Jones Avoids Assembly Line, Rises to Top DoD Position
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jul. 10, 1998 Growing up in a poor area of Terre Haute, Ind., Robert Jones said he feared ending up working on a factory production line. He couldn't fathom that as a livelihood.
Military service beckoned him. "I saw the military as an opportunity to get an education and to escape that potential destiny," he said. He enlisted in the Army in June 1961.
That was a long time ago. Now the former soldier is the deputy assistant secretary of defense for prisoner of war/missing personnel affairs. As such, he leads the nation's worldwide efforts to account for missing U.S. servicemen from World War II, the Cold War, Korean War and Vietnam War, and is in charge of the Department of Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office.
Jones hit the ground running when he took the reins. "I was sworn in on Sunday, May 10 -- Mother's Day," he said. "Monday, I was on an aircraft headed to meet with the commander in chief of the Pacific, and directors of the Joint Task Force Full Accounting and Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii."
On the way back to Washington three days later, he stopped in San Antonio to meet with officials of the Air Force Casualty Office and Life Sciences Equipment Laboratory. The next week, he was off to Portland, Ore., to attend his first family outreach program gathering "to get a sense of how we communicate and deal with families of missing personnel."
"I plan to be very active with our family outreach efforts," Jones said.
In his first edict, Jones directed his staff to pull together a communications plan involving everyone associated with family outreach for survivors of missing servicemen throughout DoD.
The father of three and the son of a World War II veteran, Jones said it's important to have a strategic planning process involving his office, the Life Sciences Equipment Laboratory, Central Identification Laboratory, Joint Task Force Full Accounting and other organizations.
"We're all a team, but we haven't planned and operated as a team in the past," he said. "I'm looking forward to bringing representatives together in late summer to begin that process." Meanwhile, the 54-year-old taekwondo expert says he wants to instill a sense of mission among those who are providing the fullest possible accounting for America's missing service members.
"I'm attempting to stabilize the organization without going through reorganization," he said. "I want to clearly define our role as the Department of Defense's component responsible for policy and planning for the full spectrum of personnel recovery."
Jones said he views his office as a major DoD organization with outside constituents. He said his most important undertaking now is enhancing communications with them.
"We deal with veterans organizations, military associations and a wide variety of federal agencies and other interested parties," he said. "So we have a vast array of individuals we communicate with, and we need to enhance and improve that."
A good example of the communications process took place with the recent identification of the remains from the Tomb of the Vietnam Unknown as those of Air Force 1st Lt. Michael J. Blassie. In that case, Jones' office coordinated with a host of DoD, federal and outside organizations, plus several families -- all important and interested parties.
The POW/Missing Personnel Office also prepares today's servicemen and women to deal with the possibility of capture during any conflict, he said. In addition, his office assists family members and loved ones of servicemen missing in action.
Jones said the Internet is an important communications tool. He invites those interested in POW/missing personnel affairs programs to visit his office's Web site at http://www.dtic.mil/dpmo.
For about five years before his DoD appointment, Jones was special assistant to the assistant secretary for public and intergovernmental affairs in the Department of Veterans Affairs. Before that, he was national executive director of AMVETS -- American Veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
While he was on active duty, Jones reached the rank of sergeant and was a wireman with an artillery unit based in Hanau, Germany. There, "the chief of smoke" -- the senior noncommissioned officer of his firing battery -- encouraged him to apply for Officer Candidate School.
After commissioning, he became a senior adviser to a Vietnamese infantry unit in December 1966. When he returned home a year later, he "did a quick turnaround" and returned to Vietnam as an infantry company commander in the 82nd Airborne Division. After that, Jones completed the Army Ranger School at Fort Stewart, Ga. He later went to the infantry advanced course and Special Forces training at Fort Bragg, N.C., and joined the 7th Special Forces Group. His colorful resume shows service in infantry, airborne, Ranger and Special Forces units and even about 200 flying hours in an F-4 Phantom jet as an Army liaison officer to the Air Force's 50th Tactical Fighter Wing in Germany.
He received a Purple Heart for shrapnel wounds sustained during one of his two tours in Vietnam, but he says he's no hero. Jones calls the Army's Combat Infantryman Badge his highest decoration, because it signifies he served in combat and has led men in combat.