Marine amputee visits Detroit on mission for 31 marathons in 31 days

DETROIT, MICH. - Rob Jones runs because he’s alive. He runs because he can’t stop moving.

He runs because he wants to send a message. He runs because he wants his fellow wounded veterans to know that there is a place for them on this planet.

So he runs. Every day. For 26.2 miles.

He won’t stop until he’s crisscrossed the country, hitting 31 cities in 31 days, thumping the pavement with his metal legs, shoveling in carbs, showering in his RV, packing up, hauling out, doing it all over again when morning breaks.  

His journey started Oct. 12 in London and will end Nov. 11 — Veteran's Day — in Baltimore. 

Last Tuesday, Jones ran on Belle Isle, his sixth marathon in as many days, beginning from his encampment at Bathhouse No. 8, the city’s skyline sparkling on the horizon, the Detroit River churning off his right shoulder.

Up Riverbank Drive. Left on Picnic Way. Left on Central Ave. Left on Portage Way. Back onto Riverbank Drive. A loop of 7.4 miles began in the dark, finished in the light, the sun rising over the trees to his east, flanked by a half-dozen Detroit police officers carving a path on their bicycles.   

On the first loop, a few dozen police academy cadets ran with Jones, along with a handful of locals who’d heard about his mission to raise awareness for struggling vets.

Aaron Bartal met Jones at Bathhouse No. 8. He’d taken the day off, driven from his home near Lincoln Park, followed the trail carrying a wooden pole affixed with 28 ribbons stitched with the names of fallen soldiers. He’d served with all of them.

Most had died during battle. The rest had died from heartbreak. Or despair. Or their inability to reintegrate into a society that wasn’t sure what to do with them.

“Veteran suicide is a big problem,” said Bartal, who served in the Army and did two years in Iraq. “Freedom isn’t free. A lot of people forget that.”

He had to remind himself late Monday night, still exhausted from running the Detroit Marathon on Sunday. Worried about missing work on Tuesday.

“Then I thought about it …,” he said.

Thought about what Jones was doing. Thought about what Jones had already done. Thought about what Jones had sacrificed. His legs. Above the knee.

So Bartal set his alarm, slipped a T-shirt over his head that read: “Never Forgotten.” And set off for Belle Isle.

Jones, 33, took a little longer route.

Technically, he began prepping for this journey more than a year ago. But, really, what led him here was what happened on July 22, 2010.

That day, like so many others, began with Jones trying to cut a path through a minefield for his infantry squad to follow. They were in southern Afghanistan, in the Sangin District, a rural landscape covered in poppy fields, hemmed in by mountains.

Occasionally, the squad would come across mud compounds, or creeks, whose banks held the roots of a few lonely trees.

“It was barren,” said Jones. “And my job was to find IEDs (improvised explosive device) with a metal detector and clear a path and, like, leave a little trail of bread crumbs for people to follow behind me.”

Jones joined the Marine Corps Reserves as a junior at Virginia Tech University. He had no family military history, or much inclination as a kid to be a soldier. He just decided it was something he needed.

That was 2006. Two years later he was in Iraq. He didn’t see much action there. Returned home. Got a civilian job with the Virginia Department of Transportation. Waited for his next mission.

Jones doesn’t remember much about that day in July. He was searching for explosives and, as he said, “one found me before I found it.”

He remembers screaming, then pleading for his fellow soldiers to end his life, then eventually starting the long journey home. By way of Bethesda (Md.) Naval Hospital and eventually Walter Reed Hospital, where he was fitted with prosthetic legs.

It took him a year to walk. Longer than that to learn to run. He craved movement. But also a sense of purpose. As with so many wounded veterans, he had to readjust to a new him.

Rowing helped the initial transition. In fact, he got so good at it he qualified for the Paralympics and won a bronze medal with his partner, Oksana Masters.

After rowing, he trained to become a triathlete. It didn’t quite work.

“But in that failure I learned I could bike and was pretty good at running,” he said.

Four years ago, he rode his bike from Bar Harbor, Maine, to Camp Pendleton, Calif., covering 5,180 miles in 181 days. He raised $126,000 for wounded veterans.

And while the story took hold for part of the country’s imagination for a moment, it was fleeting. And there are still too many lost veterans out there. And Jones wants them to know he hasn’t forgotten. 

“I wanted to provide a story for people to see that just because a veteran comes back from a war wounded, it doesn’t mean that they are broken or can’t reintegrate back into society,” he said. “I want veterans who are maybe struggling to see that. And I want civilians to see that so they can better understand both sides of the coin.”

So, he runs. For them. For us. For himself. 

Joining him on the cross-country pilgrimage are his wife, Pam Jones, his mother, Carol, and his driver, a buddy from back home in Loudoun County, Va. The four set out last week before flying to London, where Jones wanted to run his first marathon.

He ran there Oct. 12, got on a plane, flew to Philadelphia, ran there the next day, drove to New York City, ran there, drove to Boston, ran there Sunday, drove to Toronto, ran there.

On Monday night, after a four-hour drive down southern Ontario, Jones and his entourage arrived in downtown Detroit. He met Sgt. Kirk Kelsey at the Atwater St. police station parking lot, where the police had invited him to park his RV for the night.

It was Kelsey who suggested Jones run on Belle Isle.

“We wanted to host him,” said Kelsey. “We have veteran officers who work in our unit.”

Yet it wasn’t just the military kinship. It was the scope of Jones’ plan. No, of his will.

Here is a man who lost his legs above the knee, who returned home and saw the despair and suicide within the wounded vet community, who decided that he had to be the example. That he had to train for 18 months. That he had to run 26.2 miles every day for a month.

“It’s wonderful,” said Kelsey. “I don’t know how to describe it.”

It’s easier to witness it. Even in the dark.

Maybe especially in the dark, when Jones climbs from his RV to stretch, straps on his metal legs, finds the proper head space, and takes off.

Jones finished his Belle Isle marathon around 2 p.m. last Tuesday. He posed with the local runners who’d joined him. Then stood for more photos with Kelsey and the police who’d helped set up the route. They gave him a plaque, a Lions jersey and their awe. 

By then he was tiring and drenched in sweat. He needed to sit and take off his legs. He needed to eat.

“You’ve got 50 minutes for lunch and a shower,” said his wife, Pam. “And then we’re leaving.”

Columbus, Ohio, awaited. Another 26.2 miles. Another route through another city home to veterans like himself.

He had a story to tell. He had to run.

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© 2017 Detroit Free Press


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