published Sunday, April 24th, 2011

Local Marine visits home with new legs, plans to run

  • Joey's Journey: Part III
    U.S. Marine Sgt. Joey Jones, returned home to Dawnville, Ga., this week to visit family and friends for Easter. Sgt. Jones, who lost his legs to an IED blast in Afghanistan in August 2010, is on leave from his rehabilitation in Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

Each step Marine Sgt. Joey Jones takes brings him closer to the life he had before losing his legs to a bomb blast in Afghanistan.

In the nine months since he was injured, Jones has gone through extensive surgeries and rehabilitation at two military hospitals near Washington, D.C.. He’s graduated from a bed to a wheelchair and gone through three sets of artificial legs.

He has also started college classes, raised nearly $50,000 for wounded veterans’ charities and earned an assignment briefing the military brass on what a wounded warrior goes through from a combat injury to life afterward.

Most of those events have taken place far from his home in Dawnville, Ga., so when he comes back, as he has for Easter weekend, familiar faces are welcome but often surprised.

“People look at me like I’m a ghost, they really do,” Joey said in an interview at his grandmother’s Dawnville home, just up the hill from his parents’ house.

“I think the mentality of a lot of people — and I don’t mean this in a bad way — they thought I would just kind of be in a wheelchair, live off that retirement pay and just kind of hang out.”

And Jones, 24, understands their feelings — he said he thought the same thing before he was injured. Now, with rapid progress and new attitudes about wounded warriors within the Marine Corps, he’s taking advantage of the opportunities.

But that progress brings its own questions.

“It’s also a little nerve-wracking because now I’ve got to look at the next step,” Jones said. “Living a normal life again, or somewhat-normal life.”

When he last visited home during Christmas, Jones stood less than 4 feet tall on his first set of prosthetic legs, simple aluminum shafts without knees that slid into molded fittings on the stumps of his thighs. Nicknamed “shorties,” the legs helped him master hip motions and balance before he moved to more complex legs.

Within weeks of returning to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington after the new year, Jones was on another pair of legs. Soon he was walking, minus the canes he needed when he first got started.

Then he received hydraulic fitted legs with more complex knee joints and a microprocessor that reacts to how he moves his body weight. He can walk up and down stairs as long as there’s a handrail — as he did in his family home Thursday.

“Going from the shorties to these legs was a completely different motion,” he said.

Jones said using the shorties was “like walking on stilts.” With the new legs, he must control everything with his hips, trusting the robotic knee to break stride and not trip him.

“At the end of the day, walking on these legs is not walking again,” Jones said. He characterized the motion as part of a “new normal” that comes with life as an amputee.

The new mobility serves him well. Jones, still a highly motivated Marine, hits the gym nearly daily and has gained back much of the muscle and body mass lost to atrophy during his hospital stay.

tall again

Even some of those closest to him are amazed to see him walking tall, including his mother, Joyce.

Sitting in her recliner in her home this past week, Joyce heard her son say “hello.” She turned and nearly fell out of her chair.

“It was astonishing, I said, ‘Oh my God, son, you’re tall again,’” Joyce said.

Jones had sent pictures, even video of his progression onto the new legs, but nothing was like seeing him in person, walking at nearly his full former height, she said.

“It’s awesome seeing him mobile and having more control over his own life and not depending on anybody, which he absolutely hated,” she said. “I don’t know that I’ll ever get used to it, as a mother, but I thank God that we have the technology.”

With his newfound mobility, Joey has reached out to recently wounded Marines and sailors arriving every week at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. The hospital is where wounded sailors and Marines first arrive after being treated on the battlefield.

Once the wounded have recovered enough, doctors move them to Walter Reed, where they begin long-term rehabilitation.

Of the train of visitors during his two months at Bethesda, Jones recalled the biggest impact came from a wounded Marine who told him what to expect at Walter Reed.

Now Jones and his girlfriend, Meg Garrison, arrange for Marines, sailors and their families at Walter Reed to make weekly visits to the Naval Medical Center to meet incoming wounded and help them understand the process.

He also began finding ways to give back to charities that help him and other wounded veterans.

After attending the Marine Corps Birthday Ball in Washington in November, he was connected with the Semper Fi Fund, a charity geared toward helping Marines. That led to work with other charities.

Jones has helped pass along donated materials such as autographed motocross uniforms and a guitar signed by singer and musician John Mayer that multiple charities have used as auction items to help raise an estimated $50,000.

Friends and family still are arranging local fundraising events to help pay for a new Ford pickup truck presented to Joey in December and a handicap-accessible addition to his parents’ home.

But as busy as his home visits are — spending time with his nearly 2-year-old son, Braiden, working out at the gym with friends and seeing relatives’ baseball games — a visit up the hill to the home of his grandmother Barbara Jones offers a quick moment to relax.

She stands on the porch next to the grandson who rose just to her shoulder at Christmas but now towers over her.

“I’d lift him if I could,” Barbara says, squeezing him.

A smile spreads wide across her face.

Jones has more reason to smile these days, too.

His progress has rewarded his goal-setting nature, but there’s more ahead.

Two weeks after his return to Walter Reed on Tuesday he’ll begin learning how to run, which requires an entirely different set of artificial legs and new techniques to learn.

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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