published Sunday, August 7th, 2011

Year of progress, year of pain

Meg Garrison and Sgt. Joey Jones enjoy a few minutes of downtime before Jones gets ready to go to his internship in Washington, D.C.
Meg Garrison and Sgt. Joey Jones enjoy a few minutes of downtime before Jones gets ready to go to his internship in Washington, D.C.
Photo by Angela Lewis.
  • Joey's Journey: Pain through progress
    Watch the year-long journey of U.S. Marine Sgt. Joey Jones, who lost both his legs to an IED explosion in Afghanistan Aug. 6, 2010.
Joey's Journey Multimedia Page

SILVER SPRING, Md. — Marine Sgt. Joey Jones begins his day like most everyone else, getting dressed for work. But before he picks out a shirt, tie, belt and pants combo, he must assemble the bottom half of his body.

In the living room of a 14th-floor apartment, he sits in his black, padded wheelchair, delicately placing cotton bandages over small sores on the stump of his right thigh. His fiancée, Meg Garrison, walks back and forth from the kitchen, rinsing, wiping and drying rubber sleeves that snug over what’s left of his legs, torn off above both knees on Aug. 6, 2010, when he stepped on an improvised explosive device while clearing bombs out of a civilian market in Afghanistan.

A neatly synchronized team, Jones and Garrison hand each other the morning tools, securing the rubber sleeves, tightening a nut on his prosthetics, attaching his robotic leg to his stump.

The routine has shortened from nearly three hours in the early stages of Jones’ recovery to about an hour, but Jones still gets frustrated with the time it takes him to do normal things.

“You look at what you have to do and think, ‘I can get that done in 10 minutes,’” he says. “An hour later, you’re struggling with the last thing.”

But the changes amaze Garrison, 24, who has been with Jones nearly the entire year since the blast.

“I can remember when standing on [the legs] for one hour at a time was a big deal or when 30 minutes was a big deal,” she says. “It makes me feel good to know that he’s there again.”

Despite the mechanical chores of their mornings, Garrison sees them as little different than any other couple who gets up each morning for their workday lives.

“There’s nothing abnormal about our life except that he has to wake up in the morning and put his legs on,” she says.

“We’re a normal couple,” Garrison says. “This impacted him, but he’s overcome it. We have a normal life; we live independently in an apartment complex outside a big city.”

Jones, 25, is a little more clear-eyed about the differences between their days and those of most others.

“The morning routine is everything but routine,” he says. “We had to learn that.”

After getting through the less-than-routine routine, he’ll don a light-blue shirt, a striped gray suit and top it off with a gold-and-silver patterned tie. Brown slip-on dress shoes and belt finish off the sergeant’s new uniform.

He’s headed to Congress.

The marble halls he walks now are far removed from the dusty Safar Bazaar market in southern Afghanistan where he lost his legs or the hospitals in which he clung to life over a maddening handful of days followed by months of surgery.

Family and friends prayed that he’d live through the trauma and the rehab and the mental strain and find some sense of normality on the other side. With Jones suited up for office work, the smartphone-tapping staffers in Congress would have a hard time telling that, less than a year ago, he could barely sit up on his own in a hospital bed.

If all goes well, he’ll run and hand-cycle the Marine Corps Marathon this fall, just a year after his release from intensive care.

But most days, his battlefield now calls for a tie, a phone and a gracious greeting, but he still has a mission — he’s fighting for his fellow wounded.

“Some of us fought two wars, some of us fought three,” he says. “I fought one in Iraq, Afghanistan and at Walter Reed [Army Medical Center].”

A warrior without legs is still a warrior.

Tug of war

After showing his government ID to the guard, who lowers metal barricades embedded in the street, Jones drives his 2011 black Ford F-250 into the parking lot behind the building where he works, just two blocks from the U.S. Capitol. Garrison sits in the passenger seat.

Once parked, Jones slides out of the truck and sidesteps to the front hood as Garrison grabs his backpack and jacket. His prosthetic feet have slipped slightly inside the shoes and he needs her help keeping them in place.

