Rep. Walter Jones Jr. (R-N.C.), a 13-term congressman who initially supported the Iraq War but later came to vehemently oppose it, died Sunday on his 76th birthday. His death was confirmed by staff.
Jones was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1994 as a member of the Republican Party after a failed bid two years earlier as a conservative Democrat. He quickly became a reliable conservative vote in Congress and was an ardent supporter of President George W. Bush’s effort to invade Iraq in 2002. But he came to regret his vote, calling it a “mistake” that helped lead to thousands of American casualties.
“Congressman Jones was a man of the people,” his office said in a statement. “With a kind heart and the courage of his convictions, he dedicated his life to serving his Savior and to standing up for Americans who needed a voice. He was a champion for our men and women in uniform and their families, always mindful of their service and sacrifice.”
Jones entered hospice care last month, his health in decline after he broke his hip, according to The Associated Press. Jones had experienced a series of illnesses over the past year and took a leave of absence from Congress at the end of 2018.
The lawmaker was initially as outspoken in his support for the Iraq invasion as he would eventually be in his opposition to it. At the outset of the conflict, Jones led a campaign to rechristen french fries “freedom fries” after France objected to U.S. intervention in the Middle East.
“As I’ve watched these men and women wave goodbye to their loved ones, I am reminded of the deep love they have for the freedom of this nation and their desire to fight for the freedom of those who are oppressed overseas,” Jones told CNN in 2003. “Watching France’s self-serving politics of passive aggression in this effort has discouraged me more than I can say.”
The invasion ultimately led to the deaths of more than 4,000 Americans and some 100,000 Iraqis, facts that reportedly deeply affected Jones. Between 2003 and 2017, he signed about 12,000 letters to the families of dead troops, an act he described as penance for his vote in a 2017 interview.
“I will never forget my mistake because people died because of my mistake,” Jones told The Associated Press. “I bought into believing that President Bush didn’t really want to go to war. That’s how naive I was at the time… I could have voted no, and I didn’t.”
His House office also featured photographs of people who died after being deployed from Camp Lejeune, a Marine Corps base in Jones’ congressional district. The News & Observer noted that some 580 photos were on the wall by 2018.
Later in his career, Jones sometimes broke with his party during key votes, voicing his opposition to President Donald Trump’s tax bill in 2017 since it would increase the federal deficit. He also supported efforts for campaign finance reform and to increase the minimum wage, according to The Washington Post.
“Congressman Jones will long be remembered for his honesty, faith and integrity,” his office said Sunday. “He was never afraid to take a principled stand. He was known for his independence, and widely admired across the political spectrum. Some may not have agreed with him, but all recognized that he did what he thought was right.”
Jones is survived by his wife, Joe Ann, and his daughter, Ashley.