Walter Jones Battled on Behalf of Marines. For Him, It Was Personal

Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C. looks at pictures of the soldiers killed this century based in Camp Lejeune along a hallway leading to his office on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2017, in Washington. Republican Rep. Walter Jones began signing the letters to families in 2003 as penance for his 2002 vote supporting war in Iraq. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C. looks at pictures of the soldiers killed this century based in Camp Lejeune along a hallway leading to his office on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2017, in Washington. Republican Rep. Walter Jones began signing the letters to families in 2003 as penance for his 2002 vote supporting war in Iraq. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Congressman Walter B. Jones entered hospice care Jan. 26 and died days later, Feb. 10, on his 76th birthday.

But surviving him in Congress is one of his longest-running fights: a bill that would rename the Navy "the Department of the Navy and the Marine Corps." He filed the simply worded proposal in the 116th Congress on Jan. 8; it's now in committee, without a co-sponsor.

He had introduced the bill every year since 2001, at times enlisting celebrity endorsement from the likes of Marine Corps drill instructor-turned-movie-star R. Lee Ermey; once nailing down support from Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, a fellow Republican, for a companion bill. It never came close to passing; no top brass from the Navy or the Marine Corps ever indicated they cared about the name change or wanted it.

But Jones had a personal reason for refusing to let the measure die: He hated the fact that the families of Marines killed in action received a condolence letter bearing the seal of the Department of the Navy, rather than one that included their service name. As the U.S. representative for North Carolina's 3rd District, including Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, he'd attended many funerals of young service members and comforted their grieving families.

"I've always felt as a matter of respect that the name, 'Department of Navy and Marine Corps,' is proper," Jones told me in 2017, in his elegant North Carolina accent, reminiscent of a past era. "I've had members saying to me, 'Well, we don't think it ought to change.' But there's certain things that do change. Good Lord, well, we'll keep trying."

Jones himself made a point of mailing a condolence letter to the family of every single service member killed in action, whether they lived in his district or not. Like many of the causes he championed, it was a symbolic gesture. As has been widely reported, his letter-signing was a personal form of penance for supporting the war in Iraq in its early days. Famously one of the lawmakers who ordered that the French fries in the House cafeteria be renamed Freedom Fries to lampoon France for "sitting on the sidelines" in the conflict, he later became an outspoken critic of that war and the one in Afghanistan.

Jones was unshakeable in matters of personal conviction, and he refused to be political in the way he pursued them. Some of the successes he achieved for those in his district came after more than a decade of fighting, largely alone.

I first met him in the wood-paneled boardroom of the Jacksonville Daily News in 2011. He was hunched over a sheaf of documents: a military JAGMAN investigation, letters to and from the Navy. He'd paid a visit to this North Carolina newspaper office just so he could sit down with me, the 22-year-old cub reporter covering the local military, and help me understand the wrong he was trying to correct. It was the first of many encounters -- he'd often call my cell personally in the years that followed to inform me of a new development or a letter he'd planned to send.

By 2011, he had been working for about 10 years on behalf of two of his constituents, Connie Gruber and Trish Brow. Their husbands, both Marine Corps pilots, had been killed in the horrific crash of an MV-22 Osprey in 2000 that ended the lives of all 19 aboard. In the aftermath, the Marine Corps would blame the crash on the pilots, declining to amend its position even after an investigation appeared to absolve them.

Jones committed to advocating for the heartbroken Brow and Gruber, pursuing a statement of reversal from the Marine Corps. There were few political points to win, at stake only the peace of mind of two private citizens who had lost their husbands in service to their country.

In 2016, well after the officials involved in the initial investigation and statement of cause had moved on, Jones succeeded in convincing then-Deputy Defense Secretary Robert O. Work to review the case. The result was a letter, signed by Work, saying it was impossible to pinpoint a single causal factor in the deadly crash of the tiltrotor aircraft, and shifting the blame off the two pilots.

Marine Corps Times reported that Connie Gruber took the letter, presented to her by Jones, and laid it on her husband's grave.

Many of his fights put him at odds with top military brass. He squared off in 2014 with then-Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Jim Amos in a House Armed Services Committee hearing over the treatment of Maj. James Weirick, a Marine lawyer and whistleblower who accused Amos and others of meddling with justice in the case of several Marine snipers and subsequently lost his job.

More recently, he went to the mat for retired Maj. Fred Galvin and other former members of Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command who were falsely accused of war crimes on a first deployment to Afghanistan in 2007. Last month, 12 years after that deployment left the men's reputations tarnished, the Navy ruled that Galvin's service record should be cleared, and he should be considered for retroactive promotion. The Marine Corps had long since moved on from the episode, but due to an investigative reporting project and Jones' persistence, Galvin got to see justice done for him.

But while many of the causes Jones championed put him in conflict with the powerful, it was never about the fight for him; it was about the service.

"See, I'm very strong in my faith," he told me in a 2013 interview in his office, surrounded by military memorabilia, hundreds of photographs of fallen troops lining the corridors outside. "Christ is my savior, and I've been given this opportunity to serve my Lord and savior and his people here in Washington. And if some of those people wear uniforms, then they're the people too."

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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