ONE ARMY VETERAN’S APPROACH TO LIFE
Army Veteran AJ Jones packed a lot into her 10 years in the military, and she would tell you that it definitely shaped her approach to life after the service. The lessons Jones learned in the military have served her well, whether as a Soldier, a Mother or a Veteran. Regardless of the role, her method is clear: to stay focused, positive and always moving forward.
A TRAUMATIC TURN OF EVENTS
Yet Jones might not have ever joined the military at all if it weren’t for a traumatic turn of events in her personal life. It happened during spring break her freshman year of college. She was with her family when her dad had a sudden, massive heart attack. She and her sister immediately administered CPR, but to no avail. He died in the arms of his daughters, despite their courageous efforts to save his life.
MAKING LIFE-CHANGING DECISIONS
The event was devastating for her family, and it left Jones reeling. She was very close with her father before his sudden death, and she took it especially hard. He died March 10th, 2001. By May 10th, she was married and on her way to Army basic training. Jones chose the Army because her father had been a Soldier, too. “I was in an altered state of consciousness. And I made so many huge, life-changing decisions within the month after he passed, but it worked out.”
The sudden decision was something her mom struggled with, but she was supportive of her daughter regardless. “When I left for basic, my Mom was like, what are you doing? She couldn’t even wrap her mind around it. But this was pre-9/11 and I’m like, it’s fine.” Jones was so upset over her father’s death and just needed to get away. “I’m like, I gotta get out of here. I can’t. I gotta go.” She could tell her family didn’t understand, but they were supportive anyway.
HER CONTRIBUTION TO THE ARMY
So at 18 years old Jones found herself in the Army, preparing to work in the intelligence field.
After basic, the Army trained Jones to be a Common Ground Station Operator, responsible for detection, tracking and analysis of specific on ground and air targets. Next, she cross-trained as a Geospatial Intelligence Imagery Analyst, a job that provides Army personnel with critical information on enemy forces, potential battle areas, and combat operations support.
Jones then trained for JSTARS, the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System. In addition to lengthy classroom instruction, she completed flight training, SERE school, and water survival training in order to be cleared to fly. She spent five years as an Airborne Targeting Surveillance Supervisor and flew more than 2,000 combat hours on the JSTARS platform alone. In the end, Jones deployed three times for Operation Iraqi Freedom and twice for Operation Enduring Freedom. Outside of combat tours, she spent her time at Robins Air Force Base, Fort Huachuca, and Fort Hood.
In the end, Jones deployed three times for Operation Iraqi Freedom and twice for Operation Enduring Freedom.
PROVING SHE BELONGED
As a black, female soldier who spent a good deal of time working at an Air Force Base, she faced her share of challenges. Most of those challenges meant having to prove she belonged. Some at her command were dismissive of her for being Army. “They say the Army takes everybody. And there’s a stigma that people in the Army aren’t smart. But it’s just not true. That’s a common misconception, but there are a lot of smart people in the Army.”
Jones relished the opportunity to prove wrong the negative assumptions of others, but it didn’t come easy. “When I had my uniform on, I was a totally different person. Being a woman—being a black woman in intel where it’s mainly white men, a lot of times I felt like my voice was not being heard. You have to prove yourself.” And these were not the only hills for her to climb. After lengthy training schools, Jones showed up to her first command as a pregnant E-4 filling an E-6 slot. “When I got there, it was like, who are you and why are you here?”
HER CAPABILITIES CHALLENGED
During one training, Jones specifically remembers (as a newer E-5) being challenged by an E-7 over her test scores. Going from college to basic to AIT, she’d been in school for so long that testing came naturally. “I would like to think I’m pretty smart—I’ve always made good grades in class and gotten straight A’s in school. So we’re there testing, I’m doing lessons and stuff, and I had the highest score in class. Well he didn’t like that. He felt like I was cheating because I made higher scores than he did.”
She was boldly accused of cheating, with the distinct implication that she could not have possibly been more intelligent than a man with more time in service.
As Jones recalls, this male E-7 had lengthy experience with the platform in question, and just could not believe that she could have less experience and earn higher scores. She was boldly accused of cheating, with the distinct implication that she could not have possibly been more intelligent than a man with more time in service.
As someone who’s been tutoring since the eighth grade, Jones has long had a passion for teaching and education. It felt especially odd for her to be accused of cheating. “In school growing up, I never had anybody suspect that I was cheating, or I wasn’t smart enough, so it was really different for me. But I took that, and I turned it into a positive. Anything in my life that ever happens, I try to make the best of it, you know?” She sees such events as a learning tool—an opportunity to observe, assess and most importantly, be able to put herself in someone else’s shoes.
OVERCOMING AGEIST ASSUMPTIONS
Jones has also battled ageist assumptions based on her appearance. “I’m older than people think I am, so that’s also played a part in people treating me the way they have, because they think I’m a little kid.” Even now in her current work, people still question her ability to perform, assuming she’s new. They’re often surprised when she politely responds with her 20 years of experience.
