KAILUA-KONA — As a U.S. military veteran and former prisoner of war in Vietnam, Bob Jones has experienced a lot in his life.
On Sept. 7, he experienced something new — the feeling of more than 100,000 people honoring his life, accomplishments and sacrifices.
The Waimea resident, with the support of his family and friends, walked onto the football field of Michigan Stadium in front of a sold-out crowd.
“It was an outstanding experience,” Jones said. “There was 110,000 people in that stadium. … Most of them were Michigan fans, but they were very nice and genuine. People were high-fiving me, and the cheers were unbelievable.”
The recognition of Jones in the third quarter of Army’s 24-21 overtime loss to the Wolverines was part of the University of Michigan football program’s Military Appreciation Day. Jones was honored as the Veteran of the Game.
Jones is a 1965 graduate of West Point. He served in the Air Force for 11 years during and after the Vietnam War.
“I have a couple of friends that were Michigan graduates and were football players there, too, and they are very involved with Michigan still and Michigan athletics,” Jones said. “So they put my name forward. I’m a graduate of West Point, and I actually played football at Army. I guess they thought it was appropriate if an Army graduate and veteran would be honored that day.”
Jones was recruited out of high school to play football with the Army Black Knights as quarterback and defensive back. He played for two years before a baseball injury forced him out of contact sports.
Jones decided to become a pilot and join the Air Force after graduating from West Point. He was commissioned as a lieutenant.
“In those days, they allowed a number of graduates, cadets, to choose to change branches,” Jones said. “My dad and my uncle were both pilots in World War II, so I wanted to be a pilot for, really, my whole life, so I chose to be commissioned into the Air Force when I graduated.”
Jones finished pilot school and was assigned to fly an F-4 Phantom. His squadron, the 435th Tactical Fighter Squadron, was deployed to Vietnam.
“We flew missions over North Vietnam and over Laos,” Jones said. “And to go home, you had to have 100 missions over North Vietnam or one year period of time. Usually, it took 9-10 months to get 100 missions.”
Jones never made it to 100 missions. On Jan. 18, 1968, his plane was shot down.
“I was shot down on about my 80th mission,” he said. “And unfortunately, I was captured. It was a mission over North Vietnam, over a power plant in North Vietnam, I was captured and I was a prisoner of war for 62 months. So five years, two months.”
Jones was released from the POW camp during Operation Homecoming on March 14, 1973.
He stayed in the Air Force three more years before resigning in 1976. Jones was awarded two Silver Stars, two Bronze Stars, two Purple Hearts, the Legion of Merit, eight Air Medals and a POW Medal.
Jones was hired by American Airlines after leaving the military, and was a pilot with the airline until his retirement in 2003.
For his retirement, Jones chose to focus on his fellow veterans. He is the CEO of three companies: Veterans Sourcing Group LLC based in New York, West Point Services based in Waimea and Commoneo, based in Detroit.
“We’ve put a lot of veterans to work, and that’s kind of what we do now,” Jones said. “We try to help veterans just coming out of the military, and veterans in general; we try to help them get jobs.”
Jones and his wife, Freya, have lived on Hawaii Island eight years.
In Ann Arbor, Mich., Jones met up with two of his daughters, their husbands and his son to celebrate his accomplishments in the military. The University of Michigan Athletic Department gave more than 1,000 tickets for the game to veterans and their families to attend.
In the third quarter, Jones had all eyes on him.
“They tell me a lot of people had tears in their eyes, and I had tears in my eyes, too.” he said. “It was pretty humbling to have 110,000 people out there cheering for you. And it was nice for me because I had my family there and my friends and classmates and we could all share this together.
“I was there not just for me, but I was representing veterans and disabled veterans. So I was happy and honored to be there to not just to represent me, but all veterans.”
Email Elizabeth Pitts at email@example.com.