Close-up of Jones smiling in front of the Oakland Center

From Combat Medic to OU

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Katerina Mihailidis tells the incredible story* of Jesse Jones, a veteran combat medic currently attending Oakland University.

KM: Jesse Jones was a combat medic, who, like so many other veterans has a fascinating story to tell. It interested me greatly to discover that Jesse was as eager to share his story with me as I was to hear it. With very minor edits, I give you his story.

Close-up of Jones smiling in front of the Oakland Center
Jesse Jones stands in front of the Oakland Center at Oakland University. Jones attends OU and studies Biology and Creative Writing. Photo: Katerina Mihailidis.

Can you tell me a little bit about your life? Help me understand who you are. 

Jones: Hello all, my full name is Jesse James Jones and I am 25 years old. I grew up in Warren, Michigan, and it is probably best explained as being the city that touches the northern border of Detroit. I have both of my parents (Father is 56 and Mother is 53) who are still together, and one older brother who is essentially estranged.

My family was a cornerstone for me as I grew up, both of my parents worked very hard and because of that I was able to be a part of so much: sports teams, advanced classes, etc. I am attending a university because while I was an Active Duty soldier in the United States Army I had obtained my Associate’s degree in Health Sciences, so I knew I wanted to eventually continue my education in the science field. When I learned that the VA would pay all tuition for certain universities, I looked around at the top schools closest to me and Oakland University became perfect for me. I started my degree with a major of Biochemistry, but during my junior year I changed it to a double major of BS in Biology & BA in Creative Writing.

I would say my only passion outside of school is to weight-lift and exercise. I am still currently a junior, with what feels like ten years still to go. I do not currently work because I receive disability from an injury I sustained while overseas which lets me focus on school, but I plan to work after I graduate. Also, before I was at Oakland University I did work on an ambulance in Detroit.

KM: How old were you when you started serving? What made you decide to join the army? Is there a story behind your decision? What led to that moment? 

Jones: I was 17 and a junior in high school when I signed my contract, which meant that I had to get parental consent. I have to say that was tough, because my parents did not come around to the idea easily, but eventually did, which I am very thankful for.

I initially wanted to join because as a junior in high school who was among the, dare I say, “smarter” group of kids. Everybody around me was concerned with which school they wanted to go to and spending all their time trying to write essays to perfection or filling out applications to schools they knew they were never going to. To me, it would just mean another four years cramped in a tiny desk staring at a board. I did know that I could’ve gotten scholarships or gone to any school I wanted, but that wasn’t what I wanted at the time. I wanted to experience “real” life before I did the “calm” stuff, which led me to the military. I wasn’t a typical kid who knew he wanted to be something at 6 and stuck with it, I must’ve had a million different careers I wanted as I grew up. The only thing that stuck was that I wanted to help people, like medically if I could. So, when I was asked what job at the Army recruiter, I knew there was one that would combine my want to experience the world and live life to fullest and still continue my medical career and learn invaluable skills. I thought combat medic would be perfect, I’d be at the front lines but to help and heal. And that’s how I got the greatest job I ever had.

KM: How many years did you serve? How or why did you stop? Where were you at? How did each place affect your life?

Jones: I served just shy of four years, and I left with a medical discharge.

I started in Fort Benning, GA where my basic training took place. I would say that this was one of the most impactful experiences I had in the military, because it was just so eye-opening. Since it was an all-male basic, it felt like a long boy scout camp or intensive sports training camp. In between though, it was like a reality TV show. You saw how different people coped with new stresses they had never had before, and it really gets to some people. I’d say I really loved it though, because not only was I pushed so far past what I thought I could do physically, that I was learning brand new skills that were so exclusive. Not to mention, everybody from back home flooding you with mail and support. Looking back, I ask myself sometimes how I handled it all and I find my pride sweep over again.

Then, I immediately went to Fort San Antonio, TX and this was for my job training. My job code 68W had a training course that lasted about four and half months, and this was because the beginning of the course is actually an accelerated EMT course. It was followed by our Battlefield trauma training, and this is where it got real so fast for me. Our first day of Battlefield training, we were doing IV’s. There was so much being taught, but actually properly absorbed, all at the same time. We eventually knew how to treat anything you can imagine, from gunshot wounds to multiple amputations and even airway trauma. The fact that I carried a scalpel and could confidently use it in an emergency situation, under enemy gunfire, is something that will never cease to amaze me. They taught us that we were there to save lives, and after the training I received I knew I could do just that.

