Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Welcome to My Civilian Life

By Michael Jernigan
Home Fires:
Iraq War Veterans on Their Return to American Life
The New York Times
June 25, 2007

For my final post here, I’d like to give you a little tour of the last year and half of my life. It covers a lot of ground, so hang on.

In January of 2006 I finally moved home to St. Pete as a civilian. My first order of business was to attend Southeastern Guide Dog School, in Palmetto, Fla, for a 26-day training program. I received a 3-year-old Goldador (Lab/Golden Retriever mix) named Kera. The training program reminded me of being in the military. We woke up early every morning, training in different environments throughout the day and did not go to sleep until about 10:00 p.m. I enjoyed this time with my trainer Rick as he is Vietnam veteran. During our training we spent many hours trading stories about our combat experiences. Upon completion I returned home to St. Pete with Kera. It was nice to finally be home for more than just a short period of time. My friends would come over to hang out and it was great to spend time with them.

The following month I participated in Soldier Ride, a charity event to raise funds for the Wounded Warrior Project. Soldier Ride is an event where wounded veterans ride bicycles across the country and also do many smaller rides in different locations. The one I went on started in South Beach in Miami and was approximately 10 miles. This was followed by a ride through Islamorada to raise awareness and funds; during this time I had the opportunity to meet the football coach, Jimmy Johnson. Crossing the Seven-Mile Bridge, south of Marathon, really jacked me up! On the ride from Boca Chica Naval Air Station to Mallory Square in Key West, my stepdad Bob piloted the tandem bicycle given to me by the Wounded Warrior Project. After many months of physical inactivity, I was in great pain by the end of this ride; the whole trip felt like sitting on a coke bottle sideways!

It was during March that I started my speaking engagements; going to West Palm Beach to speak at my sister’s elementary school; she was teaching third grade that year.

It was about this time that I realized that Kera would not work out for me as I tend to drift to the left while walking because of the injury to my left knee. I needed a dog that would be able to keep me on a straight line and things were not working out, so unfortunately she had to be returned to the school. She has since been given to another blind person and is doing really well.

In May, my friend Todd from the Naval Hospital in Bethesda took two weeks leave and came to visit me in St. Pete. He had never been to Florida before and he got to experience it from a local’s point of view. I may be blind but I know St. Pete like the back of my hand and was able to direct Todd driving so that he could enjoy all that Tampa Bay has to offer. After Todd left, I went Madison, Ind., to visit my uncle John and his family and speak at my cousin’s school. Wherever I go, the kids always ask if I can remove my eye and are amazed when I pop it out. While there I dislocated my shoulder while sleeping and had to make a trip to the local emergency room. Because of my prior experience with pharmaceuticals I turned down the pain meds they offered while I was waiting for the doctor to see me and put my shoulder back into place.

When I returned home at the end of the month I was alone in my house and felt that I needed company so I went to the Friends of Strays and adopted a kitten named Alexcia. This seemed like such a long name for a tiny kitten so I shortened it to Lexie. She was the first kitten my mom placed in my arms and I could not turn her away. Afraid I would step on her, I put a bell around her neck. She is no longer the gray ghost; I always know where she is in my house.

In July, I was invited to the National Theater Workshop for the Handicapped (NTWH) for the Writers’ Program for Wounded Warriors in Belfast, Maine. This is a program that NTWH started to give us wounded veterans a positive outlet to vent our frustrations. I approached this program as a form of therapy and used it to further my rehabilitation. It was also the start of my writing that eventually led me to write this series for The New York Times. The monologue that I completed during this program was later featured in a play performed in Westhampton Beach on Long Island.

In August I went a Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young concert at the Nissan Pavilion in the DC area expecting a really good rock n’ roll show. But I was disappointed as it turned out to be the closest thing to an anti-war protest that I will ever attend.

The backdrop behind the band featured steel coffins of dead service members rolling out of the back of airplanes. Neil Young got on stage and sang three songs protesting war. He was then accompanied by the rest of the band and sang “Rockin’ in the Free World.” Sometimes I wonder if Todd and I were the only ones to notice the irony of protesting the wars that gave us this free world.

In the fall my shoulder continued to bother me and I went to the V.A. for surgery to fix problem. I was surprised to learn that my orthopedic surgeon was from Iraq.

Because my experience in Iraq, I had been very hesitant around Arabs, but was surprisingly impressed by this man’s personality and skill. I think that this one man single-handedly changed my opinion about America’s entire Arab population. I understand not all Arabs in the world are bad, just that small fraction who want to wage war against us.

In October, Todd and I took a trip to Ireland for a five-day pub crawl. The beauty of this trip was that it fell on my 28th birthday. We had a very exciting time traveling the countryside. While staying at the Cabra Castle in Cavan, I saw my first Irish Wolfhound; his name was Oscar and he was enormous. We visited the westernmost city in Ireland, Galway, known as the City of Tribes. Before we returned home we ended our trip with two days in Killarney, where I had so much fun that one morning I woke up with my eye in my pocket! This was one of the most exciting birthdays I have ever had.

Upon returning home from Ireland I went to New York City to film a veteran’s documentary for HBO; stay tuned, it will air the week of Sept. 9… While there, my mom and I had the opportunity to see two shows on Broadway, “Rent” and “Les Miserables.” Les Mis rocks!

After Thanksgiving I again got to attend the Army-Navy game with the same group as in 2005. This was my second train ride, and like before, I got to ride in style! Hey, Army, I’m starting to see a pattern! GO NAVY, BEAT ARMY! OO-RAH!

At the beginning of 2007 I made one of the biggest moves of my life. While keeping my house in St. Pete, I moved to Alexandria, Va., to start the search for a college to attend. If you are the president of Georgetown University, please let me in! I took an apartment on Duke Street in the same building that my mom lived in 32 years ago when she met my dad. Moving to a new area on my own put forth its own set of obstacles. I was soon taken under the wing of a former marine blinded in Vietnam who has introduced me to the movers and shakers in Washington, getting me off my butt and helping to point me in a positive direction. My move to the D.C. area has gotten me to the halls of Congress twice and to the National Press Club a few times. I’ve even gained entrance into the largest office building in the United States, commonly referred to as the Pentagon.

During this time I met a young woman who has become very important in my life. Leslie has an 11-year-old son, Caleb who plays little league and I enjoy going to his games. We are moving ahead slowly, getting to know each other and enjoying the time we spend together.

As you may have realized by now, I love to travel and becoming blind has not slowed me down. My trip to England in March with my dad brought the number of countries I’ve visited to 13. While there I was able to visit the county where the Jernigan’s originated.

Upon my return from England I went back to Palmetto to receive a guide dog to replace Kera. The director of training for Southeastern Guide Dogs, Rick Holden, had spent the past year searching for a dog that would compensate for my multiple disabilities. On March 27 I received Brittani, another Goldador. She is currently working out marvelously and I cannot imagine how I survived without her. Since Leslie lives in another city, Brittani and I have had a lot of opportunities to use the trains in Virginia. And she and Lexie have become the best of friends, playing, sleeping and eating together.

This summer is turning out to be a very busy time with a family cruise and many other trips that I will be taking. Ironically the next phase of my life, attending school, starts on the third anniversary of my injury. If you are interested in following the rest of my story, give me a week or so and log onto my Web site at www.michaelleejernigan.com .


Michael Jernigan served with Easy Company, Second Battalion, Second Marine Regiment during the summer of 2004 in Mahmudiya, Zadon, and Falluja. On August 22, he was severely injured and blinded by a roadside bomb. He was medically retired from the Marine Corps in December of 2005. He lives in St. Petersburg, Fla.

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