LOS ANGELES — Michael Jernigan lost his eyesight and part of his brain in Iraq in 2004. But he insists, thanks to a couple of dogs, he found more than he lost.
His confidence, hopes, dreams, independence — they were shattered on a roadway. He couldn't even go to games for his favorite team, the Tampa Bay Rays. Then Brittani, a Labrador and golden retriever mix, became his "battle buddy." She boosted his confidence and independence and taught him to forget his disabilities and concentrate on his capabilities, he said. They got a history degree together and even went to the ballpark.
Jernigan was a Marine corporal on patrol with four others on Aug. 22, 2004, on the outskirts of Mahmudiyah, between Baghdad and Kuwait. A roadside bomb ripped into their Humvee, killing one and injuring most of the rest. Jernigan was thrown 60 feet from the gun turret.
Surgeons removed both eyes, the front of his brain and his forehead — leaving the rest of his brain to be supported by titanium mesh. His left kneecap was fractured and his right hand had to be rebuilt. He has undergone more than 30 surgeries, and he can only see black. Through it all, Jernigan said, the hardest part of all was being alone.
But before the surgeries were done, Southeastern Guide Dogs, Inc., in Palmetto, Florida, contacted Jernigan's mom and told her they would have a dog for her son when he needed one.
Jernigan is still learning to handle large crowds, but Brittani helped him control anxiety attacks caused by post-traumatic stress disorder. One day when they got caught in a crowd and Jernigan became "frazzled," Brittani went to work.
She "started hitting my hand with her cold, wet nose," Jernigan recalled. "I started petting her neck. She was wagging her tail and kissing my face. She realized I was at my breaking point and stopped me and helped me release all that tension to get me to a better place." It felt, he added, like "I had a Marine to the right and a Marine to the left of me at all times."
In this Aug. 17, 2015, photo provided by Southeastern Guide Dogs, Michael Jernigan poses with his guide dog Treasure on the campus of Southeastern Guide Dogs in Palmetto, Fla.
Photo Credit: Esther McFarland/Southeastern Guide Dogs via AP
Earlier this year, Brittani retired and is living with a friend. It took several months to find a replacement, a Labrador named Treasure, who could match Brittani's speed, gait and size. But Treasure has taken over where Brittani left off.
"Brittani was the longest and most successful female relationship I have ever had," Jernigan joked. He adds that he "will never be able to replace Brittani. It doesn't mean Treasure won't have a tremendous impact on my life — just different."
After training with Treasure for 26 days on Southeastern's campus, Jernigan graduated in August and began a new phase of his life. He turns 37 in October.
Only in the last two or three years has he started to understand how great his recovery was. "What I have been able to accomplish post-recovery is amazing, unbelievable. It wasn't too many years ago I thought I might have to live in a nursing home having somebody take care of me."
In some ways, he thinks "getting blown up was the best thing that ever happened to me because it changed the trajectory of my life. Before, I was a failed student. Wounded, I made a comeback and am a better son now than before."
There are things he can't do: "You wouldn't want me driving a car, would you?" But he is writing a book, organizing a motivational speaking tour and working at Southeastern.
"If you used one word to describe Michael it would be inspirational," said Titus Herman, Southeastern's CEO. "The fact that he has found the commitment and courage to create a life of meaning is inspirational to all of us. We are in awe of his accomplishments. He pushes all of us to try harder."