More Than Just Tony Soprano: An Iraq Vet Remembers James Gandolfini

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James Gandolfini: I'm in the waste management business. Everybody immediately assumes you're mobbed up. It's a stereotype, and it's offensive. And you're the last person I would want to perpetuate it.

Marco Werman: I got the news last night, coincidentally, just after watching an old episode of the Sopranos. James Gandolfini, age 51, was dead in Rome. The Sopranos was an incredible piece of television. It made a name for Gandolfini, as well as HBO. But I want to focus on another HBO project that Gandolfini was also the head of, Alive Day Memories: Home From Iraq, is the title. The concept of the documentary was simple: highlight vets who were seriously wounded in Iraq and hear what it's like to adjust to the physical and emotional toll of those injuries, really digging down into what makes up post-traumatic stress disorder. Retired Marine Staff Sergeant John Jones was one of the vets. He lost both of his legs when the Humvee he was in was attacked. Here he is being interviewed by James Gandolfini about what happened after he was stateside.

Gandolfini: So what's the hardest thing? You're sitting there and, I guess your wife and your kids came up, and where they with you a lot of the time?

John Jones: Well my, well, I didn't want my kids to see me in that way, at that point. I wanted them to see me up and able to move around, and, you know, do dad things with them, you know. And that was really hard to see my kids look at me in that way of like, what happened? You know? So my daughter, she would get, draw pictures and, dad has, you know, she'd cut one leg off, you in her picture. And then it would become from a cutoff, to a robot, to, you know. So they called me dad with robot legs, you know.

Werman: And excerpt from the documentary Alive Day Memories: Home From Iraq. James Gandolfini didn't just do the interviews for Alive Day Memories, he produced it as well. Staff Sergeant John Jones joins me now. Staff Sergeant Jones, what did it mean to you to have James Gandolfini even want to make this film?

Jones: Well for myself, you know, to give you a little back story about the military. We watched the Sopranos, especially with my unit, and we tailored everything after Tony Soprano, and you know, his captains while we were over there because we were the law over there in Iraq in that time in '04. And our captain was Tony Soprano, and our lieutenants were the captains, and everybody else were the workhorses.
So whenever I met James at the film, and I really wanted to say thank you to him for highlighting, you know, the issues that veterans have whenever they come back from Iraq or Afghanistan with, you know, severe injuries and life changing injuries. And, you know, James was a very humble person and he said, you know what, I do this because people need help. People need to understand that, you know, these guys go out there, and girls go out there every single day on a volunteer basis and we take for granted what we have here. And he was a silent supporter and then he became more of a really big supporter of veteran's issues.

Werman: Did you feel Gandolfini was rare? I mean, how many people in the United States were interested in hearing about your stories about these injuries in Iraq?

Jones: Well, I think it wouldn't have gotten as much traction as it would have if James didn't do it because James, he was at the height of his stardom, I guess you could say, due to the Sopranos, and he was very passionate about it. And I don't think that it would have got as much traction and visibility as it did if he hadn't had done it.

Werman: So what was it like to converse with this man who, in so many of our minds I imagine, I mean you watched the Sopranos in Iraq as you said, in so many of our minds is a brutal mafia boss?

Jones: He wasn't. He wasn't at all. I mean he was your more down to earth man. He did not, you know, portray himself as a movie star, as a celebrity, as, yes he was a working actor but he was a human being. And he was passionate about family, he's passionate about his country, and he was passionate about the people that defended his country to provide what he had. And you know, even after the film, James and I, and his family became friends.

Werman: Did that friendship happen because of veteran's issues? Or was there something else that you and he connected around?

Jones: No, I think it was just because, you know, I was real and he was real. And he connected with real people, not fictional people, I guess you could say. You know, we befriended each other very quickly after the film, and it just became a ongoing relationship. It wasn't because he was a celebrity and, you know, I even told him. I said I don't care that you're a celebrity. I just want to have a cigar with you and bull[bleep]. I'm sorry; I can't say that, can I?
I mean, he was just a normal guy. He love to hang out, he loved to converse, and he liked to hear stories. And, you know, after the film aired, I contacted James personally and I said James, I've got a favor for you. And that was probably the one, only favor that I ever asked James to do.

Werman: What was it?

Jones: To come to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. I was working there after I retired and I said these guys don't get all of the visibility from the celebrities and from people that really care, like the east coast, and Walter Reed, and Bethesda National Naval Medical Center at the time did. And he says, yeah, what do you want? I said can you bring a couple of the crew down to Brooke Army. This is where the burn patients are seen as well as some amputees, and can you come out here and visit with them?

Werman: And when you say crew, you mean crew from the Sopranos.

Jones: Crew from the Sopranos. So Tony Sirico came, you know, and a couple of other people, you know, came as well. He flew out on a private jet, came into San Antonio, and spent, you know, a full couple of days down at the hospital seeing as many patients and seeing as many veterans as he possibly could.

Werman: When was the last time you spoke with James Gandolfini?

Jones: Last month, I was actually in California at his house. Last month with my brother. And, you know, it was, we were planning on getting together a camp trip and a fishing trip up in Colorado where I actually reside. You know it's just, it was very hard to see that man pass. He was a good man and a good patriot.

Werman: Retired Staff Sergeant John Jones is a special projects and development manager with the Marine Corps. Scholarship Foundation. Thanks very much for your time and for telling us about your relationship with James Gandolfini, really appreciate it.

Jones: Thank you.