On a bicycle built just for him, 28-year-old Rob Jones rode into the parking lot of Chapelgate Christian Academy in Marriottsville on Thursday to the cheers of the student body and the family and friends who came to see him.
The former Marine and double amputee, who was born in Columbia and raised in Virginia, is riding across the country to raise money for a trio of charities that help veterans like himself through their challenges — the Coalition to Salute America's Heroes, the Semper Fi Fund and Ride 2 Recovery.
Jones said he's pleased so far with his progress.
"I'm doing better than I expected," he said. "I felt I would be really, really tired. My butt isn't as sore as I thought it would be."
The ride started Oct. 14 in Bar Harbor, Maine, and Jones' plan is to cycle to Virginia, then head west for San Francisco, ending in San Diego. Along the way, he'll cover more than 5,400 miles over five to seven months. The goal, he said, is to raise $1 million. According to his website, robjonesjourney.com, he has raised more than $26,000 thus far.
"He is a true American hero," family friend Wayne Greisz said of Jones. "It's his way of life now … to pay back to the charities that helped him."
As a combat engineer with the Marine Corps Reserve, Jones completed a tour of Iraq in 2008, then was sent to Afghanistan in 2010. It was there, while clearing an area of improvised explosive devices, that he stepped on a buried IED and was severely wounded.
The injury resulted in the amputation of portions of both legs — essentially at the knees. According to his website, after receiving his initial treatment, Jones began his recovery and rehabilitation at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
"His attitude got him through it. His positive attitude to get back up and out of there," said his father, Lenny Jones. "He was not going to let losing his legs keep him back."
After he was honorably discharged from the Marine Corps in December 2011, he moved to Florida to train for the 2012 London Paralympics in rowing. He won the bronze medal in the event. Using prosthetic limbs, he also trained by running and cycling during his recovery.
"He is such an inspiration to the staff and community," said David W. Walker, president and CEO of the Coalition to Salute America's Heroes. "I'm excited for him and all the people he is touching along the way. It is very heartening, and a great testimony to Rob and his selfless character."
Jones has already encountered many people on his journey, according to Steve Miller, 18, Jones' brother and the driver of the truck that follows him along his journey.
"I drive 5 miles per hour, 30 miles a day," Miller said with a smile. "Probably the biggest thing I learned was how nice everybody we've encountered wants to be. It's very refreshing."
Miller said he and Jones have been welcomed with dinners, free rooms and kindness. Miller is keeping a journal with all the business cards they have been receiving.
There have been some times on the road, Jones said, when a car passes him with an irritated driver blowing the horn, but for the most part it's been great, he said.
And he said the truck, with its two cots and sleeping bags, is OK, too.
On Thursday, after being greeted by Chapelgate students who swarmed his bike, Jones greeted family members who came to welcome him — cousins, his grandmother and his father, along with his father's former neighbors in Ellicott City.
Then he headed into the school, where he and his family were to have lunch before he spoke to the students.
"We are just proud and honored to support Rob in his mission," said Rob Van Ness, headmaster at Chapelgate. "We probably don't even know the energy he has to exert to do this. He's probably exhausted."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun