By Scott Robertson
Keith Jones, an EMT who has devoted more than 40 years to emergency medical services was honored this month as National EMT of the Year and Tennessee State EMT of the Year by the Veterans of Foreign Wars. The recognition came at an awards ceremony in Nashville Feb. 14.
Jones was nominated by Major Brad Gerfin, operations director of the Washington County/Johnson City EMS. “Keith takes care of our veterans,” Gerfin said. “Most EMTs like the emergency calls with the lights and the sirens and the adrenaline. Keith has traded that in for the chance to show our veterans the respect they deserve.”
Washington County / Johnson City EMS has a federal contract to provide non-emergency ambulance transportation for patients of the James H. Quillen Mountain Home Veterans Administration Hospital. It’s Jones who handles those calls, often traveling hundreds of miles to bring an individual veteran to the VA for treatment.
Jones has been driving ambulances since 1974 when he and his best friend (and future brother-in-law) joined a volunteer rescue squad. In 1976, the Sullivan County EMS hired Jones, who went to paramedic school in 1981. After 20 years of service in Sullivan County, Jones had progressed to the rank of captain, which he held for eight more years.
When he left Sullivan County EMS, a captain at Washington County/Johnson City EMS called Jones. “He didn’t ask me if I wanted a job,” Jones remembered. “He said, ‘You be here tomorrow morning.’”
When Washington County/Johnson City EMS won the VA contract a little more than five years ago, Jones said to his major, “You know, I’m in my late 50s, hitting 60. This 24-hour shift stuff is a young man’s business. Helping veterans sounds like a beautiful thing for me to do.”
Jones, it turns out, was a natural for the position. Jones takes great interest in the patients he transports, Gerfin said, often holding long conversations with the veterans during extended drives.
That great interest comes from a heartfelt appreciation for the sacrifices the veterans have made, Jones said. “I’ve always respected and admired our military. I can only do what I do today because of what these guys have already done. If they hadn’t done what they had, we wouldn’t be here. So it’s an honor and a privilege to me to be allowed to work on that truck.”
Both the shift length and the nature of the calls are more conducive to Jones continuing to be a productive member of the EMS team, he said. “The 911 calls ¬– the mud, blood and beer stuff – I’ve been there, done that, and got plenty of shirts to prove it from more than 20 years. So now, I’m off those 24-hour shifts onto 12-hour shifts. I do four days on/four days off, and for a 61-year old man, that ain’t a bad gig.”
The fact that sirens aren’t wailing doesn’t mean the health problems these veterans face are any less real, Jones said. “We have ventilators. These veterans that for whatever reason wind up on ventilators – we have one that they don’t know if she got gassed in Iraq or whether her shots reacted or what – we have these veterans that are on vents, as we call them. When we get a call to take them to the doctor, we’re vent-trained so we can take our portable vent, hook them up and bring them where they need to go. Mainly what I do is transfers, like from an ER. Maybe Park West in Knoxville will have somebody walk in with chest pain. As long as they’re stable, if the VA wants them up here, I go get them.”
And Knoxville might be a short run for Jones. Distance is no object, he said. “I’ve been to Augusta, Ga. There’s a spinal clinic in Augusta where we take patients and bring them back. I’ve been to Lexington, Ky. There’s a VA there. We go to Lafollette, Juliet, Oneida, Erin, Maryville, Grundy…they just send us everywhere. And of course, we do things right here in town too. We pick up veterans in Sullivan, Washington and Greene counties. We do whatever the veterans need and go wherever they need to go.”
Jones knew in December that Gerfin nominated him for the Tennessee State VFW EMT of the Year Award, but it wasn’t until the night of the award ceremony, Feb. 14, when Jones was presented with the plaque, that Jones found out he had been awarded the national honor as well.
“A month-and-a-half after Major Gerfin told me I had been nominated, I got a letter telling me, ‘Congratulations, you have won the state of Tennessee,’” Jones said. “But when you win the state, they submit your name to National. So when my wife and I were in Nashville for the state event, I went up to get my award, and the next thing I know, they’re putting this citation in my hand too. It wasn’t until after the event when Lyle (Payne, husband of Brenda Payne, who submitted Gerfin’s letter and the other nomination materials on behalf of the local VFW) came up to me and said, ‘I didn’t know you won the national award, too,’ that I realized exactly what I was holding.”
Jones accepted the award with humility. “I’m no better than anybody else,” he said. “I just come to work and do my job. I enjoy helping people. That’s just the way I was raised. If you’re helping somebody else, you can’t feel sorry for yourself.”
“Let me tell you about these veterans,” Jones said. “I picked up a 99-year-old man. He was scarred down one side of his body. He told me he was in the Army as a tank commander. He said, ‘I chased Rommel across North Africa.’ The minute he said that, the scarring made sense to me. I asked if he got hit and he said he had been. So I said, ‘I guess you got to go home early.’ He said, ‘No, I went to England, got better, and got back in time for the Battle of the Bulge.’ Now this black man was a hero. I was in the presence of a true hero. Where else could I get the privilege of being in the company of somebody like that?”
“What I do – God blessed me when he put me here,” Jones concluded. “The day he guided me to join a rescue squad, he blessed me. It’s where he wanted me to be and where I’m supposed to be. I’m blessed.”