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
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
“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