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An about-face from his initial authorization

U.S Rep. Walter B. Jones signed off on the war in Iraq, and now spends a lot of his time signing letters to the families who have lost troops.

Published May 20, 2006

GREENVILLE, N.C. — Congressman Walter B. Jones has a ritual. Almost every Saturday, he comes here to his district office with the crucifix on the desk and his grandfather’s World War I medals on the wall.

Then he picks up a pen and carefully signs letter after letter to the families of U.S. service members who died in Iraq:

My heart aches as I write this for I realize you are suffering a great loss.

In the past three years, Jones, a conservative Republican, has sent thousands of letters to families across the country. And as the letters piled up on his desk awaiting signature, he reached a conclusion about the war he had voted to authorize:

“We made a colossal mistake.”

Last June, Jones joined 67 other House members, most of them liberal Democrats, in a resolution urging President Bush to plan for “the prompt and orderly withdrawal” of all U.S. troops from Iraq.

His about-face hit like a bombshell. It was a stunning reversal for a lawmaker once so supportive of the war he coined the phrase “Freedom Fries” to protest France’s refusal to fight.

And it was especially surprising for a politician who represents one of the most heavily militarized parts of the country. Sprawling across eastern North Carolina, Jones’ district includes Camp Lejeune, the nation’s biggest Marine base, and much of Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.

Some of Jones’ constituents are appalled by his criticism of the war. It hurts troop morale, they say, and gives succor to the enemy.

Other see it as a canny move by a Republican trying to distance himself from an unpopular conflict in an election year.

But still others accept his explanation that he acted out of moral conviction, that he had to speak up about a seemingly endless war based on faulty intelligence.

“Whenever you’re in a room with him, he talks about the troops and the number of injured and dead,” says Adam Mitchell, town manager of Ayden, N.C. “It obviously weighs very heavily on his mind.”

'No finality’

Jacksonville, N.C. — “Home of Camp Lejeune” — is unmistakably a military town. There is Freedom Pizza. Patriot Loans. Semper Fi Motors.

Near the base, you don’t have to drive more than a block to find a tattoo parlor or a barber offering “military cuts.” Every Marine has heard of the Driftwood, featuring Miss Nude USA 2004.

In contrast to the seediness outside, Camp Lejeune is a clean, orderly ministate. On any given day, more than 100,000 people work and train against a scenic backdrop of live oaks and the broad Neuse River.

It was here, in 2003, that Jones’ conversion began. He attended the funeral of one of the first Marines killed in Iraq and had “an out-of-body experience” as he listened to the young widow read from her husband’s final letter, written the night before he died.

Driving home, “I was overcome with emotion,” recalls the 63-year-old Jones. “I felt I had to do something to remind people that there is a war and there is a cost and that the cost is the loss of a loved one.”

Jones began writing his letters, enclosing a quotation from Franklin D. Roosevelt:

He stands in the unbroken line of patriots who have dared to die
That freedom might live, and grow, and increase its blessings.

Many relatives wrote back to thank him. One included a copy of the Combat Medic’s Prayer. Another sent a photograph of a tombstone: April 10, 1975 ­— May 23, 2003.

Jones’ staff also made posters with photos of those who died in Iraq and Afghanistan: “Let Us Never Forget.”

At first, the posters were confined to Jones’ quarters in a House office building near the U.S. Capitol. But as the death toll grew, so did the number of posters, creating a fire hazard.

Other House members, noting the attention the posters attracted, offered to put them outside their own doors.

Today, almost every office on the fourth floor displays “Faces of the Fallen.”

Jones’ doubts about the war magnified in late 2004 when his daughter gave him the tape of the book A Pretext for War: 9/11, Iraq and the Abuse of America’s Intelligence Agencies. Jones, who gets claustrophobic on planes, listened to it on his 4½-hour commute between home and Washington.

What he heard so disturbed him that he invited author James Bamford to speak to a group of House members.

“He’s very tied into the CIA,” Jones says, “and we listened to him talk about how neoconservatives manipulated intelligence to justify going into war.”

Jones now says he “never felt good” about his authorizing vote. But after the Sept. 11 attacks, “you had an atmosphere in Congress that Saddam Hussein had relations with terrorists who were part of 9/11. When experts tell you that he had the ability to attack America, that he was funding terrorist groups, you’re going to accept what you’ve been told because you want to feel you can believe those who are in key positions.”

Though he’s “all for being in Afghanistan,” Jones decided that the war in Iraq was not justified. There were no WMDs, no evidence Hussein was connected to 9/11. Yet U.S. troops were dying almost daily.

“It seemed like there was no finality to what we were trying to accomplish,” he says.

Jones co-sponsored House Joint Resolution 55, which would require Bush to turn over all military operations to the new Iraqi government and come up with a plan to start withdrawing troops no later than Oct. 1, 2006.

The resolution has been widely misconstrued as calling for an immediate pullout. Some of Jones’ constituents — especially those near Camp Lejeune — were aghast he would support such a thing.

