For Virginia U.S. Senate Democratic challenger Jim Webb, wearing Army boots on the campaign trail is only one way he connects to his proud military background that included a stint as Secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration.
Another is the central role of seasoned military veterans and long-time friends accompanying him on the rugged campaign trail.
In some cases, it involves military women, such as the nation’s only Green Beret female, Lt. Col. Kate Wilder, stepping to his defense at an Arlington press conference last week against what she called “smear” tactics by Webb’s opponent, incumbent GOP Senator George Allen. The Allen campaign has sought in TV ads to discredit Webb over his comments about the role of women in the military during the Vietnam era. Wilder was there with seven other women military retirees last week, each with first hand knowledge of Webb’s role as Navy Secretary in 1987-1988, when he actively opened career doors to women throughout the Navy.
In other cases, seasoned military veterans have filled more background, but no less important, day in, day out roles. One is Webb’s personal driver, a disabled Vietnam War veteran and close personal friend of the candidate, called out of a comfortable retirement to slog the highways and byways of Virginia with Webb virtually non-stop for months. They travel in a camouflage-painted RV bearing the slogan, “Jim Webb for Senate — Born Fighting.”
Another such long-time Webb friend and military colleague of has been constantly at Webb’s side since July, as the candidate, himself a highly-decorated Marine Corps Vietnam War, hero has criss-crossed the Old Dominion state.
This man, Nelson Jones, is an unpaid volunteer who put his law practice in Texas on temporary hold to devote himself to the Webb cause as its “Veterans for Webb” outreach coordinator.
In a recent interview, Jones described how he met with Webb, a friend for over 30 years, last year in Virginia, when the onetime Republican was mulling whether or not to run as a Democrat and anti-war candidate against incumbent Sen. Allen, a man Webb had supported in the 2000 election.
“Jim Webb’s not a politician, far from it,” Jones said, recalling their first meeting. “I told him, ‘Look, a campaign is like dancing with a bear: you can’t sit down when you get tired, you can only sit down when the bear gets tired.’ That’s what a political campaign is all about.”
“Now, on the campaign trail periodically, when the going gets tough, Jim will say to me, ‘Nelson, I’m still dancing.’”
Now on the Webb campaign trail as the race enters its final two weeks, Nelson Jones is also “dancing.” He’s dancing as he copes with the maelstrom of activity and the rising tide of veteran interest in Webb in a state chockfull of active duty military and those who are retired from the armed forces.
About campaigns, Jones, who at age 57 retains his years of military bearing in his posture today, says simply: "Imagine a water bed mattress, slipping and tipping and wobbling downhill. A campaign is like riding one of those."
The one topic that continues to vex Jones the most: the continuing controversy spurred by the Allen campaign ads attacking Webb over the role of women in combat.
“Look," he declared, “It’s a leadership failure. Congress won’t settle it. The President won’t settle it. But Jim Webb says he’s completely comfortable now with the role of women in the U.S. military."
Jones, as a young African-American plebe, entered the Naval Academy in 1968. “There were only 27 blacks at Annapolis then,” Jones recalled, “And 13 of those were in my class alone.”
Webb, meanwhile, was newly graduated from the Academy, where he had been well respected in the Brigade of Midshipmen. He was visible on campus and Jones saw him but never met him at that time.
“I certainly heard about him,” Jones said of Webb. “He was already seen as a leader extraordinaire, a regular ‘squared-away Midshipman.’”
“Squared-away” is the highest compliment in the military, said Jones. “It means a leader in all respects, somebody you’d look up to.”
A few months later Webb left Annapolis for Quantico to enroll in Marine Officers Basic School, where he was Number One in his class. Then it was on to Vietnam, where he was assigned to the 5th Marine Regiment, commanding a rifle platoon and then a company depicted in the "Apocalypse Now" film of the infamous An Hoa Basin west of Danang.
Webb was injured in battle, receiving a shrapnel wound in the knee from a grenade burst, and was later mustered out with a war disability. He earned the Navy Cross, the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars, and two Purple Hearts.
Jones, meanwhile, continued his studies through his plebe year and after graduation he also entered the Marine Basic School at Quantico, where Ollie North was one of his instructors. But he never went to Vietnam. The Paris Peace Accords settled that. Instead, he entered the Judge Advocate General (JAG) training and enrolled at Georgetown University Law Center.
Suddenly, on the Georgetown campus, Jones’ path would cross Webb’s again, and this time they actually met. “It was October of my first year, and a chill was in the air, so I was wearing my Navy ‘reefer’ p-coat, a coat that’s unique to Annapolis, with its gold buttons,” Jones recalled.
“Where did you get that coat? a guy asked me with a smile, and I said it was at the Naval Academy, and he shook my hand. It was Jim Webb."
Webb was in his last year at Georgetown and Jones immediately sensed a possible ally, so he asked Webb, “What’s the gouge?” (“the gouge” being Annapolis slang for “what’s the answer?” the answer in military discipline, in class, or whatever).
“Nelson, you’re in law school now, not at Navy,” Webb told him. “There is no answer. What you need to do is come by my house and I’ll help you get ‘squared-away.’”
“So I went over to his house,” said Jones, clearly still a man who sees Webb as the ultimate in being ‘squared-away.’ “He gave me several tutoring sessions, and we became friends.”
They remain fast friends today, their loyalties forged in the emotional charge of service in the military, membership in a Band of Brothers. Neither man will talk much about their military service. Indeed, Webb is notoriously reticent about discussing his combat experience or the facts of his war injuries.
From Georgetown the two men followed the arc of their separate lives — career, marriage, children — but always their friendship remained.
Jones worked as a Marine JAG until 1982 and then returned home to Houston to practice law. Two of his children live in Virginia, his son Nelson, in Mansassas, and his daughter Traci, in Fredericksburg. Another daughter, 29 year-old Kelley, lives in Dumfries but is currently on active duty as a Navy Lieutenant and a veteran of two war zone assignments.
Asked why he believes so firmly in Webb’s calling to serve in the Senate, Jones put it this way: “Jim is special, there’s no question about that. But it’s more than just the friendship. It’s really about the opportunity to help get America back on track. And I think Jim will help us do that.”
Jones also recalls the time Webb spoke some years ago at a war memorial event in Virginia. Jones was there at his side.
"There is a vital lesson for us to take away from such a day of remembrance,” Webb said at the time, according to Jones’ recollection. “It is one our leaders should carry next to their breasts and contemplate it every time they face a crisis which puts our military at risk. It should echo in their consciences, from the power of a million graves.”
“It is simply this,” Webb concluded. “You hold your soldiers’ lives in sacred trust. When a citizen has sworn to obey you, and follow your judgment, and walk onto a battlefield to defend the interests you define as worthy of his blood, do not abuse that awesome power through careless policy, unclear objectives, or inflexible leadership.”
Citing that quote, Nelson Jones summed up his involvement in the campaign for the Senate that culminates in less than two weeks now: “That is why I am here.”