

On a recent afternoon, Joseph looked for Joey’s dress blue uniform so his son could attend a Marine ceremony.

“My wife wanted me to find his shoes, too, but I don’t know what for.”

Tears come.

“I suppose they might put some kind of legs on him and let him wear them.”

Joseph paused.

“I don’t know, I guess things happen for a reason, but I hadn’t figured out the reason yet.”

***

Stephanie McCorvey, a physical therapist at the naval hospital in Bethesda, knelt beside Joey as he perched in a planklike position on the bed. His cast-encased forearms held him up as he moved his torso from side to side to build strength.

A sheen of sweat covered his face. It was midafternoon in September.

“How many is that Joey?” she asked.

“Seven,” he said.

“Push, push, push, push. All the way through,” McCorvey said.

Once he finished the exercise, Joey told her he was in pain.

“Where’s the pain?” McCorvey asked.

“In my right leg,” he replied. “Actually it’s in … it’s like it’s on my ankle.”

“You’re experiencing phantom pain,” McCorvey explained.

She lightly slapped around the sides and end of the stump of his right leg, using both hands to drum a steady pat-pat-pat rhythm on his flesh.

The drumming is a desensitization technique that tricks the severed nerve endings, she explained. Touching, slapping, stroking or rubbing gives the nerves a sensation other than pain to recognize.

Inches from where she touched, swaths of skin on his thighs are different shades of red and purple, a patchwork of skin folded over on itself, sealed off. The healing spots of skin grafts are just a few of the more than a dozen surgeries Joey’s had over the previous five weeks.

In a few minutes, Joey was ready for more exercises.

He rolled from his belly to his back, his face turning red as he mounted a rubbery balance ball atop the bed.

A captain from his bomb school stood outside the door.

“I don’t have balance like that,” the captain said.

“You cut your legs off and find it, I guess,” Joey replied with a grin. “I had two left feet. I didn’t need them anyway.”

***

While Joey finished the routine and climbed back into his motorized chair, his sister, Marsha Jones, and grandmother, Barbara Jones, waited outside in the hall, peeking in. They had just flown in from Georgia.

Barbara’s hands shook. She had driven here weeks before and had seen Joey feeble and sedated. She stayed with him all night, cared for him.

This time, she had flown in an airplane for the first time in her 71 years to see her grandson, the one she calls “Goober.” She stepped quickly into the room, hugging him.

TO HELP

The Jones family is trying to raise at least $50,000 to help pay for a wheelchair-accessible addition to their house so Sgt. Joey Jones can be with his family while continuing his therapy.

The family is working with local contractors to build the addition but still needs money to pay for materials and some labor.

To donate to the Joey Jones Benefit Fund, contact any Regions Bank.

“How was the airplane?” Joey asked, his eyes fatigued from the day, yet bright at the sight of his sister and “Nanny.”

“It was fine,” she said, her voice muffled in his shoulder as she hugged him harder.

She drew back to look at him.

“I look a little bit better, don’t I?” he asked.

Tears moistened her eyes. She touched his face gently and just nodded.

His head down, half a smile on his lips, he said, “We’ll get there.”

All admit that Joey’s traumatic injury has drawn the family closer. Joseph, a lifelong bricklayer, struggled in recent years to find work, driving him to drink. He now leads the family in prayer and finds purpose in staying healthy and sober for his son and helping him recover.

Marsha, 34, is amazed by her little brother, who used to lie on the floor and kick her bedroom door, begging to hang out with her and her teenage friends.

“He wants to get better so he can come back and take care of his family,” she said.

It took Joey’s first combat tour in Iraq for him to appreciate the treasure he left behind in Dawnville.

“I’d been away for a couple years, and I just realized what a wonderful family I had compared to what some of my friends had.”

To remind him of what waited at home no matter what happened, he had the word “Family” tattooed across the middle of his chest, just below his collarbones. Underneath that is the phrase “Unconditional Love.”

On Joey’s floor at the naval hospital, other fresh-faced young men, who would look more in place at a prom or high school football game, moved through the halls in wheelchairs, some with blank stares as families followed, filling the air with encouraging words.

IEDs in Afghanistan

Incidents

2007: 2,677

2008: 3,867

2009: 8,206

2010: 5,921 (as of June)

Coalition deaths

2007: 77

2008: 183

2009: 322

2010: 182

Coalition wounded

2007: 415

2008: 790

2009: 1,813

2010: 1,303

Source: Joint Improvised Explosive Defeat Organization

Few of the wounded smiled as they passed. Most looked ahead, wheeled to the next appointment, the next test, the next doctor, needle, chart.

Joey joked with nurses and care providers.

“I’ve got some shoes for sale. Won’t be needing them anymore,” he told a woman with the Marine Corps liaison office who stopped by to remind him of college classes he can take.

Back in his room, Joey kept the atmosphere light. While his relatives often sat quietly or talked to each other in murmurs and whispers, Joey cracked jokes, playfully prodding.