Next, at the end of my training in Texas I got my orders for the permanent duty station that I would work the rest of my contract. This was in Fort Polk, LA where I was attached to a light infantry battalion. The highlight of being in Fort Polk was my time working at our battalion clinic, because the amount of knowledge I obtained there is immeasurable. At the clinic there were about three medics that would work under a licensed PA (Physician’s Assistant) who was a CPT which is an officer in the Army. We would call him Doc because he was essentially just that. Our clinic consisted of walk-in emergency care and scheduled appointments during the day for chronic medical issues. This is where I excelled, I found myself diagnosing, prescribing, and even ordering radiology imaging. After we showed our Doc that we could be trusted he literally made no limit for what we could do or learn. Obviously, everything is triple checked by the end of the day by the Doc, but the mistakes definitely were close to nothing after a few months there. After successfully helping some soldiers get the chronic issues actually treated or helped, you’d become that “good” medic and it really meant the world to me. This was my first and last duty station before I left the military, and I left with a medical discharge because of a closed head injury I sustained from an IED overseas. I initially fought the discharge because they had promised a second deployment to Iraq, but after they changed their mind I decided the medical discharge was the best decision for me.

Lastly, while I was at Fort Polk, LA it was only two months after I got there that I was chosen to deploy to Afghanistan with our Charlie Company as the 4th Platoon Medic. It was a total shock to me because I was in a different company than Charlie and they had all the medics they needed. At the last minute, they assembled a 4th platoon (which consists of about 30 guys and one medic) and decided I was the best choice out of like 15 medics to go with them. Like out of movie, calling everyone back home and telling them, and hearing them immediately crying and not understanding your excitement. There were a lot of people that wanted to get out of it, but I knew this is what you became a soldier for. This was the proving grounds, per say, of whether or not you had what it took. That having that deployment set you aside from those who didn’t, and all the ridicule they received because of it.

My experience in Afghanistan was that of a kid in a toy store. I wanted to do everything, learn anything, and just experience all that there was. I never stopped, I’d either be walking through making sure all the guys were good and healthy, working with the infantrymen learning how to operate the bigger machine guns, or helping the mechanics keep our trucks up and running. To be honest, it was the only time in my life I felt as though I mattered and what I did really was worth something. I was there for nine months in total, we all wanted to stay longer on the outside but we all really wanted to be home and relax. Out of all of the places I had been in the military, I would want to go back to Afghanistan and serve purposefully like I did before.

KM: Did you bring any special object with you? If you brought an object to you, can you tell me more about that object and what it means to you?

Jones: I don’t have an object that I brought with me, but there was one I had acquired during my first mission overseas. When I was there in 2013-14 it was uncommon to have any time outside of the base and it was very few and far between, but for some reason we stayed crazy busy. So, we left in about three-four gun trucks in a convoy style pattern and in each of the trucks there about three-seven men. There is a driver, gunner, TC (Truck Commander or Highest ranking), and your extra passengers (up to three). I normally rode in the second truck of the convoy, but being that this was the first mission and we were getting our bearings I was originally supposed to drive the first truck. Mind you, this is literally the first time I am seeing the local land and out in the public where there is an actual threat of the enemy. Also mind you, I am 19 at the time and trying not to freak out.

As the medic, I needed to have an extra sense of control about me or the guys wouldn’t trust me. It was really hard to hide the fear, but you do what you have to do in those situations. So, before we left, the SSG (Staff Sergeant) that was the TC for my truck asked me if I’d ever driven a truck like this before, and when I said no he immediately switched with me giving me the front passenger seat. I was ecstatic, because that is typically reserved for the highest ranking in the truck (I was a private, which is the lowest of the low). Not to mention the view you have from the front, the guys in the back were asking ME to take pictures for them because I had such a better view. So we had been riding for about an hour and got to the main capital Kabul. I was just alive, watching this new culture and new world work and function. Trying to catalog everything and anything I could, my eyes would begin to dry out because I didn’t want to blink and miss something. Then, all of the sudden, the battery box (the step beneath the passenger door is a box door that swings out, and on that door has the battery for the truck) swung open, and we needed to stop and fix it. I didn’t know why we were stopping and before I could turn to ask, I am getting screamed at to get out of the truck, all by myself, and try to fix the door. I froze, you want me to what? and where? The SSG driving started screaming that if we didn’t hurry and stayed in one spot too long that the enemy would close in on us, and at this point I have yet to step my boots on the ground, let alone by myself in the middle of the buzzing capital. So as I got out of the truck, literally shaking so bad I thought I was gonna drop my weapon, I found the latch to the battery box door was broken and wouldn’t stay shut. Around me I could hear and smell everything, it was so much to experience at one time.

