Walter B. Jones Jr., a Republican congressman from North Carolina whose district included Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, was a staunch supporter of the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. He had even helped rebrand french fries as “freedom fries,” as a slap at France for opposing the war.
But he had an epiphany one day at a memorial ceremony at Camp Lejeune for Marine Sgt. Michael Bitz, 31, who had been killed in Iraq shortly after the invasion while trying to evacuate his wounded comrades.
During the ceremony, the sergeant’s 2-year-old son, Joshua, dropped a toy. A young Marine in dress uniform reached down to pick it up and handed it back.
“And the boy looked up at him, and the Marine looked down, and then it hit me,” Mr. Jones told Mother Jones magazine years later.
“This little boy would never know his daddy.”
Mr. Jones’s grief at this scene would lead to a dramatic political conversion against the war, putting him in opposition to his own party and President George W. Bush. It also led to years of trying to atone for his earlier support.
Mr. Jones died on Sunday, his 76th birthday, in Greenville, N.C., a statement by his office said. His health had been declining since September. Before he won re-election in November to his 12th term, he indicated that it would be his last. He then broke his hip in mid-January and was in hospice care at his death.
After witnessing that memorial ceremony, Mr. Jones decided to write letters to the families and extended families of every American killed in any conflict in which the United States had been involved since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“That was, for me, asking God to forgive me for my mistake,” Mr. Jones told NPR in 2017. A deeply religious man, he had converted to Roman Catholicism after growing up a Southern Baptist.
At his death Mr. Jones had written more than 12,000 letters. (More than 4,500 American military personnel have been killed in Iraq and more than 2,400 in Afghanistan.)
“Gradually, one letter at a time, Jones’s doubts about the war began to take shape,” Mother Jones magazine wrote in 2006.
Mr. Jones also began putting up pictures in the hallway outside his Capitol Hill office of all the American military personnel who had been killed since 9/11. As those numbers climbed, Mr. Jones limited the pictures to those of Marines from Camp Lejeune.
A pivotal moment for him came when his daughter, Ashley, gave him the audiobook of James Bamford’s “A Pretext for War” (2004).
In her review, The New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani wrote that the book “draws a scathing picture of ideologues in the Bush administration, manipulating dubious evidence about links between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein and flawed information about weapons of mass destruction in the push toward war.”
Mr. Jones’s sorrow over the loss of lives now gave way to outrage over the distortions and lies from the Bush administration that had led to the invasion. Feeling duped, he declared his opposition to the war in 2005 and pressed the administration for an exit strategy from Iraq.
Mr. Jones was particularly galled by Vice President Dick Cheney’s false statements that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
“Lyndon Johnson’s probably rotting in hell right now because of the Vietnam War, and he probably needs to move over for Dick Cheney,” Mr. Jones said in 2013 at a meeting of the Young Americans for Liberty in Raleigh, N.C.
Mr. Bamford, the author, said in a telephone interview that it took courage for Mr. Jones “to change his position on one of the most momentous events in American history.”
“He admitted it privately and came out publicly and said he was wrong,” Mr. Bamford said. “He even tried to bring other congressmen into the fold by having me come up to the Capitol and speak to them. To me, that showed his sincerity.”
Acknowledging that he was wrong “was the genesis of the most important journey I’ve ever undertaken,” Mr. Jones later told Taylor Sisk, the co-author of a forthcoming book with Mr. Jones about the congressman’s regret over supporting the invasion.
Mr. Sisk said in a telephone interview that Mr. Jones had told him that coming out against the war had made him increasingly independent, quoting him as saying, “that’s been a liberating experience.”
Walter Beaman Jones Jr. was born on Feb. 10, 1943, in Farmville, N.C., where he grew up and lived most of his life. His mother, Doris (Long) Jones, was a homemaker. His father, Walter Sr., worked for an office-supply company and served in the State Legislature before being elected to Congress in 1966. A Democrat, the elder Mr. Jones represented eastern North Carolina until he retired in 1992.
Walter Jr. graduated in 1961 from Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Va., and attended North Carolina State University from 1962 to 1965, when he transferred to Atlantic Christian College, now Barton College, in Wilson, N.C. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in history in 1966, the same year he married Joe Anne Whitehurst; she and their daughter survive him.
Out of college, Mr. Jones joined the National Guard and became a wine salesman as well as a Catholic. In 1982 he was drafted by local Democrats to fill out the term of a state representative who had died in office. Mr. Jones served for 10 years, and when his father retired from Congress, he ran for his seat.
Walter Jr. lost the 1992 Democratic primary. He tried again in a reconfigured district in 1994, by which time he had switched parties; a strong foe of abortion rights, he felt more comfortable as a Republican. He won that race and rode into office as part of a Republican wave led by the new speaker, Newt Gingrich.
Courtly and well-liked, Mr. Jones was voted the nicest member of the House of Representatives in a 2004 survey of top Capitol Hill staffers by The Washingtonian magazine.
His political impulses were basically libertarian, and he occasionally strayed from Republican orthodoxy. He fiercely opposed measures that would contribute to the national debt and voted against President Donald J. Trump’s tax-cut bill for that reason. He denounced the influence of money in politics and urged Congress to counter the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision
But after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, when President Bush sought congressional authority to use military force in Iraq, Mr. Jones gave his wholehearted support.
Filled with patriotic fervor, he made perhaps his biggest publicity splash when he pushed for the menus in the Capitol cafeteria to be changed to read “freedom fries” instead of “french fries,” an idea he borrowed from a North Carolina restaurant chain.
He was roundly applauded by Republicans and ridiculed by Democrats. (Tina Fey, on “Saturday Night Live,” said that in France, “American cheese is now referred to as ‘idiot cheese.’ ”)
It was only about a month later that Mr. Jones attended the Camp Lejeune memorial ceremony that would affect him so profoundly and lead him to apologize, many times, in public.
“I did not do what I should have done, to read and find out whether Bush was telling us the truth about Saddam being responsible for 9/11 and having weapons of mass destruction,” Mr. Jones told NPR in 2015.
“Because I did not do my job then, I helped kill 4,000 Americans,” he said. “And I will go to my grave regretting that.”
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