Although he served in South Dakota’s Army National Guard, Tony Jones is reluctant to call himself a veteran.
“But I am taking veterans concerns with me and Sarge to Washington,” Jones said this week as he rode Sarge – his horse – along Finch Road.
Jones said he and Sarge started their trek in Rio Vista, Texas.
“It’s about 40 miles south of Fort Worth,” he said. The routes he and Sarge take tend to avoid the busier stretches of highway, such that his route from Jonesboro to Paragould took him up state Highway 351 to Highway 358 (Finch Road). From Finch Road, said Paragould VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) post 2242 commander Darvin Weatherspoon, Jones would head up Rockingchair Road to Fairview Road and across to Highway 49.
He stayed at the post overnight. The post is on Highway 49 north of Paragould. VFW posts have hosted and provided escort and logistical support to Jones on his trek.
After Paragould, said Jonesboro VFW post 1991 senior vice commander Robert Murphy said, Jones’ route would most likely proceed through Rector and Kennett, Missouri to northwest Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia and into the nation’s capital.
“It’s not really a set route,” Murphy said, “but we try to avoid the main thoroughfares and take the back roads.”
Murphy served as Jones’ escort and logistical support out of Jonesboro and into Greene County.
Along the way, Jones said, he talked to veterans and others he encountered about the things that are of greatest concern to those who have worn the uniform.
“And they say they appreciate all the niceties,” he said, “but they want to see the end of having to jump through hoops to get what they need from the VA [Department of Veterans Affairs].”
One good way to address what veterans are telling him are ills in the VA system, including perceived unresponsiveness, Jones said, is to replace civil service employees with military retirees from the bottom up. “You put a Command Sergeant Major in charge,” he said, “and then you’ll see things get done!”
A command sergeant major is the highest enlisted rank, generally typified by anywhere from 20 to 30 years of active service, with attendant experience, leadership and management skills.
In addition, Jones said, those service personnel approaching their dates of separation, and those recently discharged, could most definitely benefit from a program similar to a “halfway house,” to facilitate and ease the transition from the military to the civilian world. “They have them for people who have broken the law,” he said. “So why not have something similar for those who have served the country with honor?”
Another issue Jones said he hopes to bring to the attention of the leaders in Washington D.C. is the large number of suicides by veterans.
“We’re losing too many good people,” he said. “and not just the young ones, either. If we can’t quit hating, and take care of this, then what are we?”
Jones said he hopes to speak with Congressional leaders as well as President Donald Trump when he arrives in Washington. He said he has no timetable for arrival, however.