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The wounded among us

Marine Cpl. Michael Jernigan with his guide dog, Brittani, photographed on Oct. 22.

Marine Cpl. Michael Jernigan with his guide dog, Brittani, photographed on Oct. 22.

The Department of Defense reports that nearly 50,000 members of the U.S. military have been wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq, according to Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

Even with their loss, most of these veterans choose to keep looking forward. Here are some of their stories.

Marine Cpl. Michael Jernigan, 34, of St. Petersburg was sworn in to the Marine Corps on Oct. 18, 2002, by his father. He was in the machine gun turret of a Humvee in Mahmoudiya, Iraq, when two 155mm artillery shells detonated, causing severe head injuries and the removal of both eyes. He is now a community outreach coordinator for Southeastern Guide Dogs.

'I joined the Marine Corps because I was kind of stagnant in life and I saw myself going down a road I didn't want to go down. I had a drinking problem.

"After I got wounded, it turned out the Marine Corps was not the place you want to go if you want to stop drinking. After I got wounded it was even worse. I thought that somebody was going to have to take care of me for the rest of my life.

"In a lot of ways going blind has improved my life. It opened up avenues to me that I had closed off in my mind. It gave me the desire to go back to college. It gave me a drive that I was missing. It gave me my wife. It gave me my family. If I wouldn't have been blind, Leslie wouldn't have walked up to me. (She) walked up to me in a bar to thank me for her freedom and we got married a year and a half later. Going blind has almost been a blessing in my life. The bomb pays dividends. It's crazy."

Army 82nd Airborne Spc. Andrew Harriman, 29, was wounded in the left leg in March 2007 by friendly fire in Iraq when his crew chief's weapon discharged as he was boarding a helicopter. He lost nine members of his former platoon in April 2007. His unit lost 22, and 98 were wounded.

‘It's been 5 1/2 years since I got hurt, but I've only been out for three. The first year or two, the first 2 1/2 years I was back, a lot of nightmares. You wake up in the middle of the night kind of in that 'Holy s---, where am I? Okay, yeah, yeah. Never mind,' and then you go back to sleep.

"I really wish that I had been there with my old platoon when those guys were killed. … There's a good chance I probably would have been killed with them, but I still wish I would have been there so I could at least have done something, maybe saved at least one of them. Don't know, it may have been 10 guys instead of nine, I don't know."

Cpl. Peter Bagarella, 29, of St. Petersburg joined the Marine Corps on July 9, 2001, and was deployed to Haditha and Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004. On Aug. 12, 2004, he was injured by an IED and lost his left leg below the knee. He had lens transplant surgeries to restore his sight.

‘I'm glad it happened, to be honest with you. I wish my eyes weren't messed up, but missing a leg isn't as bad as people think. When you are at Walter Reed you see a lot more people that are messed up. They can be double amputees or triple or even quad amputees. So just missing one limb is a blessing, and to be able to live a normal life is a blessing to me.

"I sat in a bar every night drinking, every night thinking it would solve my problems. I woke up with the same problems every day, with a hangover. When I started going to church, God completely changed my life.

"I always thought I could go to church and keep drinking, but it's kind of like a conflict of interest. I woke up the morning of the Super Bowl hungover and I felt like God said, 'If you want to have a relationship with me and you want me to take care of you, then you can't drink anymore.'

"How many people do you know will say they are happy that they lost a limb in Iraq? Not many."

Marine Cpl. Mike Nicholson, 23, of Tampa thought the Marines would provide discipline in his life, so he joined in June 2008. In April 2011 he was deployed to Afghanistan. Three months later he was severely wounded by an IED while on patrol. He lost both legs and his left arm. He will undergo his 28th surgery in Bethesda, Md., this month.

'You think about it every day — what happened — at least once. But I don't dwell on it. That's going to do nothing but hurt you. So you kind of just have to get past it and try to make light of the situation. The best medicine is humor. If you can laugh at yourself, then you're pretty much set. Whenever we go see the guys up at the hospital we try to make them laugh, put a smile on their face at least a little bit.

"You feel sometimes that you're not the same person that you were before, but you are. Just a little different, but you're still the same person.

"If you dwell on it, you'll make yourself upset. You've got to push through it and get on with your life. You can't just sit there and be like, 'Well, I could have stepped there or I could have stepped there.' Guess what? You didn't."

Marine Lance Cpl. Michael DeLancey, 27, was deployed once to Afghanistan and once to Haditha, Iraq. DeLancey was shot by a sniper while on patrol two weeks before coming home from his deployment in Iraq. The bullet injured his spine and left him a paraplegic.

‘I heard the gunfire and I remember returning fire and then seeing the back of my shoulder was popped out of place. I kind of started going in and out of consciousness at that point.

"I'm very proud of my injury. It sucks to have gone through that and I do wish I was still up and walking and everything like that. I look around and I look at the house and I look at the way I've been taken care of. My medical care has been top-notch.

"It's been, I wouldn't say an equal trade, but there ain't no sense in worrying about what I've lost. I've been provided opportunities that I would have never had if I wouldn't have got injured. Certain things like money, schooling. I've traveled all over the nation. I wouldn't have been able to afford to do that, but I'm doing it — going and mentoring and talking to other people."

Army Chief Warrant Officer 3 ROMULO CAMARGO, 37, was deployed to Afghanistan three times. On Sept. 16, 2008, he was shot through the neck and left paralyzed from the neck down. He has to sleep with a respirator but says he still loves the Army and doesn't regret his service.

‘The biggest challenge is I still have to be father, I still have to be a husband, still have to be a son, still have to be a brother.

"I still get yelled at for the things that every other husband gets yelled at for. Anniversaries still got to be the same. Mother's Day, Valentine's Day, it still has to be the same.

"My wife looks at the paralysis like a temporary thing. My son says, 'My dad can't move, but he's still Dad.' My daughter is still being 17 years old. Ask any parent that has a senior in high school, they're going through the same problems I am.

"I miss taking a shower, I miss scratching my head. One of the biggest things I miss is giving my wife, my son and my daughter affection. Giving them a hug, a high five.

Still got to be that man."

Army Sgt. Randy Swallows, 31, deployed to Sadr City, Iraq, from January 2005 to January 2006. He was discharged in 2007. Swallows has been diagnosed with PTSD and finds peace in both skydiving and photography.

‘Being in combat hunting for people is no different than photography. With shooting you've got trigger squeeze, breathing, sight picture, the mechanics, what grain bullet am I using? All these technicalities of shooting. Well, that's just to be able to accurately fire your weapon. Then you're out on patrol.

"All these stimuli are just ping, ping, ping. You've trained your mind to look for these things and then to bring the two together. Acquire a target and shoot at him.

"What's the difference between that and photography? Aperture, ISO, f-stops, which one to shoot? There's a foul ball cranking out to left field. Boom! Get six shots of the person before he ever catches the ball. There's no difference between hunting (and shooting) because you're walking through this environment hunting for things. Some people find (healing) in hypnotherapy and some people find it in volunteering, I found it in photography."

The wounded among us 11/09/12 [Last modified: Friday, November 9, 2012 4:48pm]

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