Soldier strives to be best father he can be

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 19, 2010

By David Vitrano


MT. AIRY – Nine-year-old Kace Jones stole the show at the John L. Ory Distinguished Gentlemen banquet when he stepped up to the mike dressed in army fatigues, read a message from his father, Darek Jones, and handed out brand new X-Boxes to the two Gentlemen with the highest grade point averages.

Flashback to a few months earlier, before Darek shipped out with his National Guard unit to Iraq, when the father of five spoke to the group of sixth-grade boys. He spoke to them about always doing their best and setting high goals for themselves. While most of the young men were fascinated by his military uniform and many of the questions they asked concerned his duties as a member of the armed forces, what really stuck in their minds that day was the promise Darek made to them to buy gaming systems for the two boys with the best grades.

By the time of the banquet, Darek was thousands of miles away facing hardships most people can only imagine. No one would have blamed him if that particular promise went unfulfilled. But he delivered.

“I don’t believe in building a kid’s hope up,” said Darek. “I’m not going to make a promise I can’t keep.”

His sister, Erin J. Jones, said, “We didn’t even have to call back to remind him.”

Christal Sylvain, assistant principal of John L. Ory Magnet School, added, “It’s very easy for someone not to follow up on their word.”

Darek kept his promise merely out of the sense of duty that seems to drive many of the man’s actions.

Given the often-hard reality of growing up in Mt. Airy and the fact Darek was raised in a single-parent household, it would be easy to imagine this story turning out very differently. Darek’s grandfather, Chester Nelson Sr., however, stepped in and filled the void left by Darek’s father when his parents divorced while he was still very young.

“He would tell us about manners and doing the right thing,” said Erin. “I think he was very influential in our lives.”

The siblings’ mother, Leana Nelson, concurred. “My children idolized my father,” she said.

“I’ve always called him ‘Daddy’” said Darek.

“I was never cheated out of anything as far as my daddy was concerned,” he added.

Nelson said she also always encouraged her children to take part in activities such as sports where there is a male authority figure.

Darek seems to have an innate ability to take formative cues from those around him. Inspired by a friend, an officer with the St. James Parish Sheriff’s Department named Joseph Hamilton, who passed away recently, Darek presented an underprivileged child from a local church with a brand new Playstation last Christmas.

“I’ve always been proud of my son because he has a heart of compassion,” said Nelson.

Darek’s maturation into the man he is today came as no surprise to the matriarch. She said she had very few problems with him as a child.

“He was a bright child, compassionate. He takes after his mother,” she quipped. Both she and her daughter used the term “prankster” in reference to him.

“He’s still like that today,” said Erin.

“His niece and nephews and his children love him because he is that clown,” his mother added. “They know they’re going to have a good time when he’s around.”

It was only when he entered adolescence that he began to rebel a little,

“I was more or less looking for answers, answers nobody could give,” said Darek.

He emerged from that phase relatively unscathed, and ironically it is now Darek’s sense of compassion that causes his mother the most worry. Following Hurricane Katrina Darek helped with the rescue operation in New Orleans, and now of course he risks his life every day in Iraq.

“It’s always something life-threatening that he does,” said Nelson.

It’s not so much his sense of compassion but instead his sense of duty that has led to Darek’s current assignment, however.

“I had gotten to the point where I couldn’t do for them like I wanted,” he said. “It hurt me.”

And although it is hard on both him and his children — Kaylee, Kace, Kori, Camryn and Kaden — for him to be so far away, in his heart Darek knows he is doing the right thing.

“On my first tour, I actually volunteered because my kids needed it,” Darek said. “I’ve sacrificed two years to make things better.”

Even when far away, Darek said he tries to make the most of the limited contact he has with his children. He said he’ll give his children little challenges, challenges they are eager to meet the next time they speak with their father.

Still, he realizes it is no replacement for being there in person.

“When I first left, I think they took it real hard,” said Darek. “That was probably the worst feeling in my life.”

So, as Darek gets to enjoy some much-needed time off this weekend, he’s keeping his Father’s Day plans simple.

“I’m more or less just looking forward to spending some time with them,” he said.

His mother and sister said Darek’s bond with his children was apparent from the start.

“He was a very proud father,” said Erin. “Very involved.”

Nelson added, “He’s good with his children. I’m proud of both my children in that respect.”

The strong feeling emanates perhaps because Darek sees himself in his children.

“It’s humbling in a sense, and it’s also a feeling of pride. It’s like you’re looking at a reflection of yourself,” he said.

But that does not mean Darek wants his children to grow up to be just like him.

“I really hope and pray that both of my sons become better men than me,” he said. “I hope my daughters become great women.”

While they may not be so apparent to others, Darek sees his own imperfections all too clearly.

“I’m not going to say that I’m the best father,” he said. “I’m the best father I know how to be.”

Besides, the imperfections give the soldier something to strive for.

Offering some words that seemed somewhat of a personal mantra, Darek said, “Keep fighting. I’ve always gotten up after I’ve fallen.”