As I was struggling, a local police officer came up, and I froze again, just astonished that he would just walk right up to me because I hadn’t known any interactions with the locals yet. He looked, then tore a piece of cloth from his top and tied the door shut with it. I couldn’t believe what I had just seen, so as I could hear my SSG still yelling for me to hurry I made one more attempt at the latch and got into the truck trusting the little cloth. I told the SSG, and he said just to keep an eye on it because it was more important we got out of the congested area. We made it all the way to base, and that little cloth became my rabbit’s foot. I tied it on the front of body armor right next to my name. It was tied to me when I got blown up all three times and after being shot at, in some ways I could have that cloth to thank for me still being here. To this day it hangs from my rear-view mirror of my truck, and it still gives me shivers every time I think of the story.

KM: What/who did you leave behind?

Jones: To be honest, in the military there are two breeds of soldiers. Single or Married. If you were single, you all lived together in a dorm-style building called barracks. Living with these guys 24/7, they become your family, and because my family was still home 1200 miles away I didn’t see them right before I left. So on the day everyone said goodbye to their families, those of us who weren’t married or whose families couldn’t afford to fly in, found relief in each other. It was tough watching everyone get to say their goodbyes the day of our departure, knowing I only got to see my own family a month or two before that. In all, I know I left my personal family behind but because the guys around me became such good family you don’t feel like your leaving anyone behind. If that makes sense, so for me it was different. I was trying to hard to be absorbed in the mission and what was needed of me to make sure my guys stayed healthy, that it most likely affected me differently than others.

KM: How did you feel when you left?

Jones: So, when I left for Afghanistan I found myself to have an even mixture of fear and excitement. From the day I got the phone call that I was told I was deploying, to the day I left, I did nothing but prepare. Obviously, there was the physical aspects, but I was much more concerned with making sure I knew every scenario in which some kind of trauma was inflicted and needed to be treated. Day and night, I would go over my procedures and protocols. I must’ve repacked my aid bag, the one that I would carry while I was on patrol, at least 10-12 times trying to figure out which would either be most tactical or advantageous for certain scenarios. But then the fear would kick in, because they really stressed that the deployment we had and where we were going, that we were gonna see some stuff. In my head, that means prepare that you honestly might not come home. I somehow was able to come to terms with that fairly easy, maybe it never really fully settled in, but that fear obviously didn’t hold me back.

Jones smiling on Oakland University's campus
Jesse Jones in front of the Oakland Center at OU, Auburn Hills, Mich., Mar. 25, 2019. Jones said he had to “flip off” his “killer” instincts when he came back to America. Photo by Katerina Mihailidis.

KM: How did you feel when you returned? Describe how your life is different now, if it is. 

Jones: So, after I got back from Afghanistan I knew I was different. One of the biggest things that I had to accept right off the bat was that when I was there I knew everyday I would have to be okay with the fact that I might have had to kill someone. It was like they flipped this inner killer instinct switch inside of you that allows you to cross the morality line and be this ruthless killer who doesn’t take any s***, and when you got back you needed to be able to flip that off. They somehow wanted you to understand that your “killer” instinct was only meant for over seas. They had lecture after lecture, safety briefings, and safety seminars on how to properly integrate back to the American rules. The way you live over there is out of necessity mostly, but you begin to love the rugged, simple lifestyle. You knew what you needed to do, why you were there, and what your purpose was to the mission. I, Jesse Jones, was there to ensure the safety and well-being of the soldiers in my care. Now I, Jesse Jones, am a veteran who is unsure how I am supposed to contribute to society or what my purpose is. It was so easy in the military, there was always an answer to your question. Even one as seemingly deep as “what is your purpose?” Some people go their whole life without ever answering that question, but for at least nine months out of my life, I could confidently answer that question. I would give anything to have that certainty back.

KM: Did your serving affect your relationship with your family or others in your life? If yes, how?

Jones: I would say serving has affected every relationship I have or will ever continue to have. The only relationships it CAN’T affect are the ones I share with other veterans who have deployed, or guys that I personally served with.

To speak of my parents specifically, despite them continually wanting to know every little thing about my life in the military, there are still a plethora of things that I chose not to share with them. I mean it really did bring us closer than we had ever been before, it tore them up when I called them after getting injured overseas and I know going through that is something that impacted them just as strongly as it did me.

