WASHINGTON -- Rep. Walter B. Jones Jr., an Eastern North Carolina congressman who made it his mission to atone for his vote sending U.S. troops into Iraq in the early 2000s, died Sunday on his 76th birthday. Jones, like his father, served his district for nearly a quarter-century.
His death was confirmed by his office.
Jones, a Republican, was first elected to the House in 1994 and won 12 more terms, including in 2018 when he ran unopposed in the general election. He served five terms in the North Carolina House as a Democrat before switching parties and winning a seat in Congress during a Republican wave election.
A strong advocate for the Marine Corps and against both the national debt and money in politics, Jones made national headlines for his change of heart over his Iraq War vote. An early supporter of the war, Jones was generally credited with coining the term "freedom fries" and bringing them to House cafeterias, to protest France's refusal to join the war effort In Iraq. Jones voted to give President George W. Bush authorization for the war in 2002.
But he soon regretted the vote and said so publicly many times.
"I did not do what I should have done to read and find out whether Bush was telling us the truth about Saddam (Hussein) being responsible for 9/11 and having weapons of mass destruction," Jones said in a 2015 radio interview. "Because I did not do my job then, I helped kill 4,000 Americans, and I will go to my grave regretting that."
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Jones signed more than 11,000 letters to families of dead troops since 2003, an act he told The Associated Press was "penance" for his vote. Jones began sending the letters after attending the 2003 funeral of Marine Sgt. Michael Bitz.
"I want them to know that my heart aches as their heart aches," he told the AP.
Outside of his House office, Jones had the photos of "anybody that's been sent and died from Camp Lejeune," he told The News & Observer, in American wars since 2003. The memorial, which also included some members of the National Guard from North Carolina, had grown to roughly 580 in 2018.
Jones tried, without success, to get the House to debate a new war authorization as the U.S. military presence spread around the Middle East in its fight against terrorism, arguing that the 2001 authorization approved after the attacks of Sept. 11 had been used "far too long," according to one letter, as justification.