As Jones leans against the front of the truck, Garrison kneels behind him, quickly refitting the heels. He can’t feel what she’s doing, but suddenly — shooting stars.

The stars are what Jones calls his “phantom pains,” excruciating agony many amputees feel. He has described it as though his legs are still there but crushed and twisted beneath him.

The pains come less frequently now, maybe a couple of times a day. But there’s little warning and they hit hard, lasting sometimes as long as 15 to 20 minutes.

Garrison has finished with his feet, but he has snapped at her slightly. She gives him a hard look for just a moment. Some frustration is expected; no one can read minds.

Even after a year, they must pay attention to each other’s subtle cues, Garrison says.

“Joey has to be patient with me not knowing everything that’s going on with his body,” she says. “I have to be patient with him that, if he’s hurting or needs something, to tell me what’s going on.”

There’s a delicate tug of war for this couple, recently engaged but in each other’s lives off and on since they were teenagers. Jones needs goals right in front of him; that was true before the blast and has been invaluable since.

“I never let him slow down to get worried about stuff,” Garrison says. “As long as he’s driven to go and conquer these things, then I’m going to let him have at it. I’m not going to be the one that tells him no.”

Jones sees the benefits of her semi-tough love even when the days are long and his mind and body weary.

“It usually comes out most between me and Meg when she’s holding me to an ultimatum of ‘I don’t care if you’re hurt, you just need to get it done,’” Jones says.

“And I’ll look at her and say sometimes, ‘I wish your legs would get cut off so you’d know how I feel.’ Obviously, we both know I don’t mean it,” he says. “Sometimes I just think people don’t understand how I feel. I don’t ever want them to understand how I feel. I especially don’t want her to feel how I feel.”

ABOUT THIS STORY

Staff writer Todd South, photographer Angela Lewis and videographer Patrick Smith spent two days with Marine Sgt. Joey Jones and his fiancée, Meg Garrison, in the Washington, D.C., area reporting on how far he has come in the year since he lost his legs to an IED blast in Afghanistan. They also traveled to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., in September 2010, and spent time with Jones during his visits to his hometown, Dawnville, Ga., as part of a yearlong project following Joey’s Journey from injury through recovery.

Corridors of power

Despite the pain that Jones grimaces through with Garrison or his physical therapists at the National Naval Medical Center down the road in Bethesda, Md., he’ll reveal none of it once he enters the Cannon House Office building, which holds the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Veterans Affairs and its various subcommittees.

In early July, Jones started an unpaid internship at the committee. He works alongside college kids answering telephones and serves as the office “go-fer,” as he calls it.

“I was really helpful at putting sticky tabs on little binders the other day,” he says with a smart grin.

His full-throttle Marine style of work means he’ll clip through menial tasks in a fraction of the time others take. The suits and polite speech are removed from his Marine Corps experience, and the work is tedious, not as exciting as riding helicopters over the Afghan mountains, seeking bombs to diffuse. But the new goal of helping other war wounded keeps him focused, driven.

Still, his frustrations can seep through as he tries hard to help.

Talking to a woman on the phone the other day, trying to get through to her about another veterans-related project, Jones’ dark humor came out in his retelling of the conversation.

“She was like ‘Thank you for ...,’ she hung up, she didn’t know what to say,” he says.

“‘Thank you for getting your legs blown off. I really appreciate it,’” he says, finishing the hypothetical sentence for her.

“It wasn’t a conscious decision, lady.”

ONLINE

Click here to see a special multimedia page that chronicles Joey’s journey through a video interview, slideshow and previous stories.

Focus on the wounded

A few months ago, Jones traveled back to the Explosives Ordnance Disposal School near Destin, Fla., where he learned his bomb-sleuthing trade for the Marines. He went to honor those from the tight-knit community who died over the past year.

Eleven Marine bomb technicians died in that time, and one-third of the more than 100 combat-deployed techs were wounded. Ten of those received some form of amputation.

Recently, the commandant of the Marine Corps pledged that Marines wounded in combat would be able to stay in the service as long as they desired. In a speech Jones wrote and delivered while in Florida, he had a simple question: “Can we stay as EOD techs? Can we stay in the job field?”

