I know you, dear reader, are as grateful as I am for the troops who risk their lives defending us. Meet Michael Jernigan …
Corporal Jernigan is a big tough guy. He served in Operation Iraqi Freedom through spring and summer, 2004, and was hit 3 times by I.E.D.s (improvised explosive devices). During the heaviest point of his deployment, in a smaller operation in Fallujah called Vigilant Resolve, he averaged 1 firefight a day for 4 weeks.
“The question wasn’t ‘Are we going to take fire when we leave the wire (compound) but how far will we get before they light us up?'” Michael received a Purple Heart and a Combat Action Ribbon for his service in Iraq. On August 22, 2004, his Humvee ran over an I.E.D. that crushed 45% of his cranium.
“The first thing I remember was waking up in a hospital bed in Bethesda, MD. Everything was black.” His skull was reconstructed with an acrylic plate. His eyes were so damaged they had to be removed. Michael was the first service member to lose his eyes in the Global War on Terror. “I couldn’t even get out of bed to use the restroom,” he says. “I felt isolated and scared. I figured somebody would have to take care of me for the rest of my life.”
A blind marine who’d lost his sight in Vietnam gave him a greeting card: ‘Welcome to the all-day night patrol.’
In all, Michael endured 30 surgeries in 12 months and flat-lined 3 times. He spent 16 months in different hospitals and rehab centers before being medically retired from the Marine Corps.
Bobby Newman, a board member of Southeastern Guide Dogs in Palmetto, FL, called Michael’s mom, and Michael got involved. In 2006, he and Newman co-founded Paws for Patriots. The program provides guide dogs for visually impaired vets, service dogs for those with P.T.S.D. and therapy dogs to active duty military hospitals like Walter Reed.
In 2007, Michael met Brittani, a 2-year old golden lab. He fell in love. Brittani empowered him to go back to college. “I had a lot of anxiety,” he says. “I’d failed pre-algebra 4 times on my first college attempt. But Brittani gave me confidence. 3 years and 1 day after I got blown up, I tried again. I knew college was the foundation for success. It turns out if you actually go to class, you can succeed.”
Michael told his story to a group at the Southeastern Guide Dogs center. I knew I was meant to share his story when he mentioned the date he graduated: My birthday.
“May 6, 2012, was one of the proudest days of my life. College was something I had failed at before. I couldn’t have managed it without Brittani by my side. We walked across the stage together to receive our diploma. Brittani had her own custom graduation gown.”
Michael and Brittani went everywhere together for 8 years. Brittani helped him mitigate his P.T.S.D., “though the stress will always be there.” With Brittani, Michael went on to become Donor Relations Manager for Southeastern Guide Dogs. Michael and Brittani traveled back and forth across the U.S. 66 times.
Michael, whose courage is matched by his sense of humor, says, “Brittani’s the longest and most successful female relationship I’ve ever had.”
As is usually true with guide dogs, Brittani retired after 8 years. Michael’s currently being matched with another guide dog. His new companion will have big paws to fill.
“Getting blown up was the best thing that’s happened to me,” he says. “Without it, I wouldn’t have come to work at Southeastern Guide Dogs. I wouldn’t have been able to start Paws for Patriots. 117 vets wouldn’t have these amazing dogs.”
After Michael spoke, I introduced myself. He couldn’t see the tears in my eyes. I said: “In case you wonder what I look like, I’m ravishing.”
Thanks for the inspiration, Corporal Jernigan. And for your service. Semper Fidelis.