Rep. Walter Jones: A profile in courage

Congressman Walter Jones is laid to rest in Greenville, NC

A funeral was held for U.S. Rep. Walter Jones, of Farmville, NC, at St. Peter Catholic Church in Greenville, NC on Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019.
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A funeral was held for U.S. Rep. Walter Jones, of Farmville, NC, at St. Peter Catholic Church in Greenville, NC on Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019.

Walter B. Jones perplexed a lot of people. Anyone who met him found him to be genuinely polite and gracious, and he treated everyone with respect. Those who knew him from his oversight as a congressman would likely describe him as determined, even to the point of being stubborn. But those who worked with him long enough earned another perspective. He was indeed disarmingly polite, always gracious, sometimes frustrating, and endearingly stubborn. But more than anything, he was a faithful representative of the people, and one of the best constituent advocates in congress.

Jones took on issues – often for years – that others deemed hopeless. Famously, he took on both the Marine Corps and the Department of Defense (Eastern NC’s largest employer) on the MV-22 Osprey program. After a fatal mishap in 2000, he doggedly advocated for the family of the aircrew who were killed, working for over 15 years to get the Department of Defense to address what he saw as safety issues and to fully exonerate the pilots. He never gave up. But by 2016 he had started to wear his executive branch colleagues down: the Deputy Secretary of Defense gave him and the families of the aircrew a letter acknowledging deficiencies in the program — “corrected only after the crash” — had contributed to the mishap.

Jones didn’t just chase the big-dollar program issues. For a decade, even as it had disappeared from public interest or view, Jones stood by a team from Marine Special Operations Command (MARSOC) as they fought to clear their names of allegations surrounding civilian casualties in a battle back in March of 2007, in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province. Then, only this past month, in coincidence of effort and closure, the Marine Commander of that unit was finally cleared of wrongdoing by a Naval board.

Over the years, I had opportunities to speak with Congressman Jones on this and other issues, and I came to recognize a theme: he wanted accountability among our nation’s most senior leaders, protection for our most junior Marines and civilians, and above all – something they could accept as justice. He was committed to being “the little man’s” voice when he thought they were not being heard. Even if you didn’t agree with him on the substance of an issue, it would be a mistake not to respect his motivation.

Jones’ tenacity was not myopic or narrow; rather, it was just his nature. He fought on every constituent issue with the same passion and zeal. Didn’t get a government benefit you deserved? “Walter B” was on it. Treated unfairly by a federal agency? “Walter B” would make calls. I know – I worked at Headquarters Marine Corps for years, took some of those calls, and I knew that once Congressman Jones saw a problem, he would personally follow it until it was settled.

But perhaps the quality he had that was the rarest in DC was this: political courage. Congressman Jones routinely put North Carolinians’ interests above party politics in DC, even if it was to his own detriment. He was a Republican on the ticket, but went after his own party’s lead attack dog, Rep Devin Nunes, calling for him to step down as Chair of the House Intelligence Committee because “American people have a right to know the truth” and “cannot have the necessary confidence” in Nunes’ handling of the Russia investigations. He accused then Speaker Ryan of hypocrisy by contributing to “the swamp.” He voted against some of his own party’s biggest initiatives; against repeal of the Affordable Care Act because so many North Carolinians depend on it, and against the Republican tax bill because it “must grow the economy, not the debt.” And it cost him: Jones remained so fiercely independent in his support of his district that, despite his seniority, he was repeatedly denied committee chairmanships and opportunity.

Walter B Jones was a lot of things: polite, kind, frustrating, stubborn, tireless advocate, and fearless politician. But over the years of being around, and occasionally in his orbit, I was fortunate to get a sense why he had all these qualities, and it compels me to add one more: honorable.

Congressman, thank you for your service. We were lucky to have you.

Richard Bew is a retired Marine Corps colonel and pilot based in NC. He directed legislative affairs (LA) for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and served in Legislative Affairs for three Marine Corps Commandants.