Senior Marines answered with a resounding yes, but that was just for the EOD community. Others aren’t sure what their future holds.

Making sure that his fellow wounded have a future is one step of many in his work. His first step is to talk with senior enlisted Marines, challenging them to keep the young wounded in their jobs.

A 19-year-old wounded Marine doesn’t know much about the Corps, Jones explains, but if he likes his job, he wants to stay in it. If a commander tells him to go to a desk when all he ever wanted to do was be in the infantry, then it’s likely the young Marine will leave the military when able.

“So he ends up getting out, he’s got a high school diploma, no college degree and living off a VA pension. They feel like they don’t have a place in society, like they don’t have a place in the Marine Corps,” Jones says. “They deserve better.”

The Capitol Hill internship helps; it’s a way to spread his experience for the benefit of other wounded.

“Doing an internship on Capitol Hill is going to open up a floodgate of opportunities for other wounded warriors,” he says. “Our country sent them to war, half their body got blown up. You damn well better take care of them.”

Jones’ mother, Joyce Jones, and Garrison say they’re continually floored by Jones’ commitment to other wounded veterans.

In the midst of his own recovery, Jones has spoken to national news outlets dozens of times and worked with the Armed Forces Foundation and other nonprofits that do everything from sponsor NASCAR trips for the wounded to help pay for handicap-accessible housing and driving tools.

“I don’t think he’ll ever stop as long as he’s got the power,” Joyce Jones says. “I think this is going to be his legacy.”

Garrison supports all that Jones is trying to do, even though it makes for long days.

“If someone asks him to do something for a foundation or speak to guys, he’ll go,” she says. “He needs 48 hours for a 24-hour day to get everything done.”

Jones sees his work for wounded warriors simply: The public must remember its obligation to the troops.

  • photo
    In their Silver Spring, Md., apartment, Sgt. Joey Jones talks with fiancee Meg Garrison as she helps him get dressed for his job as an intern in Washington, D.C.
    Photo by Angela Lewis.
    enlarge photo

Healing

No matter what events are planned for that day — dinner with President Barack Obama, work on Capitol Hill or running errands that crisscross between Washington, Virginia and Maryland — Jones starts his weekdays at the Naval Hospital in Bethesda, where his recovery began.

His white and gray New Balance sneakers plod along the treadmill. Black athletic shorts cover most of his red plastic thighs as his scarred hands grip the white rails. Sweat slowly dampens the armpits of his green “Semper Fi Fund” T-shirt and slicks his sometimes-grinning, sometimes-gritting face.

The pained right leg sometimes catches as he walks the treadmill; his left leg is stronger so he favors that side. Hopefully, another surgery this month will correct his gait.

Heading home

Before his injuries, when he was stationed in California and Hawaii, then deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, Jones’ military life kept him away from his Dawnville home. It still does.

Since his injuries, Jones has returned to Georgia for Christmas, Easter and most recently in late July, for his son Braiden’s second birthday.

During his Easter trip, he proposed to Garrison.

Jones coaxed her down to his parents’ home after the annual egg hunt wrapped up at his grandmother’s house. Waiting there was a white shoe with fake green grass and a fake Easter egg.

Jones took her to the shoe at the side of his house, the same spot that, when they first met as 14- and 15-year-olds, he teased her by hanging her new white shoe out the window, pretending he’d drop it in the mud. He knew there was an air conditioning unit below. She didn’t. But he didn’t count on the shoe bouncing off the vent and into the mud anyway.

This time, as he kneeled before her, she thought he was falling, not knowing he’d practiced his bended-knee pose on his prosthetics with his physical therapist when Garrison wasn’t in the room.

This time, the white shoe was clean and inside the egg was a diamond ring and a folded streamer of paper that asked, “Will you marry me?”

“He didn’t have to ask, I just said yes,” Garrison says.

They haven’t set a date yet. With busy lives, internships, school and potentially orders to another military base once he finishes his rehabilitation, the pair are waiting until things are more settled.

