Monday, June 18, 2007

Home Fires: Five Iraq War Vets On Their Return To American Life

While I was home convalescing in St. Pete, with my new dome, I did not do much of anything. I was still having serious problems with my sleeping and was going out to the local bars drinking excessively. My family would invite me and my wife out for family time and were told that I was not interested. My wife never even asked me if I wanted to go to any of these family functions. She seems to have been trying to separate me from my family.

After these few weeks, I was off to the V.A. Hospital in Augusta, Ga., for their blind rehabilitation program. I was very apprehensive, nervous and scared because it is an inpatient program. I was separated from my wife and family for 16 weeks while I learned how to be blind.

The program consisted of four different classes: orientation and mobility, living skills, manual skills and computer instruction. The first two — O & M and living skills — were the most important in helping me to gain my independence.

Living skills, with my instructor Janet, taught me exactly what it says. It gave me the skills to live alone. In the beginning I was being issued adaptive equipment for the visually impaired and being instructed on its uses. Some of these gadgets include talking watches and alarm clocks, scales, bar code readers (for labeling clothing and other items), script talk (for reading my prescription bottles) and even a talking blood pressure cuff for my hypertension. It is very interesting to be in a house that talks to you!

This is also the class that I started to learn Braille, adapt household appliances and put my already superior cooking skills back to work. The appliances I learned to adapt were the stove, washer, dryer, microwave and dishwasher with tactile “bumps.” I also learned how to arrange my clothing and gain a general knowledge of how to make tactile adaptations of other household items — remote controls, thermostats, etc. I even learned a safe way to keep ironing my own clothes. It felt good to get back into a kitchen because I have always enjoyed cooking. There are different techniques for someone without sight to safely navigate a kitchen. I did so well that Janet would copy my recipes to cook for her boyfriend.

John Hoffmeister is one of the best and most patient orientation and mobility instructors on the face of the globe. We started out by learning how to safely navigate the hospital and its grounds, progressing to the city of Augusta. He taught me how to cross intersections by sound and safely walk down the street on a city sidewalk and in neighborhoods that do not have sidewalks. Ten weeks into the program he built my confidence up so high that I was walking two blocks from the hospital to the convenience store, alone. By the end of the program he had even taught me how to ice skate, which is quite a feat for a Florida boy as we have no naturally forming ice in our state. With his tutelage I gained the confidence to venture outdoors on my own.

My most enjoyable class was manual skills with my instructor Herman. Manual skills is a class that teaches a visually impaired person how to use his hands without sight. We started with small arts and crafts projects like making leather belts and wallets. By the time we were done I had constructed a bird feeder out of raw lumber. We also learned basic maintenance around the house. Herman was in the Army and later a high school shop teacher. I enjoyed working with him so much because I had more in common with him than I did with the other instructors. We would be in the shop together working and also trading stories about our lives.

During these 16 weeks I continued my counseling with a psychiatrist at the V.A. This was an important time because it was when my marriage really started to fall apart. For eight weeks, my wife was at her father’s home only four hours away and only visited me once; it was after that that she took a job assignment in Oakland, Calif., three time zones away. The wizard (Marine jargon for psychiatrist) and his voodoo-mind-magic helped me deal with this stress by giving me positive ways to vent my frustrations. These 16 weeks gave me my life back. Without this rehabilitation program, I might still be holed up in my own little world. I would like to thank these people for helping me get back into the world through their patient teaching and support. For the short time that I was home from blind rehab and before going back to the Naval Hospital in Bethesda, I was able to put into action all of my new skills. Mike Jernigan is back, the new and improved version, living the all-day night patrol.

On my way back to Bethesda I traveled in my chucks (a Marine uniform consisting of a tan, short sleeve shirt and green trousers) and while going through the metal detector at the airport I made it beep like crazy. I was pulled aside by a T.S.A. agent and told to lift my trouser legs and remove my blouse (shirt). I smiled at the agent, pointing to the ribbons on my chest, saying, “I am not a terrorist, these are for killing terrorists.” He asked again for me to remove by blouse. I lost my smile and replied, “If you can get it off me, I’ll give you 20 bucks.” At this time another T.S.A. agent showed up, who was a retired Marine, calmed me down and escorted me through security himself. Ironically, he came to my rescue again on my next trip through airport security some months later.

My dad took a month off and spent it with me in Bethesda for my last eye surgery and the start of my retirement processing. I enjoyed this time with him because for the past few years we had not had much opportunity to be together. My final surgery was a failure and unfortunately the doctor was not able to remove enough scar tissue for my left eye socket to hold a prosthetic eye. Petty Officer Gwen Guilford made me different eyes for the right side. I now rock with baby blue, emerald green and aquamarine normal prosthetic eyes. I also have five custom eyes — a hazel eye with a cat’s eye pupil, a white eye with a three leaf clover, a black eye with a silver skull and crossbones, a red eye with a Marine Corps emblem (especially for the Marine Corps Ball) and last but not least a cobalt blue eye that contains nine diamonds, totalling one carat, taken from my wedding band … this was the eye that I wore to divorce court.

I had a great time living in the barracks during the retirement process. My former hospital roommate, Todd Herman, was here during this time. We were injured at approximately the same time and shared a room for many weeks at the beginning. Todd and I spent a lot of time together and is still one of my best friends. Around the hospital it became known as the “Todd and Mike show” as we were always getting into something. During this time I swelled to 220 pounds because we were continually eating chicken wings and drinking beer. This is the heaviest I have ever been and every morning Todd would poke my belly like I was the Pillsbury Dough Boy and make some snide comment about me getting larger. Only great friends will shoot that straight.

I ended my service with the Marine Corps by attending the 2005 Army-Navy game in Philadelphia. Navy won giving me a great way to go out. GO NAVY, BEAT ARMY!! This was a great trip; a group of civilian train enthusiasts got together and took a bunch of us injured veterans to Philly on their private rail cars. This was my first trip on a train and I got to ride in style! We had great seats and tickets to the V.I.P. warming level. I had the opportunity to meet a lot of high ranking civilian and military officials and through one of these individuals I was able to score season tickets for my home town team, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays for the 2006 season.

On December 29, 2005, I was medically retired from the Marine Corps. I thank the lord for every day that he gave me in the Corps. After all our mantra is GOD, COUNTRY, CORPS. It was my first responsible adult job and the most fun a man could have.