“I can’t believe he’d be that stupid,” says Brad Padgett, owner of a Jacksonville jewelry store that gets much of its business from the base.

“The guys who come in here tell you we’re doing a good thing over there. If that’s true, it looks like we’re yanking the rug out from under the troops and letting the terrorists take over.”

But Napoleon Kinsey, who runs the Tight Cuts barber shop just outside the base, says some of the Marines who sit in his chairs grumble about the war.

“I know a lot are against it, but they gotta do their job. I wish they’d hurry up and get it over because business is slow.”

Jones has become a hero in national antiwar circles. He has developed a friendship with another Republican war critic, Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel.

He has also met with most of the retired generals who have criticized the war. Like them, he feels it’s time for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to go.

As for Bush, “I think he’s a good and decent man. But he was too dependent on the advice of Rumsfeld and Cheney.”

If Jones sometimes sounds less like a Republican and more like a Democrat, it’s not surprising.

He used to be one.

'Ruffling feathers’

Many people fondly remember Jones’ father, Rep. Walter B. Jones Sr. A pragmatic Democrat, he was known for his folksy manner and ability to snare federal dollars — “pork” — for his district.

Jones died during his 26th year in office, and Walter Jr., also a Democrat, ran for the seat. He lost, switched parties and rode into Congress in 1994 in the Republican “Contract with America” landslide.

Before entering the House, the younger Jones spent four years in the National Guard and time in the family office supply business. Critics say he got where he is today largely because of his name.

“The joke up here is that a lot of people still think he is his father,” says Tinsley Yarborough, a political scientist at East Carolina University in Greenville.

The son, however, is more ideologically and fiscally conservative. He has backed measures to allow prayer in public schools and to outlaw gay marriages.

“He sort of latched on to that religious, right-wing appeal that’s been popular in the South,” Yarborough says. The professor, a Democrat, is among those who think Jones’ criticism of the Iraq war has been motivated more by politics than moral outrage.

“His whole professional career has been very oriented toward trying to stay on top of the drift of things and shift when he thinks it’s expedient.”

Others, though, see Jones as a man of strong beliefs, holding firm even to his detriment. He failed to win $20-million for nationwide dredging projects when he got into a “rather nasty behind-the-scenes fight” with a Republican subcommittee chairman who opposed the amount, according to lobbyist Howard Marlowe.

“With Walter, what you see is what you get,” he says. “He’s not afraid to take on a position knowing it might hurt him in getting what some consider pork.”

There is evidence that Jones’ criticism of the war is also having negative repercussions for his district.

His office declined to release a list of projects for which he requested money in the current budget year. However, Ayden, a community of 5,000, failed to get a water and sewer grant at least partly because of “the loss of relationships Congressman Jones has created in recent months,” Mitchell, the town manager, says he was told by a lobbyist.

“He was a Democrat and switched parties and now he’s ruffling some Republican feathers.”

Few though expect him to lose his seat this fall.

His conservative views still play well in this part of the Bible Belt. And he continues to look out for the interests of the thousands of military families he represents.

Among them: two lifelong Democrats, Ethel and Randolph Simmons of New Bern, N.C. Their son was among the first soldiers to die in Iraq, under circumstances never fully explained.

When the war started, Sgt. Leonard Simmons had been working as an Army recruiter in Seattle for three years. His parents say he had put on weight and had barely a week to get in shape before he was sent to Iraq in April 2003 as a chemical operations specialist.

On July 6, as the temperature hit 110, Simmons got so dehydrated he became delirious and thought he was back home. He awoke to find himself in a military hospital with his hands and feet shackled. He was sent back to the field two days later.

“I’m drinking all the water I possibly can and it’s not helping,” Simmons, 33, told his wife.

On Aug. 6, Simmons was found incoherent and stumbling around with a 104.5 fever. He died that night. Army officials variously attributed his death to heat stroke, a seizure and cardiac arrest.

Frustrated, his parents contacted Jones’ office. What exactly killed their son? Why had he been returned to duty so soon after getting sick?

Over several months, Jones’ office got partial responses from the Army. Yes, Simmons was “out of shape,” but he had been placed on light duty and monitored to ensure he was drinking enough water. The official cause of death was heat stroke.

“His office does a good job,” Randolph Simmons, 76, says. “Everything I asked for, they immediately sent correspondence on, though I still don’t have the answers to everything.”

Simmons, a Korean War veteran, says he’s considering a vote for Jones; his wife says she likely will vote for him, too. Both agree the war has gone on too long with no plan for ending it.

“A lot of young men that had a future ahead of them, they were just snuffed out in that war,” Ethel Simmons says.
That, Jones maintains, is the reason he feels compelled to write his letters, makes his posters, visit the wounded — and press for a full debate in Congress.

“If I had known then what I know now, I never would have voted to send kids to Iraq. I just don’t think I should ever vote to send an American to die for this country unless the intelligence is verified one time, two times, three times.”

On Saturday, Jones signed 88 more letters.

[Last modified May 20, 2006, 20:35:38]

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