FORT KNOX, Ky. –
Keely Jones will be the first to tell you she’s grown up in a bubble. A Lumbee Native American born and raised on tribal territory in Pembroke, North Carolina, she’s experienced the majority of her life and education within a 15-minute drive from her family farm.
“We have cows and horses, hogs and chickens. I definitely had a childhood that not many people get to experience,” Jones said, speaking with a soft southern twang. “I am thankful for it, because it taught me the value of hard work.”
Growing up in a tight-knit, native community can make the world seem small and isolating, but for Jones her Lumbee culture and upbringing has been the guide leading her, ultimately, to join Army ROTC and pursue a nursing degree. This Cadet at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke (UNCP) plans to bring a holistic approach to leadership and make a difference in the culture of the Army.
“I think the Army needs love and the Soldiers need love and care. I really see that influence in my leadership style because I want to know my soldiers,” Jones said. “I want them to know that I care about them and their well-being. I want to care for them as a nurse, not only physically, but also spiritually and mentally.”
This commitment to care is reminiscent of Jones’s upbringing both in her family life and her Lumbee community ties.
The Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina is headquartered in Jones’s hometown of Pembroke. Hundreds of years ago, survivors of multiple tribes came to find safety and build their homes on the land. This brings a variety to the Lumbee people not typically seen in other Native American tribes.
“My sister and me come from the same mother and father, but she has green eyes and light brown hair and I have very dark hair and dark brown eyes,” Jones said. “Our people are very diverse, and it’s thought to be because we have white descendants from the lost colony [of Roanoke]—that’s just one of the theories about how our people came about.”
Riding horses and chorin’ around the family farm was just a typical day when she was in grade school.
“I was expected to take care of my dogs and my horses each day. That includes feeding and cleaning them, and cleaning their stalls,” she said. “If my daddy needed help with anything on Saturdays, I would help him with different tasks such as setting out pine straw and cleaning up sticks around our pond.”
Jones had a comfortable routine—she did her work, went to school, played sports, and went to church with her family. Jones was happiest when she was either riding horses or sharing her faith.
Jones’s mother, Tracy, sees her daughter’s devotion to faith as a key role in her character development throughout the years.
“She has always attended church and has the strongest faith in God of any young adult I know,” Tracy said. “She lives by the guidance provided: Do unto others and love your neighbor as yourself. She is faithful and loyal.”
“I grew up in the church,” Jones said. “The Lumbee people, they really believe strongly in God and our faith means a lot to us, and I think that’s what made me who I am today.
The Lumbee community gave Jones the strength to embrace and explore both her faith and her heritage, since, for Jones, both are intertwined.
Every November, in honor of Native American Heritage Month, Jones’s Lumbee community becomes a flurry of activity. They organized and showcased events and classes of the different Native American cultures. Songs and the sounds of jingle dancing from the local powwow filled the community and created a connection between the people and their history.
“We would just have a whole day dedicated to our Native American culture. I think that’s an experience that a lot of people don’t get to have, just for the simple fact that there’s not a big population of Native Americans in their school,” Jones said. “I definitely think our community does a great job of teaching our young natives about our culture.”
Still, even in the most cohesive communities, remain areas of darkness and struggle. Jones has witnessed these social faults first-hand.
“Poverty and drugs have afflicted native communities ever since the United States was ‘settled’ or conquered,” she said. “I really think poverty and drugs have corrupted our community in many ways.”
Until she was in college, it didn’t really occur to Jones just how little funding her school system had.
“When I was growing up, there wasn’t really a lot of books at school. I know that sounds strange to say, but we didn’t have a lot of books and up-to-date educational tools to use,” Jones said. “There’s just not enough funding for the kids here for new books, for new desks, for college readiness programs.”
The poverty of her community, though prevalent, is overshadowed by the epidemic of drug abuse affecting native communities. According to results from the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 1 in 5 Native American young adults (18-25) has a substance abuse disorder. Jones observed drug use and the family cycles of drug-abuse many of her peers were exposed to.
“It’s almost like a young addiction because a lot of my friends were growing up watching their parents smoke marijuana,” she said. “I can remember in 8th grade my peers were smoking in the bathrooms and it just follows on up into high school. Now that we’ve graduated, several of my peers are in jail, there are several that deal drugs.”
Even though Jones encountered the social issue of drug-abuse affecting the Lumbee community, her family was always open and honest when it came to understanding their family expectations. Jones’s mother, Tracy, shared how they took a very direct approach.
”My husband had a sister that dealt with addiction. She died young and [Keely’s dad] made Keely and her sister see her in hospice weighing less than 100 pounds,” Tracy said. “He told them that this is where drugs can take you.”