It’s his responsibility to “break the ice,” he said, to say “let’s be normal again,” his nearly ever-present grin a way to give back to the family.

“It’s harder to see them hurt than to hurt myself,” he said.

***

There are times though when Joey realizes he is now a double amputee and life is forever changed.

“I look in the mirror sometimes and just don’t recognize myself,” he said. “Sometimes you think of the memories of just six months ago ... what kind of person you were and how you became so strong. And now you’re no better than a child. ... It’s hard.”

Joey’s Facebook page lists his activities as motocross, volleyball, learning to snowboard, riding his street bike, working out and running — all things he cannot do, at least for now.

Most of his thoughts focus on day-by-day routine and recovery. But when he thinks of the future, he thinks of Meg and his son, Braiden, the child he fathered with another woman while he and Meg were split up.

Only a year old, Braiden likely will not remember his father as he was before the blast. Joey’s preparing for that, envisioning tough questions and emotions.

“Dad’s going to be different than all the other dads in a bunch of ways,” he said. “There are going to be times in [Braiden’s] life when he’s going to have a problem with that; it’s going to bother him.”

Meg steadies Joey like a rock, but he worries how much she can take.

“It bothers me every day, but I also have faith in her, and I believe her when she says ‘I got this’ and ‘I’m here for you.’”

A few weeks ago, Joey posted “Remember the man I used to be” on his Facebook page. Nearly two dozen responses followed in the minutes, hours and days afterward, all encouraging.

“I do want my friends to remember how hard I worked and what I was once, because I may never be that again,” he said.

Meg doesn’t flinch at this comment. When she first saw Joey in the hospital bed, just days after he nearly died, all she could feel was gratitude.

“It was kind of overwhelming, but at the same time I was just glad that he was alive,” she said.

Months later, she’s with him nearly every day, sometimes caring for him when a nurse is not around. As a waitress at a Dawnville restaurant her mother manages, getting time off isn’t a problem.

Through the ordeal, she’s gained perspective on her own life and the growing up she needs to do at age 23.

“I kind of look at it as we’re at a prolonged red light,” she said. “There are going to be ways for him to do anything he wants to do.”

***

Joey has been recuperating for nearly five weeks at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, a few miles from his first stop at the naval hospital.

Three weeks ago, he took his first steps on temporary prosthetic legs — 6-inch-long aluminum tubes strapped to customized fittings where once he had knees. Steadily plodding on a treadmill, leaning his cast-covered forearms on the bars for support, his “sea legs” are much shorter and simpler than what he’ll eventually wear.

But he must master them before getting his permanent legs, complete with responsive knee joints that will move with him and adjust if he is walking up stairs or on a flat surface.

Meanwhile, his hands and wrists also must heal so he can use them to catch himself when he falls.

Most of his days are spent waiting, resting and healing between checkups and physical therapy appointments. On weekends and some evenings, he gets to leave the hospital with family or friends, see the Washington, D.C., area or eat at a restaurant.

Joey has seen other wounded soldiers sulking and feels the difficulties of the disabled. Giving in would be easier, letting his existence be swallowed like pain pills and feeling sorry for himself.

“Right now I’m a bilateral amputee. But what can I be?” he said. “I can be a bilateral amputee that walks on prosthetics that takes care of himself.”

Determined not to dwell on what used to be, Joey has set goals. Some are as simple as getting through the day, and others more long term — staying in the Marines and returning to duty.

But one hovers above all others.

“I will walk again.”

Contact Todd South at tsouth@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347.

about Todd South...

Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...

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Comments do not represent the opinions of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, nor does it review every comment. Profanities, slurs and libelous remarks are prohibited. For more information you can view our Terms & Conditions and/or Ethics policy.
bjhuds said...

What a great story of strength and determination. This young man is one of so many heroes that are serving our country everyday. We should all be thankful for him and all the other men and women sacrificing themselves for our freedom. I will continue to follow this story and Joey's journey to recovery. Thank you so much for allowing us to share this with you.

October 24, 2010 at 9:26 a.m.
dbarto said...

Thanks for publishing such a fabulous story on Joey. I was one of Joey's teachers in high school, and am so proud of him. I was proud of the work he chose to do when he enlisted, and I continue to be proud of his strength and determination to recover and be all the man that he was before the accident, and more!

October 24, 2010 at 3:56 p.m.
joy said...

I want to thank everyone for all their prayers, support and for every thought. There is no way to return all the kindness everyone has shown our family since my son's injuries except to "Pay It Forward". The outpour has been phenomenal. I pray daily for our troops in all branch's of service for their safety and protection. We can't understand why bad things happen to good people, we just have to keep the Faith and know that God will turn it into good. My son is not finished yet, I know in my heart that God has a work for him still yet and he will continue to do what he is called to do. Again thank you from the depths of our hearts and please keep praying for him because I believe thats where he gets his strenght. I also want to thank Chattanooga Times Free Press for there interest and all the hard work they are doing by keeping the updates on my son and his recovery.

October 28, 2010 at 6:17 p.m.
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