RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - Republican U.S. Rep. Walter Jones Jr., a once-fervent supporter of the 2003 invasion of Iraq who later became an equally outspoken Republican critic of the war, died Sunday, his 76th birthday.
The congressman's office confirmed his death in a statement, saying Jones died in Greenville. His health declining in recent months, Jones entered hospice care in January after breaking his hip. He had been granted a leave of absence from Congress in late 2018.
Jones was a political maverick unafraid to buck his own party. He was one of the first Republicans to reverse direction on the war in Iraq, even as his North Carolina district included the sprawling Marine installation Camp Lejeune.
His ultimate opposition to the Iraq war came with the irony that he instigated a symbolic slap against the French when their country early on opposed U.S. military action in Iraq. Jones was among the House members who led a campaign that resulted in the chamber's cafeteria offering "freedom fries" and "freedom toast" in 2003 - instead of French fries and French toast.
Jones said he introduced legislation that would have required President George W. Bush's administration to begin withdrawing troops in 2006 because the reason given for invading Iraq, weapons of mass destruction, had proved false.
"If I had known then what I know now, I wouldn't have supported the resolution" to go to war, Jones said in 2005.
Jones, who had served in Congress since 1995, had already announced his 2018 campaign would be his last. His death means Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper would schedule a special election for someone to complete Jones' two-year term in the coastal 3rd Congressional District.
In the House, Jones was a relentless advocate for campaign finance reform and controlling the national debt.
Representing a district that includes Camp Lejeune and Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station, Jones lamented the military's lengthy presence in Iraq.
Jones took heat for becoming one of the first Republicans to reverse direction on the war in Iraq, expressing regret for his 2002 'yes; vote. He ultimately signed well over 11,000 letters to the families of dead troops, describing that as a penance of sorts.
"For me, it's a sacred responsibility that I have to communicate my condolences to a family," Jones said in a 2017 interview with The Associated Press. "And it's very special to me because it goes back to my regretting that I voted to go into the Iraq war."
The fiscal and social conservative won unopposed in last November's general election after fending off Republican primary challengers stoked partly by Jones' willingness to dissent from the Washington leaders of his party. For example, he voted against the tax overhaul promoted by President Donald Trump and a "repeal and replace" plan for President Barack Obama's health care law.
In a 2018 AP interview, Jones said that he wasn't afraid to oppose GOP leaders "when I don't think they're right."
"It's absolutely about principle," he said. "When I leave Congress, I would rather have one thing said about me: 'I will never question Walter Jones' integrity.'"
Either Jones or his father, Walter Jones Sr., represented eastern North Carolina in Congress for five decades. The elder Jones, a Democrat, represented the region from 1966 until his death in 1992. Walter Jones Jr., then also a Democrat, lost the party primary to succeed him. He became a Republican and was sent to Washington two years later.
Walter Beamon Jones Jr. was born in Farmville in 1943. He attended Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia during high school and then graduated with a bachelor's degree from Atlantic Christian College - now known as Barton College - in 1966.
He served in the North Carolina state House from 1982 through 1992, where he often clashed with Democratic leaders. He and current Gov. Roy Cooper were among 20 House Democrats who joined Republicans in toppling Democratic Speaker Liston Ramsey from power in 1989.
Survivors include his wife, Joe Anne, and a daughter, Ashley.
Associated Press writers Jonathan Drew and Martha Waggoner contributed to this report.
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Congressman Walter Jones has died at the age of 76.
The District Three Representative passed away Sunday afternoon in Greenville, according to a statement released by his office.
February 10 had also been his birthday.
Jones had represented Eastern North Carolina in the U.S. House for 24 years.
Jones had been placed in hospice a few weeks before his death and had recently undergone surgery for a broken hip.
The Congressman had been battling an undisclosed illness for several months forcing him to miss votes on Capitol Hill since the fall.
"Congressman Jones will long be remembered for his honesty, faith, and integrity. He was never afraid to take a principled stand. He was known for his independence, and widely admired across the political spectrum. Some may not have agreed with him, but all recognized that he did what he thought was right," his office said.
Other local leaders released statements about Jones passing.
"Congressman Jones represented the best of North Carolina politics. He understood that being a leader meant often putting political allegiances aside in order to bring people together around important work," Congressman G.K. Butterfield said.
Governor Roy Cooper also released a statement saying "I am grateful for the life and service of my longtime friend Congressman Walter Jones Jr. He was a public servant who was true to his convictions and who will be missed."
"He always did what he felt was right for his constituents, his district, and his country, and it was no wonder why he was so widely admired and trusted. It was a true honor to serve with Walter Jones. Susan and I send our deepest condolences to Joe Anne and his loving family," Senator Thom Tillis said.
"There was no better champion for eastern North Carolina than Walter Jones. My thoughts and prayers are with his family at this difficult time," North Carolina Republican Party Chairman Robin Hayes said.