The year was 2010. Rob Jones, a corporal in the Marine Corps, was scanning the earth in Afghanistan with a metal detector, hoping to alert his patrol to IEDs laid by the Taliban. As he inched forward, he stepped on a mine that exploded beneath him. He describes the resulting injuries that have set his life on a new path with a blunt frankness. “My legs were immediately severed below the knee. And that’s it, that’s the end of my deployment. So I came home.”
In the years since, Jones has overcome what might have been a traumatic event to pursue a new mission, to raise money for veterans' charities by pushing himself to ever more gruelling physical feats. On Thursday, he is running the first of 31 marathons, in 31 different cities, in 31 days. His project will take him from London, where he is completing the first race, to Washington D.C. on Nov. 11 — Veterans Day, a fitting occasion on which to conclude.
By Jones' telling, he was able to reach within himself to bounce back after his life-changing injury. Many others struggle to do the same. Twenty-two veterans per day commit suicide in the U.S., and they are twice as likely as your average citizen to be chronically homeless. Although the nation’s treatment of veterans has come a long way since the days of the Vietnam war, they still face difficulty reintegrating into society, especially if they are injured.
“The isolation and the difficulty of reintegrating into the civilian world are I think what drives the suicide problem,” Jones says somberly, in a cafeteria just outside London on Oct. 9. He sips at his cup of tea, his two prosthetics invisible under the table. “Hopefully when a veteran sees that I was able to lose both legs above the knee and still have a purpose, still be a part of society, still contribute to my family, they can picture themselves doing it.”
It was in his freshman year at Virginia Tech that Jones made the decision to enlist in the Marine Corps Reserves. Three years in, an opportunity to deploy to Iraq presented itself, and he eagerly signed on. “The whole reason I joined [the army] was to go to war and fight,” he says. But he didn't get what he was hoping for. Although he found a sense of purpose and brotherhood in the Marine Corps he was lacking before, most of his time in Iraq was spent on patrols, following locals' tip-offs about hidden weapons caches. It was at a time in the Iraq war when the U.S. Military's focus had shifted away from pitched battles, towards consolidation and the training of Iraqi forces. Jones was looking for action, but it hadn’t materialized.
He would find it in Afghanistan two years later — or it would find him. After a few months of patrols similar to the ones he was doing in Iraq, his unit was transferred to Sangin, Helmand province. Suddenly, he was using his metal detector to find IEDs instead of buried weapons. Four months into that deployment, on a foot patrol escorting a vehicle column through dangerous territory, a Marine stepped on an IED that failed to go off. The blast cap fizzled as the men held their breath. Jones, recounting the experience, strikes a wide-eyed pose to illustrate their collective apprehension. “My job when that happens is to clear a route through that area, because [the Taliban] like to make secondary and tertiary IEDs,” he says. He was in the middle of that process when one exploded beneath him.
His “brothers” quickly bundled him into a helicopter with tourniquets hastily applied to both legs. “Those guys didn’t know if there was another IED, but when I got hurt they just came over,” Jones says with pride. Back in the U.S., he spent his time in intensive care relearning how to walk with prosthetics, quickly also taking up the challenge of learning to ride a bike, run, and row. On his blog, he writes: “The first message I sent to my buddy Daniel... was telling him that we needed to get back to working out, even though I was just released from the intensive care unit, and he was still down there.”
Only two years after losing his legs, Jones won a bronze medal in rowing at the 2012 Paralympics in London. The following year, he mounted his bicycle in Maine and rode for over 5,000 miles, through the winter, until he reached California. “There were times on my bike ride when I was cold, it was snowing, I was wet, I was bored,” he says. “But my objective was much more important than being warm, or dry, or comfortable, or entertained... That’s just part of the Marine Corps. Your mission is more important than you.” On that trip — the first leg of what he is calling the ‘Rob Jones Journey’ — he received an outpouring of support and raised $125,000 for veterans’ charities. He hopes that number will climb to $1 million after his 31 marathons.
Speaking to TIME four days before he runs the first 26 of the 806 miles the next month holds, Rob feels ready to get going. After eighteen months of training, he says he’s as ready as he’ll ever be. If his experiences since 2010 have taught him anything it’s to act while you can. “You can’t wait til you’re 100% ready to do something, because you're never gonna do it.”
You can donate to the Rob Jones Journey here: http://www.robjonesjourney.com/donate/