She laughs about this misperception, recalling her time in college as a tutor. “I was tutoring at an elementary school or a middle school. And someone asked me if I had a hall pass!” She had to tell them she didn’t go to school there; she was there to tutor students. “I still get that now, you know—people don’t believe my son is 18.”
TURNING NEGATIVES INTO POSITIVES
Naturally, Jones finds it frustrating to be dismissed for the successes and accomplishments she’s worked so hard for. But she copes with that by not letting people see her upset about it. “If you react in a way that is—for lack of a better word, unbecoming—you’re always going to be seen for how you reacted. And then you have the stigma of the angry black woman.” Instead, she prefers to take a step back, breathe, and assess the situation for next steps.
A SOLDIER RAISING A STRONG, INTELLIGENT SON
Like many women who serve, Jones was also married and raising a child while on Active Duty.
Having to spend time away from her son was by far the toughest aspect of her military service. “I started leaving him when he was maybe four months old. I was going on all these deployments—I would come back and he wouldn’t know who I was.” Despite the fact that he was with family when she deployed, she still found it incredibly hard. “Leaving was the toughest, and I was gone for so long. But you do what you have to do to take care of your kids.”
Now divorced from her son’s father, it’s been just the two of them since he was five. Parenting alone in uniform carries added challenges, but that didn’t stop her from raising a strong, intelligent son. “We’ve moved to different places, he had to make new friends, and he’s also the only child. I really think that has made him stronger, because he’s not afraid to go off and do new things—he’s ok with it.”
When negatives come up in life, she is a firm believer that they talk about it instead of sitting on ill feelings or holding grudges. “How could things have been different? What could we have changed? Then you move forward from there. That’s just kind of my philosophy.”
While being a military child is not always easy, Jones feels her son has largely benefited from the experience. “He’s very well rounded culturally—he can go anywhere and sit down at a table with anyone and have a conversation.” At 18, he is now in college pursuing a dual degree in engineering and physics. It comes as no surprise that Jones is incredibly proud of her son.
MAKING THE BEST OUT OF EVERYTHING
Jones is not one to dwell on difficulty. “I just try to make the best out of everything. Shit happens. What can you do about it? Either you’re gonna dwell on it, or… take it for what it is, turn it into something positive, make it a learning moment, and then go forward from there. That’s really all you can do. Why stress and be down?”
It is a perspective she shares often with her son and others in her life. “If someone has wronged you and you’re upset about it, do you really think they care? Now you’re the one dwelling on whatever happened, and this person—they’ve moved on with their life. So who’s winning? They still don’t care. They’re winning and you’re losing because here you are grumpy and upset, your day has been ruined, and their day’s going on just fine,” she says matter-of-factly. “So just take it for what it is. Vent about it if you need to, talk to someone. Just use it and continue on. Why be stressed about something you can’t control? You can’t control other people, but you can control yourself.”
FINDING COMMON GROUND
Jones learned these lessons through the wide variety of people and situations she encountered in the military. “Even if you’re pissed with somebody, you still have to work with them. And it’s different being in the military versus the civilian sector. Because you can despise somebody, but that’s your battle buddy. You have to find a way. And it has to be pleasant. Because who wants to be in a crappy position for two or three years? You’re upset, bitter, angry, mad, whatever—having ill feelings for two or three years. Who wants to do that? Make the best out of it. Find common ground with that person and just go forward from there.”
MANAGING PTSD POST-SERVICE
Even when talking about PTSD, Jones shifts toward the positive. “I do suffer from PTSD. But I know my triggers. I know situations that I can deal with, and situations that I can’t deal with.” She sees what is coming for her friends who haven’t yet separated, and encourages them to be aware their own triggers as they transition back to civilian life.
“Especially once you’ve been on deployment, you have to know what your triggers are. If you’re feeling some kind of way about something, write it down—where you were, what time of day, the situation going on around you. Once you can identify those things, it helps out tremendously.”
A LIFE SHAPED BY MILITARY SERVICE
Good, bad or indifferent, Jones wouldn’t change anything about her time in the military. “It’s really shaped who I am, and not only who I am, but who my kid is. I think I’m a better person for it, because I get it. Both sides, being military and civilian.”
Despite a few trials and tribulations, the time Jones spent in the military was deeply meaningful and it changed her life. “It means everything. Without it, I wouldn’t be where I am now. I started young—unfortunately I retired young because I was wounded—but what I did made a difference in my life. And I provided a service to my country.”
ON VETERAN IDENTITY
There are times when Jones feels invisible as a Veteran, but she is largely unfazed by it. “I think for me… other people can’t validate who I am and what I am. So someone else can’t make me feel invisible. My strength, my value, my worth, comes from within. I am who I say I am. No one else can validate who I am. People ask crazy questions all the time. But I wouldn’t let that devalue me or what I’ve done, or the service I’ve provided to my country.”
Regarding that service, she says, “What I did—what any woman does—it matters, and it counts.”
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