Nearly a year ago, after most of the major surgeries had finished, Garrison says she talked with Jones. She told him she would stay with him if he wanted. If he needed a friend, she would be the best friend he ever had.

“He hasn’t asked me to leave yet,” she laughs.

Like many twentysomethings building lives away from home and striving for independence, visits home are a mixed bag for Jones and Garrison.

The night before leaving for the nearly 12-hour drive back, Jones admits that he gets antsy when headed back to Dawnville.

“To see my son is amazing,” he says, but the stress Jones often brings upon himself regarding the rest of his family is so draining he’ll often avoid calling.

“Going home I almost feel like I have to reprove to my family that I love each one of them,” he says. “Will I do enough? See people enough? Will I show enough love to enough people?”

  • photo
    Sgt. Joey Jones makes an adjustment to his prosthetic leg in his apartment in Silver Spring, Md.
    Photo by Angela Lewis.
    enlarge photo

A couple of months ago, he hit a slump.

He’d gotten out of the wheelchair, was walking on his legs, had advanced to the next set. And then what? He went to physical therapy five days a week and took three college courses, his first since leaving home. But he had no sense of purpose, no immediate goal.

At the same time, problems between his parents mounted. His mother and father both admit there was tension before the bomb blast that took their son’s legs. The tragedy tore everything open for different reasons.

Joseph Jones, Joey’s dad, had worked all his life as a brick mason. A perfectionist with jobs, he would often lose money by taking too long on a project. Like many a working man, Joseph Jones drank beers at the end of a long day. When construction slid off the cliff during the economic downturn that slammed the country, and especially North Georgia, the drinking didn’t happen after a day’s work but all through the day, Joseph Jones admitted.

After the rushed trip to the naval hospital in Bethesda to see his wounded son, Joseph Jones put down the bottle, knowing he had to be there for his son.

But he picked it up again.

Tension boiled over and Joyce and Joseph Jones divorced this summer after more than 25 years together.

“We just couldn’t deal with each other through this,” Joyce Jones says. “It’s not Joey’s fault. There’s been problems for many years.”

The near loss of their son simply escalated the underlying trouble, she says.

“You go through tragedy, whether it be like my son in the Marine Corps, whether it be a car wreck, get help,” she says.

For the first time a few months ago, Jones saw a “head doctor” about his stress, a big step for a Marine accustomed to a highly strenuous lifestyle where second-guessing yourself can cost lives — both yours and your comrades’.

In the Corps, therapists are called “wizards” because they make Marines disappear, he says.

For him, it helped relieve some of the stress he was feeling about his family, about his responsibility to repair any damage caused by the damage to him.

Jones knows his injuries are still hard on his family, but he sees underlying problems that come out, ones not related to his year-old trauma and continued recovery.

“I think what happened to me was an outlet, a venting, a way to vent that emotion or struggle or stress,” he says.

“I think you just got to be there for your family no matter what, even if you’re the one that was hurt; you never know how it’s going to affect them,” he says. “We’re all getting better, but it takes time to get better.

“Sometimes you’ve got to say, ‘You know what? It’s fine. I love you and you love me and we don’t have to agree on everything.’”

HOW TO HELP

To donate to funds set up for Sgt. Joey Jones, contact any Regions Bank. There are two separate accounts, one to pay for the Dawnville home addition, the other for the handicap-accessible pickup truck.

Alive Day

As Jones walks the halls of congressional buildings, drives his truck through Washington traffic, sweats through physical therapy or sits talking with his friends and family back home, one reminder of that fateful August day hangs loosely at his side.

A black, scratched and worn metal band hangs from his left wrist, the etched name of Cpl. Daniel Greer always there.

“Daniel was killed that day when I stepped on the IED,” Jones says. “There’s no other way to tell that story.

“That’s not always the easiest thing. Some days it’s easier than others, but it’s not always the easiest thing to live with,” he says.

Greer was a Marine Reservist working with Jones in the market that day. The pair had befriended each other during the operations in the southern part of Afghanistan.

The 25-year-old Ashland City, Tenn., native died shortly after the blast.

