Pfc. James Jones is back from Iraq
Pfc. James Jones won't forget his return to Fort Campbell, Ky., from Iraq on Jan. 15.
"It was so cool," he says. "Just touching down. The brakes hit. And then the plane stops. And you look out the window and see this like sea of flashes."
His wife, Madi, was part of the throng armed with cameras to capture the homecoming of 101st Airborne Division's 3-187th Infantry Regiment - the Iron Rakkasans.
"They're all wearing helmets. From 100 yards away, you can't tell who is who," Madi says. "I don't care how well you know your husband, you can't pick him out of 200 guys."
She was lucky. Unbeknown to her, James, carrying his company's flag, was the first soldier off the plane and she caught him on film.
"I ran into the hangar and he was dead center. Right in front. I started jumping up and down," she says. "They made us stay there while they sang a song, and they saluted what a great job they had done, and the chaplain said a prayer."
Then Madi ran to James and they embraced.
The newlyweds had been apart for nearly five months. They were married July 12, 2003, and on Aug. 23, James left for Iraq, where he served with the Rakkasans' 3rd Battalion at Tall 'Afar in the northern part of the country.
Life has been a whirlwind of activity for the Joneses since his return, according to Madi. They've driven home to Hudson to visit with their families the past two weekends (four-day weekends for them).
James' parents are Jim and Helga Jones. Madi's are Jill Moffat and stepfather Joel Brodd, and Bruce Moffat and stepmother Kristy Ogland.
"You're just thankful to be home, to be with the people you love," says James. "You're thankful to be able to go where you want, to eat what you want to eat, to sleep in a bed, to take a shower, to get more than a meal or two a day."
During his tour in Iraq, James slept on a cot in a tent with 18 to 20 other soldiers. His main duties were guarding the airfield at Tall 'Afar, headquarters for the 187th Infantry, and an oil pump station on the Syrian border.
The 3rd Battalion, the Army's most decorated light infantry battalion, also served as a quick reaction force, responding to attacks or suspicious activity.
"If somebody saw something, we'd load up on humvees and see what was going on," he says. "That was pretty fun."
But usually there wasn't much happening, he says, explaining that the Kurdish people where he served support the American presence.
"Nothing really happens over there unless you're doing real missions," he says.
James says that while his unit was frequently told to prepare for missions, it went on just one. They boarded Chinook helicopters at night and flew to a town on the Syrian border that was an arms smuggling center. Working with Special Forces, they rounded up some 300 believed opposition fighters.
"We'd go raid the houses and get the bad guys. That was fun. That was a blast," James says.
"On this end it wasn't," Madi notes.
James explains: "That's what you're trained to do. You want to go do it."
"To them, it's just what they're supposed to be doing. To us, you hear anything on the news, and you don't hear from them, and it just makes your heart jump," adds Madi.
While the Kurdish Iraqis he had contact with were extremely friendly, James admits feeling uneasy at times. Three Iraqi guards were killed at the oil pump station a few days before one of his turns to guard it.
"There were certain times, certain missions, where you would feel (in danger)," he says.
He adds, "It was really hard to not let your guard go down because you were around all these people offering you food and tea, and just being really, really nice."
The few enemies in the area, he believes, were people who had come across the border or from southern Iraq.
He says security is improving and the work of rebuilding the country's infrastructure is progressing.
"We don't see it on the news," says Madi. "Until you hear it from someone who knows what's actually happening over there, you don't think anything's going right ... There are good things that are happening, but we just hear about all the bad stuff."
"The boom-booms," James says.
James says it makes him angry to hear people say the war wasn't justified.
"People take too much for granted here in this country," he says. "To go over there and see how those people live and understand what they went through before the war, and to see the freedoms they have today makes the war worth it."
One of the highlights of his tour was running into high school chum Matt Lee in the chow hall at the Tall 'Afar airfield. It was a little awkward at first, according to James, because Lee is an officer (first lieutenant) and he is an enlisted man.
Lee quickly told James to dispense with calling him sir, however, and the two caught up on old times and the latest developments.
"It made your day. It was a good feeling," James says.
After graduating from Hudson High School in 1997, James attended Texas A&M University with the goal of becoming a pilot. He says he didn't have his priorities straight, however, and returned to Hudson after getting into academic difficulty.
He then attended Century College in White Bear Lake, Minn., earning an associate degree in chemical dependency counseling. He enlisted in the Army under the delayed entry program and reported for basic training at Fort Benning, Ga., on Jan. 14, 2003.
James and Madi, HHS '01, were reintroduced a year and a half ago by James' sister (and Madi's friend), Heidi. They first met at United Methodist Church of Hudson when Madi was an eighth-grader and James was a high school senior. Their mothers were working with the church's youth group at the time.
Madi attended Minnesota State University at Mankato, Minn., for a year and a half. She also was attending Century College when she and James began dating.
Madi stayed in Hudson while James was deployed to Iraq. The couple is now living off post in Hopkinsville, Ky., which Madi says is a little like Hudson.
James plans to attend air assault school and Ranger school in the coming months. He's been told he can expect to stay at Fort Campbell for a year, and then be deployed again - either back to Iraq or to Afghanistan.
Randy Hanson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.