To speak of the friends I had before I joined, it ultimately tore us apart. They tell you before you leave the military that your friends won’t be the same and that you won’t just go back to the way things were, but I thought my friends and I were different. Not at all. I never realized that I was growing and having all my personal experiences and that so were all my old friends and that their lives continued. It honestly felt like we were just not in sync anymore, and it feels sad but at the same time it’s so much harder to fight what I’ve become.

To speak of intimate relationships, those have become the toughest. Because as you deal with all the issues you have of reintegration into the civilian world, you’re also trying to really learn who you are. My experiences and injuries have only intensified amount of personal power it takes to deal with these issues, so to allow someone into my life while I am still just so fragile as I try to understand what I’ve become, never works out. They don’t understand the way I do certain things or the way I act, and I can’t ask for them to go beyond reasonable understanding or even try to help fix myself. Ultimately, I’ve given up on any type of close relationships until I understand how serving has really affected me.

KM: If you were to choose three experiences abroad, which ones would you say influenced your life the most? Why? 

Jones: I would say the number one experience abroad that influenced my life the most was when I was injured by the first IED I encountered.

Disabled truck in Afghanistan, at night
Truck is disabled when hit with an IED in Afghanistan. The motor compartment is separated from the cab, allowing the blast wave to dissipate through the opening and not being fully absorbed into the truck which saved the soldiers’ lives. Photo: Jesse Jones

After two weeks of being in Afghanistan, we were going on missions everyday and some would last two or three days. We mostly did mounted (or in vehicles) patrols, and would take food and water to extremely small bases that were right outside of our bigger base. These little bases would only have 30 guys at most, where ours had 60-70 guys. We had much more resources than those out in the villages so we would need to regularly resupply them with essentials. It was one of these nights that we were heading to a smaller base when the truck I was in was blown up by a 300-450-lb. IED. It was strong enough to blow the truck I was in, in half. The truck was separated by the motor compartment and the cab by about 10 ft. The was a crater in the ground that ran the length of the road and roughly 3-4 ft deep, where the concrete of the road was at least a foot of that but reduced to rubble.

Initially, after the explosion I went unconscious and only remember a flash of light. When I came back to, I was slumped in the seat and being held awkwardly by my seat-belt because the truck no longer was on four wheels. There was only silence and I kept repeating to myself “Did that really happen?”, as I was checking myself for blood I noticed the other guys coming to, as well. I was in such shock, I almost forgot that it was my job to start checking the guys. Nobody had any visible bleeding, and so it was protocol for us to get a smoke grenade out after being hit to signify that either everyone is okay or someone is hurt. The person in the back thought he got the [smoke] grenade out, so when our guys came to the truck they were running and throwing everything out of the way to get to us. They later told us when they didn’t see us moving or the smoke grenade, they were sure everyone was dead because of the size of the explosion.

After I was taken out of the truck, I was given a field concussion test that determined I was positive for a concussion. I didn’t even realize at the time I was failing a test that I had practiced so hard, not even a day or two before that injury. That only helps to show how hard of a hit it really was. What further drove the shock was, as we rushed to base, everyone kept saying if it had gone off a second sooner or if we had a different style truck that there would have been no way we could have survived or been maimed. It took me about 24 hours before the initial shock wore off, and I was able to get back out there. Not two weeks after that I was blown up again, but this was only 50-100 lbs. and was during the daylight. Then the third one was about three months after that, and that one resulted in small arms fire as well.

Disabled truck in Afghnistan, at night
Jones’ Truck Commander stands by the disabled gun truck, immediately assessing the situation at the scene of IED explosion in Afghanistan. The Truck Commander who was in the vehicle during the explosion was the group’s convoy commander. Photo: Jesse Jones

And the second [experience] would be finding the little piece of cloth, see [above].

The third experience abroad that influenced my life significantly was an encounter I had with a couple of local kids while I was on a mission later in my deployment. The mission was to patrol a village, which meant five-eight of us would do a walk-through of the village and ensure that was no enemy or suspicious activity. After we swept the village, we had a sniper in our group, so we established a sniper over-watch of the village on the cliff next to it. Again, I am a 19-year-old medic and I among some decorated infantrymen and a hardcore sniper. It was just so intense and exhilarating.

