Three medals — a Bronze Star with a V indicating valor, a Purple Heart, and an Afghanistan campaign medal with two stars — usually lie in a drawer in the Riesel home where Waco-born Jacob Sones lives with his family.
He admits he glued their ribbons and patches on his dress uniform because he forgot to have them sewn on. In a recent interview, Sones showed more identification with his Army paratrooper unit than personal achievements. He had a 173rd Airborne Brigade cap and wore a dark hoodie with a logo for The Chosen Few — named for his unit, Chosen Company — on its front and, on the back, a large seal identifying him and the 173rd as members of The Terrorist Hunting Club.
In addition to his medals, he keeps a weathered 173rd Brigade flag, a border tattered from sun and wind, that his father flew at his Plano home every day of Sones’ 15-month deployment to Afghanistan.
They’re reminders of his time in Afghanistan, when Chosen Company manned outposts in the Waigal Valley in mountainous eastern Afghanistan, a deployment that saw the unit frequently under fire from raiding Taliban fighters.
Less than two weeks before returning stateside, an understrength Chosen Company would repel a brutal attack near the village of Wanat on July 13, 2008, in which nine of Sones’ comrades died. Two-thirds of the unit was injured in the battle, including Sones.
The battle followed two other bloody fights for the company. In the course of its time in Afghanistan, two Chosen Company members would earn the Medal of Honor, two others Distinguished Service Crosses, 14 Silver Stars and 16 Bronze Stars. That’s one reason author Gregg Zoroya, a member of the USA Today editorial board and a seasoned military journalist, decided to write his book “The Chosen Few,” which came out earlier this year.
The battle was almost 10 years ago, and, after some rocky patches in the years since, Sones is enjoying the present: living with his girlfriend Reese Horvat and her children, 16-year-old Alexi, 13-year-old Tyler and six-year-old Genevieve in Riesel. He is expecting a child with Reese in March and is studying instrumentation at Texas State Technical College, though he’s presently sitting out a quarter or two until after the new addition to the family.
His days are scheduled with taking the kids to school or to volleyball, football or dance, and he’s fine with that.
“I guess I’m domesticated,” he said with a smile.
Sones is one of several dozen members of Chosen Company interviewed by Zoroya, whose reporting includes stints in Somalia, Israel during the Palestinian intifada, and Iraq.
“I’ve always been interested in the experience of war,” he said in an interview this summer.
In his coverage of military and veterans issues for USA Today, Zoroya, 63, kept hearing about the experience of the 173rd Airborne.
Like Battle Company in the neighboring Korengal Valley, whose experience was captured in Sebastian Junger’s book and documentary “Restrepo,” the paratroopers were posted in 2007 to a remote observation post. The American strategy was to hold the Taliban and its supporters at bay while the Afghanistan government strengthened its relationship with its people. A lack of progress caused the Army and State Department to reconsider, and toward the end of its deployment, Chosen Company was ordered to move back from its extended positions.
Mountainous terrain and altitudes of more than a mile above sea level made combat in Afghanistan a different affair than that still underway in flat Iraq. Zoroya’s book focuses on three battles fought by several Chosen Company platoons: the fight for a base nicknamed the Ranch House, in which enemy fighters overran the base perimeter; a night ambush on a steep mountainside and a harrowing medevac rescue of wounded and dead while under fire and with no margin for error; and the battle at Wanat, where the outmanned Americans in a low-lying base fought off waves of attackers.
“What I wanted to do is breathe life into those guys who didn’t come back,” Zoroya said. “That’s the calling of the book.”
It also breathes life into the living, and Zoroya said that when his wife transcribed his interviews with Sones, she saw similarities in their oldest son.
“She said (Sones) reminded her of our oldest son Jackson, in that he was devil-may-care, bright, intuitive and very sharp,” he said.
Sones, born in Waco to parents Phillip and Teri, appears in the book when he and his fellow paratroopers are in Italy before orders change their posting from Iraq to Afghanistan. Like others in Chosen, Sones entered the service after a turbulent boyhood marked by his parents’ divorce and frequent moves.
Sones’ drinking and behavior made him a less-than-model soldier. He led in Article 15s, issued for misbehavior that does not require judicial intervention, and was still only a private first class when he arrived in Afghanistan. But in Chosen Company, he found commitment, discipline, achievement and peer support.
“I was a scrawny little kid at the beginning, but I learned to love it,” he said.
He returned to Plano on leave to marry his girlfriend Nicole, then back to the field. He and his unit had just completed building a new base near Wanat, one in an exposed position, and were counting the days left in their deployment when enemy fighters attacked in force.
In the course of the battle, Sones, armed with a rapid-firing Squad Automatic Weapon, and Israel Garcia, charged up a stony hillside to rescue fellow paratrooper Ryan Pitts, who was wounded and manning a solo outpost above the action. Garcia died, and Sones took shrapnel in his legs and left arm. But Pitts survived, and the company was eventually rescued.
Sones would see a long recovery from his wounds in the following years, complicated by post traumatic stress syndrome and a bout with alcohol abuse. He and Nicole separated, then reunited and had a son, Gavin, born seven years ago. They’re now in the process of divorcing, he said.
When his injuries forced retirement from the Army, Sones decided to enroll at Texas State Technical College, where his father and grandfather had attended. He started in biometrics but later switching to instrumentation and electrical programming on the promise of higher salaries.
This summer, he started dating Horvath and by September had moved in with her family.
Sones keeps in touch with some of his Chosen brethren, including Pitts, who won a Medal of Honor for his part in the Wanat battle. Several from Chosen Company and their commander, Col. William Ostlund, showed up for a 10th year reunion in Oklahoma City earlier this year. Some, including Sones, were thrown out of a bar while celebrating, although he said it was more for drinking outside than riotous carousing.
At 30, Sones knows where more of his boundaries are. He doesn’t drink much, and although he once regularly marked the anniversary of the Wanat fight, he knows there’s a danger in dwelling on it.
On Saturday, Veterans Day, America honors those who have served in the military. It’s also Genevieve’s birthday, and that has more of Sones’ attention. He shrugged when asked about any plans to observe the day. A Waco restaurant is offering free drinks to vets, he noted.
“I might do that,” he said.