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Released May 9, 2005

By David Tisdale

HATTIESBURG Mark Jones’ service in the United States Army included a stint as Airborne Ranger, but he admits his military career didn’t begin at such lofty heights.

The former University of Southern Mississippi football player left school to join the Army as a way to help his ailing wife with her medical expenses. His first assignment was as a cook, and jumping out of planes was the furthest thing from his mind.

“It’s not because I wanted to jump out of a plane,” said Jones, now retired from the Army, of his decision to make the move to the join the Airborne Rangers, which included additional financial incentives for its members. “Actually, I was terrified of heights, but it was the only way I could make ends meet.”

A Biloxi native, Jones went from the mess hall to the Airborne Rangers, where he earned the nickname “Ranger” for his intensity and dedication, logging more than 3,500 airborne jumps. His experience and reputation make him the only person that former President George H.W. Bush’s wife Barbara trusts to jump with her husband on his well-known skydiving ventures.

Jones rose to the heights in the military, with and without the help of an airplane. His sterling reputation and record of service helped elevate him to the position of top assistant to Gen. Henry Shelton, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Recently, he was asked by the Department of Defense to be its official spokesperson and was also asked to serve as host of a series of television shows that focus on military issues scheduled to air on ABC-TV.

He now heads his own company, Ranger Jones and Associates, which provides a variety of services, ranging from medical supplies to construction and security services. Jones also works to help veterans, both in Mississippi and across the country, through a variety of charitable ventures.

“I’m living a dream,” Jones says when he answers his phone, ever grateful for the opportunities that have come his way.

But in the mid-1980s, his dreams bordered on nightmares as his wife faced an uncertain future after suffering from an aneurism. Jones gave up school and football at Southern Miss to join the U.S. Army to secure medical benefits for his spouse. Today, Jones is using his experience, connections in government and the entertainment industry, as well as a deep concern borne from his personal experiences, to help families of military veterans struggling with medical expenses.

A cameo appearance in the Civil War movie Glory provided Jones with an opportunity to become acquainted with some of Hollywood’s top actors, including Denzel Washington, who he “recruited” in his efforts to help veterans. One of those efforts is supporting Fisher House Foundation, an organization that provides housing for the families of soldiers who are receiving medical treatment.

Jones took Washington on a tour of one of the facilities near Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, and after meeting some of the families that received assistance from Fisher house, the actor gave $500,000 to help fund the facilities.

According to Jones, soldiers who are injured and need medical treatment lose their special active duty pay once they become inactive, putting a financial hardship on the soldier and his family.

Jones said, for example, if a solider from Hattiesburg had to receive medical services at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., his or her family could stay for free at the nearby Fisher House facility, one of 30 of its kind across the country.

“It just doesn’t make sense,” Jones said of the situation injured soldiers face and why he is such a strong supporter of the Fisher House Foundation. “I had so much sympathy for the families of these soldiers because many was the day I had to sleep in my car when my wife was in the hospital because I couldn’t afford a hotel.”

Ironically, Jones is now working closely with a Southern Miss connection on a bidding effort to construct a veteran’s hospital in Puerto Rico. Larry Harrington, who is with Yates Construction Company’s government services division, is working with Jones on the hospital project. Harrington’s father, Larry “Doc” Harrington, the former longtime head trainer and tennis coach at Southern Miss, was a mentor to Jones during his days as football player at Southern Miss.

“He (“Doc”) was true blue to me, always encouraging me and being there for me,” said Jones, who had the unfortunate luck of being behind former Southern Miss and Pittsburgh Steelers star Louis Lipps in the USM wide receiver lineup. Though his playing time was limited as Lipps’ backup, he recalls his days as a Golden Eagle with pride.

“It’s funny how things work out now that I’m working with his (Doc’s) son on this project.”

The younger Harrington said that Jones’ company is acting as a teaming partner with Yates on the bid for the veteran’s hospital. A military veteran himself, Harrington said Jones is a dynamic individual, a patriot who loves his country and home state.

Jones is also involved in a project to benefit veterans who receive services at Keesler Medical Center in his hometown of Biloxi.

“He’s one of those guys who believes he’s been afforded some great opportunities in his life and wants to give back, especially to veterans,” said Harrington, a former Southern Miss football player who now heads the U.S. National Guard’s 168th Engineering Group based in Vicksburg. “It’s hard to find people like that.”

Jones lives in what is arguably the center of world power in Washington, D.C., but Mississippi is rarely off his mind. And despite all he’s accomplished, he hasn’t forgotten about Southern Miss, where he remains just a few hours short of earning a degree -- which he is determined to obtain.

“My goal is to get my degree from USM and walk across that stage at graduation (ceremonies),” he said.


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July 20, 2005 4:00 PM