When you set up the over-watch, you really aim to be unnoticed but whenever we left our trucks it became a huge thing among the villagers, and they all knew we were there. As I am laying on this cliff, watching our backs, I see three kids around 5 or 6 years old wanting to come up to us. I always liked entertaining the kids, so I didn’t mind. They had a tea pot and a tray with cups, they wanted to bring us tea, but in the back of my mind the steel tea pot was pretty suspicious. Even though our commander didn’t want them coming up to us, they started walking anyways. I thought to myself, that these kids are fearless. You have five soldiers carrying massive amounts of weaponry and they just want to bring us some tea. When they walked up, I was the only one who gave them any attention. So, I immediately put my finger to my lips to signal they had to be quiet and they were just so curious that they seemed to understand. I ended up giving them all the gum and snacks I had on me. Of course, they always asked for more and I don’t blame them. After I ran out of goodies, I started going through my aid bag showing them different tools and everything. They were giggling and lighting up, they wanted to go through my aid bag themselves but I obviously didn’t let them. The last thing I did was motion for the youngest kid to come up, and I pulled out my pulse reader (which is worth a couple hundred dollars), and I grabbed the kids arm tight when I put the reader on him so he wouldn’t run away with it. I’ll never forget seeing his face light up, when he realized the flashing light was his own heartbeat. I just kept pointing to our chests, making a beating motion with my hands till he realized. I was the only one who gave any time to those kids, I am so happy I did because I’ll never forget their little faces and the excitement they had.

Jones smiles in front of the Oakland Center on OU's campus
Jesse Jones stands in front of South Foundation Hall at OU, Auburn Hills, Mich., Mar. 25, 2019. Jones sees his confidence and pride as a sign of his strength. Photo: Katerina Mihailidis

KM: What do you want others to understand about your life, your identity. 

Jones: If there was one thing I wish that other people could understand about my life it would be for them to handle my ferocity, it’s the one trait that has made me who I am from the military. Anytime I handle a situation, I go into it with total control, and when I first got out, it would more often than not turn into a serious bout of anger. Now it’s a feeling of utmost confidence and pride. I see this as a sign of my strength, but people always see this as an anger issue or something that is wrong with me. I’ve taken time and really thought about what people would say, but at the end of the day I found them to be unfortunately jealous because they couldn’t be as strong as me. That they couldn’t fathom having such confidence and certainty, that would rather see me lose my own strength so that they become less self-conscious of their lack of strength.  But don’t get me wrong, I wish everybody could have this strength and go take what they want. I understand why they feel that way, but it always makes me feel like I am the one who needs to change.

KM: Since you’ve been back, have you ever felt excluded or as if you don’t belong? When are those feelings stronger, if you feel them, or is there a place where you feel more included or understood? 

Jones: I wouldn’t say that I have ever felt excluded, but during my college experience so far, I found that I was completely different than everyone around me. I thought when I was going to a university that I would be around more adults with a couple years of experience under their belts, but it has only been 18-year old’s who have yet to really spread their wings and mature at all. It makes it nearly impossible to have a conversation with anyone because they don’t understand my seriousness or that I am having to watch every other word I say for any profanity. It honestly feels like I must put a mask on when I am in environments like this, because if they saw how I really was they’d even be standoffish or judgmental. I know that I should have more patience because not everybody gets thrusted into adulthood like I did through the military, but overly high expectations of others is one of the hardest things to shake from the military.

I mean, I was apart of a group of people who woke up every morning and made sure every little thing they did was meticulously precise to the standards set by the Army. From appearance, to your work, and even to your health. Adjusting back to an environment, where collectively everyone follows their own standards is just hard for me to grasp. I constantly find myself asking, why is it so hard to do the right thing? I know veterans that I served with who refuse to go to college for that exact reason because they know they won’t mesh well with the other students at all.

KM: If you could change or improve one thing about the world, what would that be?

Jones: If I could change one thing about the world, and this may seem far-fetched, but I think everyone in the world should serve at least two years in their home country military. Not everyone needs to do something combat related, it’s the lifestyle and skill-set you leave with that makes it invaluable.

Instead of everyone assuming they are going to go from high school straight to college, they can go into the career field they proved best in high school and have the experience they need to get a job when they finish the two years; or at that time they can choose to go to college, but hopefully after learning those certain life skills in the military they would take college much more seriously. I think, and this is mostly in our own country, that so many young “adults” have themselves so close-minded that they forget there is a whole world out there full of so many beautiful cultures and people. If they could just experience it for themselves, I really feel they would live much more fulfilling lives.

* Thank you to Jesse, who contributed so much more to this story than a typical interview.

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