Rob Jones and his friend Ivan Kander grew up in western Loudoun County making movies together. Kander shot comedies, action films, school projects — all kinds of stories — with a clunky old camcorder, always starring Jones.
“I always wanted to be the person telling the story,” Kander said. “Rob always wanted to be the person in the story.”
Jones joined the Marine Corps and became a combat engineer. Last summer, while searching for IEDs in one of the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan, he triggered an explosion that blew off most of his two legs.
Within days, back at the National Naval Medical Center, when Jones was still freaking out on morphine, having more surgeries than he could count, wracked by phantom pain in the limbs that were no longer there and unable to sleep because of nightmares and flashbacks, he and Kander decided to make another movie. Starring Rob Jones, of course.
“Survive. Recover. Live. — The Rob Jones Story” was screened July 22 at Loudoun Valley High School, from which they both graduated in 2003. Hundreds of people came, raising more than $4,000 for the Wounded Warrior Project, Kander said.
The day of the screening marked the first anniversary of the day of the blast.
When Jones walked down the aisle to the front of the auditorium before the movie started, step by careful step in his Virginia Tech shirt (he’s an alum), the audience members stood and applauded. Some had tears in their eyes.
But they were laughing during the documentary. “It’s not a sad story,” Kander said.
“It’s heart-wrenching, but it’s fun, it’s funny, it’s upbeat,” said Leslie Bower, who heard about Jones’s injuries at church and ended up going door-to-door urging people to watch it.
After the screening, Jones took questions from the audience. “One of the things that came up was, he’s been turned down for disability twice,” Bower said. He said, “ ‘It’s okay, because there are people out there that need it more than I do.’ That to me says an awful lot about Rob. He’s more than okay. He’s great.”
Jones remembers hearing a boom that day, last July. When he came to, he didn’t feel pain — not yet, that came soon enough — but intense pressure, as though his legs had fallen asleep, exponentially magnified.
One of his friends said on camera that right after Jones yelled, he asked what was missing. If it was more than his legs, he said, “shoot me now.”
It wasn’t. “And then bam, he’s good.”
Once back in the United States, Kander filmed Jones looking pale and gaunt and covered in tubes in a hospital bed — as different as could be from the tan, muscular Marine in camo in earlier photos. He was sending a video message to a friend from Midlothian, Va., who’d been hit, too. Rob’s voice was weak but steady as ever: First, we need to come up with a good workout plan.
After all the surgeries and skin grafts, he went to Walter Reed Army Medical Center to learn how to walk without legs. The film shows him getting his first stubbies, little flat fake feet, then feet that flex at the ankle, then longer legs. He told his therapists he wanted to be able to walk by November, at the Marine Corps ball. And he did, exhausted but having a great time, in his dress uniform, leaning on two canes.
Over the months, he learned to walk on city streets, to ride a bike attached by cable to a track, to swim and to run.
Jones has an internship with the FBI and might like to be a special agent.
“Still taking it to the bad guys, even though I don’t have legs anymore,” he says on camera.
The documentary ends with him cracking a joke, the short stumps of his legs tracked with rough stitches like a baseball.
Real life keeps rolling, off camera. He’s planning to compete in a race next month: the Nation’s Triathlon, which loops past the monuments in Washington with a 1.5-kilometer swim, a 40-k bike ride and 10-k run.
Last week, he was the last person training at Walter Reed, which is closing, his coach Patrick Johnson said. He’s always already working out when Johnson arrives for a training session. “His discipline is better than any athlete I’ve worked with in 20 years,” and he’s someone other wounded service members look up to, Johnson said. He doesn’t complain. He doesn’t brag. And he’s been able to advance swiftly because he’s so motivated.
When Jones was asked about rowing, “Does it hurt?” he laughed and said, “Only if I’m doing it right.”
How good is he? “That’s what we’re going to find out this weekend,” Johnson said; Jones and a teammate competed with the pair who will be representing the United States at the World Games next month. Jones also was competing solo in another race.
Johnson thinks Jones is good enough to go after a spot on the U.S. team. “Just like with any elite athlete, it’s the combination of having the natural ability, having the strength, having the discipline. He has the whole package, and anyone who sees him goes, ‘Wow — he looks amazing.’ ”
After drills, then ripping across the river in a sprint past canoers and kayakers who almost seemed to be sitting still, Jones was spent. He pulled himself out of the scull with his arms with a little hop, slipped his prosthetic legs back on and popped upright — by pushing himself up with his arms into an upside-down V, then straightening at the waist. He bent at the waist to pick up the oars, then carried them up the metal ramp toward the boathouse.
He wasn’t nervous about the race. “It should be fun,” he said, and grinned.
It was. He came in a close second in both of his races.
Just wait for the sequel.