Tuesday, January 23, 2018

For Iraq veteran, graduation day at USFSP marks the end of a long journey

ST. PETERSBURG — Mike Jernigan slid into a seat in the front row of the classroom.

He wore a bow tie and a crisp button-down shirt. Green slacks and freshly shined brown leather shoes.

He smiled, bounced his foot on the floor.

"This," he said, "is the conclusion of an arduous journey."

It was his last class.

That journey spanned more than 10 years and thousands of miles. It took Jernigan from an aimless youth in St. Petersburg to the battlegrounds in Iraq. He's changed now, physically and in so many other ways.

He left St. Petersburg able to see, for instance, and with an uninjured brain. But he also left a frustrated 20-something, immature and unsure of himself.

Now, finally graduating from the University of South Florida St. Petersburg this weekend, Jernigan, 33, says he's a better man.

"If I could go back and do it all again," he said, "I'd do it the same."

• • •

May 1997. Eighteen-year-old Michael Jernigan stood on the St. Petersburg High School football field with the rest of the senior class. When he got his diploma, he did a backflip. Everyone clapped.

The future? Jernigan wasn't thinking beyond that night. His buddy was having a party. Back then, he says, "It was all about having fun."

He enrolled that fall at St. Petersburg College because "that's what I thought I was supposed to do."

But when almost five years passed and Jernigan's GPA barely broke a 1.0, he quit. He worked for a while as a bartender at the Don CeSar Beach Resort, partying on his off-time, but that wasn't a sustainable career path.

So, on his 24th birthday, he joined the Marine Corps. His father, a retired Army major, swore him in at a North Tampa recruiting station.

He started boot camp a month later, went to infantry school and spent some time at Camp Lejeune, in North Carolina. Then he was transferred to a base in Okinawa, Japan.

It was beautiful, a quarter mile from the beach. He got to climb Mount Fuji and relax. But six months later, in December 2003, he decided he was ready to leave.

"As Marines, we all wanted to go off to war," he said.

He volunteered for Iraq.

• • •

Jernigan doesn't remember the explosion.

"Thank God," he says.

He only knows that he was riding in a humvee that day in August 2004 and then he was in a hospital, blind.

He tried not to show it at the time, but "I basically assumed my life was over," he said. "It was scary as all get out."

Over the next year, he had 30 surgeries. Life passed by in hospital rooms and rehab sessions.

Jernigan found himself angry a lot. He slipped back into the angst he felt before enlisting. He drank. He yelled. His marriage, to his childhood sweetheart, fell apart.

"Trying to come back here a different person really affected me in a lot of ways I don't think I can explain," he said.

For a year, he just sort of hung around. "I really had no idea what to do," he says.

He did find a few things to keep busy: He was featured in a documentary about wounded veterans celebrating the days they almost died, their "alive days." He took a writer's workshop. He started fundraising for the Southeastern Guide Dogs.

In November 2006, Jernigan decided to go back to school.

Hoping to go to Georgetown University, he started at a community college in Virginia. There, he met his current wife, Leslie. After a year, he transferred to Georgetown University.

But a trip to Florida for a wedding made Jernigan realize there were better opportunities and more support back home. So the couple returned and both enrolled at USF St. Petersburg.

There were hard times, but eventually Jernigan felt his life starting to come together.

He joined the student senate, got more involved with the guide dog organization and started thinking about a career in motivational speaking. The history major earned a scholarship for military veterans, the John B. Allwein Scholarship, and aced his classes.

"Well," Jernigan says with a laugh, "I did get a B in one of them."

His professors are sorry to see him go.

"I'm just amazed at the kind of obstacles he has had to overcome, and how hard he works at it, and the quality of his work compared to some of my other students who don't have nearly the same obstacles," said David McMullen, who taught a couple of Jernigan's history classes. "He certainly helped students think about things that perhaps they never would."

• • •

The camera battery is charged, and Jernigan's cap and gown is ready — with a matching gown for his guide dog, Brittani.

"Satisfaction." That's what he says he'll be feeling on Sunday night, as he walks across the Mahaffey Theater stage.

His wife will walk just ahead of him, trying her best not to cry.

His mother, Tracey Willis, will sit in the audience, thinking how proud she is because "he never gave up, through all of this."

Jernigan, who got a job with the guide dog group, will think back to the days just after he woke up from his injury, when he felt like life was over.

"It's like coming out of the darkness, and seeing the light," he said.

Kim Wilmath can be reached at [email protected] or 813-226-3337.


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