Many troops severely wounded or survivors of intense battles in which they saw comrades killed celebrate their “Alive Day,” the day they were almost killed but survived. All else is irrelevant because they lived.

But for Jones, “Alive Day” is the day Greer died and there will be no celebration. He doesn’t mark the day with bitterness or anger or resentment. What happened happened and he can’t take that one step of thousands back.

“I couldn’t have an ‘Alive Day’ without thinking about the opposite for Daniel,” he says. “For that reason, it’s a very solemn day.”

Jones recently called Greer’s wife.

“It’s still hard to talk with her,” he says. “Me talking to her is like me saying I lived and he didn’t. I’m afraid she would feel that way. It’s not always easy to talk to her for that reason.”

  • photo
    In his Silver Spring, Md., apartment, Sgt. Joey Jones adds an insert to his shoe as fiancee Meg Garrison helps him get ready for his job as an intern in Washington, D.C.
    Photo by Angela Lewis.
    enlarge photo

Back home

Three days home and Jones has relaxed enough.

After a slow morning start, he’s heading out into the heat of the day, nearly noon under a 92-degree heat index, to fix a sign at the Dawnville Community Park, where his family is holding son Braiden’s birthday party.

Jones heads to a first-floor room in the back of his childhood home to put on his legs.

“Joey, do you need any help?” Joyce Jones calls.

“Mom, I do this every day,” he replies.

Later Joyce Jones will admit there’s a double edge to her son’s recovery. She’s endlessly proud of him, the boy she raised to be so strong. A year ago she saw her baby filled with tubes, a shell of himself and she prayed constantly, unsure whether he’d live, let alone walk.

Each time she sees him now, he’s progressed so much it’s astonishing, she says. But she still wants to help like any mother would.

“Sometimes it gets a little heartbreaking when they don’t say they need you,” she says. “You always want them to need you, whether they do or not.”

Out at the Dawnville Community Park, just down the road from Jones’ childhood home, there’s no real breeze and the sun beats down on him and his 13-year-old nephew, Colton Lewis, who’s helping Uncle Joey dig out weeds that have sprouted around the fake-stone base of the sign’s faded purple and yellow wooden planks.

“Come down, chop it, break it up, then go in and scoop it out,” Jones says. “That way you get a root.”

The teen shrugs off the instruction, slightly frustrated.

“Get mad, too,” Jones says. “You going to let me outwork you? Go ahead and do that, see if I let you forget it.”

Joseph Jones, Joyce Jones and Braiden show up shortly after the work starts.

“Son, you need to let me do this,” Joseph Jones tells his son.

“By God, you can help me do it,” Jones replies.

“OK,” Joseph Jones mutters, an unlit cigarette dangling from his mouth. He grabs a shovel.

Working at the park is the least he can do, Jones says. The community raised money to pay for more than half of the nearly $50,000 truck he drives and a chunk, though not all, of the equally expensive handicap-accessible home addition that’s still in progress.

He played grade-school football on this field. A stone’s throw across the highway sits Kathy’s Day Care, where Joey played as a child, ate full breakfasts of biscuits, gravy and eggs in his preschool days.

After more than an hour in mid-day heat, Joyce Jones brings a folding chair so her son can sit and continue to shovel. She turns to leave with Braiden, who’s been watching his daddy.

“Give me a hug,” Jones tells Braiden as he stands near Joseph Jones’ pickup truck.

Joyce Jones leans in with her grandson; Jones hugs him. “I love you,” Jones tells his son.

Braiden mumbles back his own “I love you.”

“I love you more,” Jones replies tenderly. “I love you mostest.”

“OK, get out of the sun,” he tells Braiden and walks back to the shoveling.

“Say, ‘Don’t work too hard, Dad,’” Joyce Jones calls out.

“OK, I won’t. Bye bye. I love you,” Jones says.

Metal shovels clink and sink into the dirt as he and Lewis restart digging and Joyce Jones drives home.

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

Joey's Journey
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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ARYFROSTY said...

Semper Fi.

August 7, 2011 at 2:23 p.m.
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