“We have stressed the importance of an education and being a responsible adult and not depending on a man to take care of you. Be able to support yourself,” Tracy adds.
While in her senior year at Purnell Swett High School, Jones began exploring different career options. She signed up for a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) course through the local community college. Participating in a class lesson, Jones felt fate give her a gentle shove.
“I was the hospital CEO for that day, we had different class positions, and my teacher was like, ‘You love being bossy, you should join the Army!’ and I thought, ‘That’s a good idea,’” Jones said.
She couldn’t shake that interaction, and a few weeks later at a family gathering she struck up a conversation with her uncle.
Jones’s uncle, Michael McNeill, is a retired Army colonel who served more than 20 years as an Infantry officer. He graduated from UNCP and commissioned through the school’s Army ROTC program.
“I loved every day and minute of it,” McNeill said. “Great time, great Americans, great memories.”
McNeill encouraged his niece to consider joining Army ROTC.
“She was always driven and exercising on her own, like I had my entire life. She was competitive and very smart,” he said. “I knew the military always needed good officers to lead by example, be physically fit, have integrity, and treat others the way you want to be treated. Keely has always had that and you don’t see that in a lot of kids her age anymore.”
For financial reasons, Jones decided to enlist in the Army Reserve before going to college. In the spring of 2019, Jones took the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) and had an appointment at a Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPs).
Her heart was set on enlisting and being a Simultaneous Membership Program (SMP) Cadet, but a fluke incident would prevent Jones from going this route.
“I ended up failing my blood test to go to basic training that summer because my blood wouldn’t come out,” Jones said with a laugh. “They stuck me five times and no blood would come out.”
Confusion, disappointment, and embarrassment overwhelmed Jones. As absurd as this situation seems, Jones and her family both believe fate was stepping in to re-direct her.
As another opportunity to return for a blood draw approached, Jones’s gut-feeling kept pulling her in another direction.
“I really think that was God stopping me from that,” she said. “So many events wouldn’t have happened: I wouldn’t have gotten the scholarship that I have now, I would have started school a year late.”
Just like with all her other decisions, Jones’s family was there to offer support. Even though Jones’s uncle might not remember the specifics of that event, he’s “pretty sure I would have told her not to worry about that,” McNeill said. “God always has a plan.”
“I signed up for [ROTC] when I had freshman orientation and that was that,” Jones said.
“I definitely wasn’t surprised,” Tracy said. “She had talked about going in the Army off and on for a few years. I have always supported her in decisions and knew it was a commitment.”
While Jones’s family opened the door for her to confidently navigate her choices, not everyone in the community shares the same positive views about being a Native American serving for the U.S. Army.
“If anything, this was our land first, so why would I not do everything in my power to defend it? Why would I not want to protect the land that our ancestors were born and raised on?” she said. “At the end of the day we are all American and we all need to work toward defending America. It’s not a division by ethnicity or a division by culture…you should want the best for America.”
Jones is now a junior in the UNCP Nursing Program, and plans to graduate and commission as an Officer in 2023. It hasn’t been an easy journey—late night study sessions and early morning PTs can be brutal—but she has a solid support system.
“What really pushed me was the love from my family,” she said. “I really feel like God has something he wants me to do in the military and I think it is with nursing, because he wouldn’t have put me on the path that I’m on now if it wasn’t.”
Being both an Officer and a nurse in the Army seems intimidating given the intense demands of both careers. This doesn’t faze Jones, she feels it’s been her calling all along.
“I want to see the world, make change, spread my light, and spread the art of caring for people—the art of loving people. I think that’s what our world really needs, especially the military,” she said. “You have so many young people that have left their families for the first time and they need that care, they need that love, and they need that leadership.”
“She has had so many wonderful experiences and opportunities since joining ROTC,” Tracy said. “She is a born leader, and being an officer and a nurse will be a great future for her.”
With graduation, commissioning, and beginning her career on the horizon, Jones has set high expectations for herself.
“I will tell anyone that I am a Soldier first and a nurse second. I raised my right hand for my oath and I will always honor that,” she said. “My nursing duties come second to my duty to my soldiers and my duty to my country.”
Being an Officer in the Army means Jones will be able to step farther outside of her Lumbee community bubble. Jones, to her credit, is unfazed by moving away from her home and her community.
The Army has created a new sense of home and acceptance where “we don’t really see culture and race because we’re all working towards a common goal.”
“You’re a Soldier, you’re a battle buddy, you’re a comrade. You’re not Hispanic, you’re not Native American, you’re not black, you’re not white,” Jones said. “We’re trying to honor something bigger than any of our upbringing and our culture because America is what we’re trying to protect and what we’re trying to defend.”