Editor’s note: If you know a veteran who should be included in this series, please email Mark Swendra.
Fourteen years after she retired as a lieutenant colonel in the Army, Daisy Jones still gets choked up and is as proud as ever to see someone in uniform.
“Every time I see a person in uniform; whether military or first responder, it does something to my heart because the average person has no idea of the sacrifice that begins on day one,” Jones said, wiping a tear.
“When we re-up, when we sign up and walk through the door, and kids are doing it all of the time … that’s huge.”
Jones, who served 20 years, rose through the ranks at a time when women, especially African-American women, faced an uphill battle.
On her time in the 1980s and 1990s as a minority officer, she acknowledged, “Yeah, I have some nightmare stories about that.”
She explained, “Usually, you’re the only black person in the room. And then you’re the only black female in the room. And sometimes the only female in the room, period. There was an awareness of the challenge of being judged by being black.”
But, she said, her upbringing, and the lessons taught by a strong, single mother, prepared her for those challenges.
“I think the basis of getting through everything was that we were raised to work hard — a bulldog mentality,” Jones said. And for whatever racism or gender discrimination that may have existed, “people get over that, and in most cases people work through that because of the core camraderie that exists in the Army.”
That camraderie was center stage during the events of Sept. 11, 2001, when Jones, who commanded a brigade in South Korea, saw how military personnel and civilians alike worked together when confronted by terror.
“One of the most memorable moments of my career was in Korea,” Jones said. “It was my favorite duty. I had two tours in Korea … then 9/11 happened.
“Like the rest of us, I’ll never forget it,” she said. “During that time, everything was locked down. We couldn’t move. The focus was on security on the (Korean) peninsula. The jelling of people coming together was amazing. At that time our hearts were exposed. You could feel the hurt and pain, the shock and the awe. You could see it on everybody. Even now I remember that pain.”
She added, “It was a great assignment for me because you see the Army at its best, its optimum.”
A self-confessed bookworm who read all of the time, Jones had no intention of joining the military as a child growing up in the Fernandina Beach area of Florida.
“My mom said ‘you’re going to be a neurosurgeon,’’’ Jones recalled. Upon graduation from high school in 1979, her plan was to go to Oral Roberts University in Oklahoma, “but I thought, no, it’s too far from home. I had never been away from home.”
Instead, she attended nearby Florida A&M University, and majored in journalism. But it was one day, as a freshman, while walking back to her dorm, an encounter with a young man in uniform would change the direction of her life.
Always inquisitive, Jones asked the man to explain what he was doing. “He talked about ROTC and traveling. It sounded so exciting. I said where can I sign up?”
She served in the school’s ROTC, graduated, and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1984.
She admits the military life has had its challenges. “I never ran a day in my life. Didn’t know how to wear the uniform (at first) and how to properly lace the shoes,” she said. “I just walked into this place of growing and learning about myself and my abilities.”
She said she had a “great” military career, and in 2004, after serving 20 years and 29 days, to be exact, she retired. “I left because our mantra was if you’re not having fun anymore, it’s time to go,” adding, “legs hurt, back hurt, pain all the time.”
That year, Jones got married to the “love of her life” Nathan Jones, who also is an Army veteran. “I am blessed with eight grandchildren,” she said, from Nathan’s four adult children. The couple live in Long County.
Retirement led her to a second chapter in life, one that allowed her to continue her service to others.
“In the Army I always knew I was doing something that meant something,” she said. When I left the Army, I was asking myself, what am I doing, what is the purpose?”
As executive director of the Liberty County Re-Entry Coalition, Jones has again found her purpose.
The coalition, also known as the SOAR (support, opportunity, advocacy, resilience) initiative works to help ex-offenders who need support, information, opportunity and services to reintegrate after prison release.
“I saw people coming from prison who literally had nothing,” Jones said. “They had just the clothes on their back, brought in by a bus.
“It opened my eyes to listen to the heart of other people. Not just jump to conclusions about how people ended up where they are.”
Deeply spiritual, Jones added, “You’ve probably heard the phrase, if it weren’t for the grace of God, there go I. It began to develop in me this principle of hearing people and to not judge people.”
She added, “Help people. Encourage them.”
“I learned so much and a lot of things I do right now since I retired, I learned on active duty.”
Reflecting on her life, Jones said she wants to be remembered for her commitment to help people and that she was always passionate in doing so.
“A life well lived means to me that you worked hard, played hard. It does not mean to be busy all the time, but you have the balance,” she said.
“I meet young people, whose dream is to go into the military, and when something happens in the world, people around them and relatives say don’t do it, you’re going to get killed. That’s not really good counsel though.”
Jones concluded, “You’ve got to follow what you want to do. I’m not saying don’t take counsel from people, but don’t let that be the thing that keeps you from following your dream.”
Well said, by someone who truly followed her dream.