Fox News’ Johnny Joey Jones is helping veterans get better, one hunt at a time.
Maybe it’s because the Fox News military analyst and host of Fox Nation Outdoors didn’t get into hunting until later in life. It was only after he lost both his legs during an IED blast in Afghanistan that Jones found the challenge, thrill, and camaraderie of the sport. And how it filled a need when he found his life instantly changed.
“When I got injured, I had to do something that made me feel productive and resourceful,” he says over a video call from his ranch outside Dalton, Georgia. “I wanted to do something to connect with the world around me. I wanted to learn. Hunting provided all those things.”
Now, he uses hunting as a way to connect and heal with other veterans, realizing the isolation and shared adversity of the hunt can be the best kind of therapy. He’s done all this despite his injuries, learning to hunt everything from goose to moose without many of the faculties we take for granted.
Hook & Barrel Profile: Johnny Joey Jones
“Hunting was Boring.”
JJJ, as the world knows him now, was born in an area he calls Upper Left Georgia, a rural community somewhere in the pines and hickories outside Dalton. Hunting was everywhere around him, but as a youth the sport didn’t carry much appeal.
“My uncle raced dirt track, so my free time and money was all spent at the local race track,” he says. “My dad hunted most of his life, so in high school I would work at the deer cooler at the local sporting goods store tagging deer, cleaning deer, helping skin deer. I knew all about it, but I just didn’t have the interest. Hunting was boring to me as a kid.”
After high school he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps, serving as an Explosive Ordnance Disposal, or EOD, technician. Essentially, his job was the lonely and dangerous task of discovering and disarming improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. He deployed on two tours to Iraq and Afghanistan, the latter of which ended when an IED took his legs and the life of a fellow EOD tech.
He details much of this experience as well as others in his book Unbroken Bonds of Battle: A Modern Warriors Book Of Heroism, Patriotism, and Friendship, which gives firsthand accounts of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts from the people who fought there. Different from a simple war memoir, it details how men who serve together share an infinite bond, and it’s one he’s found again in the sport of hunting.
Veterans Open Up When They Get into the Field
Since returning to civilian life, Jones has been a tireless activist for veterans. He held a yearlong fellowship with the House of Representatives Veterans’ Affairs Committee in Washington D.C. and met with Presidents Obama and George W. Bush. He also founded Georgetown University’s first veterans’ students association while earning his bachelor’s degree.
Through his years as a veterans’ advocate, he’s espoused a number of ways to help warriors heal, but he says hunting does something special.
“I worked with this organization in San Diego and took half of them out on this pheasant hunt called Wings of Valor,” he says. “We went for a whole weekend, and I learned more about these men and what they had gone through than I ever understood. One had left his wife and was spending all his money. One was on the brink of suicide. They were going through all these crises.”
Previously, Jones said he’d set up a sort of “virtual bar,” where veterans could get together, have a drink on a Zoom call, and talk about what they were going through. But nothing got them to open up like spending a weekend shooting birds.
“I could never get these guys to come on a retreat or come share stories by a campfire. But I can invite them on a pheasant hunt, and those things happen.”
Battlefield Conditions, But Different Outcomes
Part of why Jones believes hunting is so therapeutic for veterans is because it’s similar to another environment they know: the battlefield.
“Hunting has an element of miserableness and remoteness. To us, it has a familiar element,” he says. “To not have anything more than a deck of cards to entertain you? That’s deployment. So guys start talking and telling stories. I know there are organizations that do it, but I’m guarded when I’m around new folks. To do this two or three times a year recharges my batteries.”
Partly because of his celebrity and partly because of his sacrifice, Jones is now constantly invited on hunts all over the world. He’s choosy about which ones he accepts, but always insists he’s able to bring a few of his buddies along. Not because he’s trying to hook up his entourage, but because it’s how they stay connected.
“What I do is forego the big trophy hunt in lieu of a quality time hunt,” he says. “We’re not going to Colorado to shoot elk. We’re going to Tennessee for early wood duck or quail season. Those are the types you can bring friends along, and I need that time with them. If one of those guys in that core group is going through a lot, that means we are too.”
Hunting with Some Help from Your Friends
JJJ sounds like any sportsman as he casually mentions leaving for a bear hunt in Maine later in the week, and his recent discovery of an early goose season in Georgia. What he doesn’t mention is that he’s doing all of this with a pair of prosthetic legs and limited use of his upper body, a feat he downplays but is mind-bogglingly impressive.
So how does a man with supposed physical limits go hunting once a month from September to January? Jones says it comes down to the old adage of “if there’s a will, there’s a way.” And if there’s one thing he has in abundance, it’s a determined will.
“Every hunt is different, and part of the adventure is going somewhere new, and you gotta figure it out,” he says. “I try and keep my legs on and do what I can with them. But I got buddies who will pick me up and carry me. Like, when I killed a moose in Maine, they took my legs off, put me on a stretcher, and carried me across a river.”
JJJ says he does everything within his abilities to put himself in a position where he would be if he had legs. But he never has too much pride to admit when he needs help, telling of a recent hunt where fellow Marine Amos Benjamin carried him through the rolling hills of Wyoming.
Humility is Front and Center
“I had to learn that humility,” he adds. “It took me 11 years of duck hunting and maybe five or six of upland hunting to learn how to use a shotgun and what I needed…I can’t turn my body the way most people do; I lost my right trigger finger to the bomb, so I had to learn to shoot left handed. I would go out there every year in the freezing cold at 5 a.m., shoot at duck, and miss, but I never gave up. And that’s a life goal, that’s a ‘reclaim my life after legs’ goal I was able to do.”
JJJ has recently taken up bow hunting as well, an even more demanding sport that he’s approached with the same resolve. He still suffers from injuries to his right arm and shoulders, which makes shooting especially challenging. But like with everything else, JJJ has combined creative adaptation, determination, and help from others to find success. “My first animal was a mule deer,” he says proudly. “I shot it at 42 yards, uphill leaning up against a buddy to hold me up and shot it through two trees.”
Jones is also teaching his son to shoot and says proudly that his boy is already better than he is. “I bought my son a .410 when he was eight and got myself a 12 gauge. Kid had never shot a gun, and by the end of summer he was outshooting me with his .410 and me with a 12 gauge. And to teach my son something, that bonding that happens over learning to do dangerous things carefully, as Jordan Peterson would say, man, that’s life. That’s the masculine side of life we should enjoy.”
Conservation is Also Key
Beyond healing veterans, JJJ also firmly believes in hunting’s ability to heal the earth. As talks of climate change swirl, and people consider what they can do to help preserve the wilderness they love, Jones believes hunters play an essential role.
“If you’re a responsible hunter, you’re not just responsible for how you treat the weapon, you’re responsible for how you treat the environment you’re in,” he begins. “The relationship we have with the animals around us, we need to do more work in conservation, not just as hunters but as Americans who care about our environment.”
He adds that hunters can have a tangible, real-world effect on restoring the planet as conservationists, citing a project in Arkansas where a group of hunters restored agricultural land to wetlands to create natural areas for duck hunts and how conservation efforts have preserved flooded timbers for hunting grounds.
“You can be an activist as a hunter for better, more prosperous animals we’re hunting,” he says. “It’s something unique about what we do. We’re a group who’s generally conservative, but more importantly as a result of conservation we’re healing the earth into what it used to be, and there’s a healthier version of what we’re hunting out there.”