Part II: USAF veteran Pete Jones lends telecom expertise to Grand Canyon
GRAND CANYON, Ariz. – Growing up in northern California, there were only a few career choices available for recent high school graduates — logging or fishing. Pete Jones decided neither of those were his calling.
As a young child, the military wasn’t a significant factor in Jones’ life.
“My dad did his two years back when it was mandatory, and my mom would tell stories about her brothers being in World War II,” he said.
When the logging and fishing industries began declining in the late 1970s, Jones made the decision to leave.
“I said, ‘You know, I have to get out of this town,’” Jones explained. “(I wanted to) see what’s going on, get an education, go somewhere else.”
And somewhere else ended up being halfway across the world – Jones’ first assignment was Incirlik Air Base, located in southern Turkey about an hour inland from the Mediterranean Sea.
“That was back in 1983 when they still had trailers for base housing,” he said. “They did get rid of the trailers while I was there and built a lot of new housing.”
The Air Force trained Jones on communications, and he served his entire 21-year career as a communications specialist, working on everything from older rotary-dial telephones up to more recent technology like voice over internet protocol (VoIP).
“I was a telephone man from day one,” he said.
After being stationed in Turkey for a year, Jones returned to the United States to Washington for a couple of years before returning to Turkey, this time to Izmir on the western coast. While in Washington, Jones decided he wanted to go back overseas, so he volunteered for a long tour.
“There’s a rumor that once you’ve been stationed in Turkey, you’re definitely going back,” he chuckled.
This time, Jones ended up working with a unit of the North American Treaty Organization (NATO). He said he enjoyed his time at Izmir because there was no base – troops were stationed within the city.
“You really got to interact more with the Turks,” he said.
Rescuing Captain O’Grady
One of the most memorable events happened to Jones in the mid-1990s, when he was stationed in Italy with NATO. The war between Bosnia and Herzegovina had been raging for three years, the international news media roiled by allegations of atrocities and war crimes against civilians.
In June 1995, two USAF F-16 fighter jets were patrolling the skies over Bosnia to prevent the Bosnian-Serb forces from attacking civilians and other troops in the area. The Bosnian-Serb armed forces fired two ground-to-air missiles at the planes, missing with the first and striking the plane with the second, flown by Capt. Scott O’Grady.
O’Grady ejected from the plane and survived the crash, but found himself behind enemy lines in extremely hostile territory
Back in Italy, on Friday, Jones was preparing for a relaxed dinner with the rest of his crew. He didn’t know it at the time, but an effort to launch an offensive and rescue O’Grady was underway.
“We were all getting ready to go when the joint headquarters communications guy comes in and said ‘Hey, I need a couple of phones,’” Jones said.
Thinking it wasn’t anything that couldn’t wait, Jones said he’d have what the officer needed Monday morning.
“The officer looked at his watch then back at me and said, ‘You don’t understand; we’re going feet dry in 20 minutes and need two phones,’” Jones recalled.
Jones jumped into action, sending his crew to run the lines on the cross-connect frame through the building while he programmed the lines. Jones said his crew wasn’t sure if the phone cable in the buildings was even operational, but the phones were ready as requested and the party even made their dinner reservation.
A few hours later, O’Grady was rescued after avoiding capture for 6 days, surviving on bugs, leaves and grass and collecting rainwater with a sponge in a plastic bag.
Coming to the Canyon
During his career, Jones was stationed in Florida, Germany, Alaska, Colorado and Italy. He met his wife, Sheila, while both were on active duty in Florida. Although they were stationed on different sides of the state, both were sent to the same leadership training class in Biloxi, Mississippi. After his retirement, he and Sheila moved back to Florida, where she was originally from.
After a short stint, Jones took another job with the Air Force, this time as a civilian contractor, and moved to Alaska for eight years. After leaving that job, he made the decision to move to Arizona to be closer to his daughter and grandchildren in Phoenix.
“I applied for a job (at Grand Canyon) that I really wasn’t qualified for, but during my interview for that job, they told me to keep my eyes open for something else (I was qualified for),” he said.
Jones is now a telecommunications specialist for Grand Canyon National Park, something he’s more than qualified for after his Air Force training. Along with keeping all the phones up and running, he also works with the park’s internet provider to make sure each department has the services it needs to operate.
Reflecting on his military service, Jones said he would do it all again if he could. He still has memories of serving as the weekend deejays for the base’s radio station in Italy and lifelong friendships that keep the connection strong.
“I’d definitely do it all again,” he said. “I had a ball.”