‘There is still a sadness in my heart’

The pain in Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) is palpable — in his eyes, still full of grief, and a voice that catches on certain thoughts.

Jones believes the lives of many soldiers would have been affected, if not saved, had he not voted in 2002 to give former President Bush the power to go to war with Iraq.

“It’s been a journey,” Jones, 65, a devout Catholic convert, said in his Rayburn office last week.

“I have always regretted giving the president power,” said Jones, who interspersed his words with several references to God. “I will believe until the day I die that we never should have gone into Iraq.”

Though he does not believe he deserves redemption, Jones is to receive an award from The Humane Society of the United States on Tuesday night in the Cannon Caucus Room. Jones is being honored because of a simple phone call he made to a Marine general that ensured the return of a military dog to the family of a fallen soldier. Jones, a seven-term lawmaker, said he could do without the award or big, splashy event that highlights a vote he deeply regrets.

“I’m a low-key type personality anyway, but if the event was not going to happen, it would be fine with me,” he said. “I think the event is not about me. It is about a recognition of dogs and what they can do to help people.”

Similarly, Rep. Paul Hodes (D-N.H.) will receive recognition at the reception for bringing a stray dog from Iraq named Hero home to a wounded soldier. He declined to be interviewed for this story, saying the event, though positive, brings up grief for the family. He said he’d rather not add to it.

It was in December 2007 that Jones ultimately got Lex, the dog of a fallen soldier in Iraq, brought to the soldier’s family. The dog was set to retire in two years, but Jones secured an early retirement. “Who knows what’s in store for any of us in two years?” he asked. “If it’s God’s will then it will happen.”

Lex is scheduled to be on hand at the reception, the Cannon Canine Honors, from 5 to 7 p.m. To lighten up the darker subjects of war and fallen soldiers, organizers have invited some dogs to attend the reception, and awards will be given to winners of the Congressional Dog Photo Contest, which attracted more than 100 submissions from lawmakers and Capitol Hill aides.

Awards include “Barker of the House” and “Senate Pawjority Leader.” Spearheading the event was Connie Harriman-Whitfield, wife of Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), who does special initiatives for the Humane Society.

Jones went through a major change of heart on the war in March 2003 after attending the funeral of a Marine who had left behind a wife, a 2-year-old son and newborn twins he had never met. The moment was spiritual. By the time he got home to Farmville, N.C., Jones was no longer a proponent of the war: “The whole way, 72 miles, I was thinking about what I just witnessed,” he told Mother Jones. “I think God intended for me to be there.”

His change of position came with some political risk. Jones was at odds with his party leaders on several votes related to the war, and he fought off a tough primary challenge in 2008.

The congressman said he is more at peace since admitting he made a mistake. “I feel like God has forgiven me,” he said. “I think I’m at peace with my lord, but there is a still a sadness in my heart that I didn’t do what I should have done.”

The congressman may soon admit his feelings in a more public forum. He plans to write a book to “tell about my disappointments in myself.”

The working title: My Daddy’s Not Dead Yet.

Jones first heard the phrase in 2007 while reading Dr. Seuss to first-graders at the U.S. Marine Corps’s Camp Lejeune, a military base in his district. After taking many questions from the children, he turned to a little boy for a final question.

“My daddy’s not dead yet,” the boy told Jones.

The congressman, stunned, eventually replied: “All I could say is, ‘God loves our moms and our dads.’ ”

But the moment stayed with Jones. “It has always bothered me greatly,” he said. “We think about the men and women who fight. Too many times we don’t think about the small ones in a family.”

What haunts Jones is regret. “I should have taken advantage of some of the classified information I read, and yet I trusted the secretary of Defense,” he said, referring to then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. “I was caught up in the whole selling of the war.”

The congressman is careful to keep blame where he thinks it ought to be. “I think the great strength of a man or woman is to say, ‘I made a mistake,’ ” he said, later adding: “I don’t blame Bush for my vote. It’s me, I’m responsible.”

In 2003, Jones began writing letters to the families of fallen soldiers. He also began posting the pictures of those soldiers in his office. Hundreds of pictures of fallen Camp Lejeune Marines have spilled outside into the Rayburn hallway. “I wanted my God to know I felt sorry for what I did,” he said.

In January 2006, Jones appeared on the cover of Mother Jones, a liberal magazine. Initially, Jones’s staff thought it was a Catholic publication and he was eager to do the story. His chief of staff quickly cleared that up and the congressman waited six months to do the interview.

“I felt like it was a penance to my God of me not doing my job,” he said.

As Jones receives his award Tuesday night, he’ll no doubt do so with a heavy heart as memories surface of the fateful vote he cast.

“I regretted it the night walking over,” he said. “I regret that I was not strong enough to vote no.”