Part of the Philadelphia City Paper article series on Philadelphian causalities of the War in Iraq. Originally published in the September 29th-October 5th, 2005 issue, online version available here. I was, and remain, very moved by this man’s story. — CS 14.06.2008
Infantry: 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division, Fort Hood, Texas
Died: Sept. 30, 2004 in Abu Ghraib, age 21
Rodney Jones was born at Jefferson Hospital on Christmas Day, 1982, and graduated from Roxborough High at the age of 16 with dreams of becoming the nation’s first African-American president. Working at the Internal Revenue Service when he was 18, R.J. became acting manager of an entire department within a year.
“Then, one day, out of a purple sky, he said, ‘I’m going to join the service,'” recalls his mother, Renee.
When his family, friends and the colonel of his Junior ROTC at Roxborough said they were shocked by his decision, he responded, “In order to be a good president, you need to have a military background, so that when you have to send people into war, you know what you’re talking about.”
Before he left for Iraq in January 2004, he devoured as much of the country’s history and language as he could; with that preparation, his unit often utilized him as a makeshift interpreter when none was available. Early in his tour of duty, after a fellow soldier died in a suicide bombing, R.J. sent a letter to his mother.
“It got me in the beginning when I heard the news because I was on the tower by our gate when they told us that it was only 500 meters from our base,” he wrote. “I couldn’t wait until my guard shift was up so I could get out of Dodge. Though if the bomb actually went off, there should have been enough explosives in that truck that it would have obliterated most of our base.”
His thoughts were prescient. On Sept. 30, 2004, R.J.’s unit was guarding the Abu Ghraib prison complex when another bomb-laden vehicle charged toward the gates. All Renee knows is that when all the soldiers turned to flee, R.J. turned around and confronted the suicide bomber. He died in the resulting explosion, but saved the lives of fellow soldiers.
Was it worth it?
When R.J. was last in Philadelphia, he talked about getting married to his sweetheart and buying a duplex. “He was the type of child the Bible talks about,” Renee says between sobs. Yet “it wasn’t a waste. He was trained to believe he was really doing good, but then he really saw the good he was doing. I don’t know how senseless this war may be; all I know is what my son told me. Yes, the conditions were deplorable, and he could have left the Army at any time because he had had a lot of childhood illnesses, but he thought that was the coward’s way out. He wanted to finish what he started.”
Back down in Fort Hood, R.J.’s platoon recently held a private memorial to honor a fallen soldier. Renee, however, remains angry that the city has done nothing to commemorate her son.