By Michael Jernigan
In August 2004, while on patrol with my Marine unit in Mahmudiya, Iraq, I was severely wounded by a roadside bomb. My wounds included a crushed skull and
right hand, traumatic brain injury and the loss of both my eyes.
I am not alone. In the past eight years, many of the 35,000 American soldiers wounded in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have returned home. But many
of us have also returned with deep emotional wounds, and those are harder to see.
In fact, they’re often invisible, which is why so many returning soldiers feel so lost back home. Those of us with post-traumatic stress disorder — I’m
one of them — feel like strangers here, carrying around a burden many people are unaware of or just can’t understand. The possibilities for misunderstandings,
collisions and alienation are great.
Rewind to 2005. I am sitting in the house alone in the dark. I do not know where the light switches are. What does it matter anyway? I cannot see light.
I get up to get another beer and discover that I have run out. No fear, though — I’ll go find the bottle of Johnnie Walker I have somewhere in the back
I hear a noise outside. I freeze. I am running through the worst-case scenarios. Where am I in the house? How close is my rifle? Be quiet, listen, and
slowly make your way to the bedroom. Good, I’ve found my rifle next to the bed, right where I left it. I feel safer. I am still listening; I don’t hear
anything else. Still, I will stand here in the dark with my head on a swivel listening to everything within hearing. Is that not my first general order
as a Marine? It is quiet. I am calm now, reassured that I am not under attack. Let’s go back to what we were doing. That bottle of Johnnie Walker is in
the back room in a box somewhere. I stop and pause. I should bring my rifle; it makes me feel safer.
Fast forward a couple of years. I am married. My paranoia is not as bad, but still there.
One night, I am taking my wife, Leslie, out to dinner for a “date.” As we walk to the table with the help of my guide dog, Brittani, we hear a voice: “Doggy,
Mommy! There is a doggy!”
“Yes, it’s a doggy,” the mother says. “You have to sit down and finish your dinner.”
The child asks loudly why he can’t bring his dog to a restaurant. As I walk by the table I lean down and say: “This is Brittani. She is a working dog.
She is my eyes.” I cannot see the look on the boy’s face. I know that people are sometimes taken aback by my appearance. My left eye socket is empty and
my right one usually has a prosthetic with an emblem or logo. (I even have one with diamond studs.)
We sit down. The waiter hands me a menu, I hand it back to him and say: “You can have this, I gave up reading!” I can only imagine the conversation that
takes place when he returns to his post and starts talking to his co-worker.
After dinner, we get up to leave. I imagine what the other diners are thinking: “He gets around very well for a guy who can’t see.” What they do not notice
is that I am holding my wife’s hand and she is guiding me through the maze of tables. I often get frustrated in restaurants because the tables are always
closer together than is comfortable for me. Brittani also does her best to make sure that I do not knock over the tables as I pass. Despite all of this
help I still bump into tables and chairs. In the past, I have even hit them so hard that I’ve knocked someone’s drink over.
Other problems remain. I fly off the handle. My emotions often come out quickly and unchecked. I often behave in ways that I do not understand. And most
times, it seems, the people around me understand it even less.
It is 2008 and I am back in school. I am walking to class at Georgetown University. I stop right next to a flight of steps leading to the Levy Center.
This building is not my destination; it is just a spot where I stop to get my bearings on an old campus that can be difficult for someone with disabilities
to navigate. Someone walks up and grabs my arm to turn me to face the staircase. Did this person ask me if I was lost? Or even utter a word before deciding
to grab me? No, because I am a cripple and it’s O.K. to manhandle me. My reaction is quick and angry. I jerk my arm out of his hands and spin on my heels
with the bearing of a United States Marine.
“Get your freaking hands off me. You think you can grab me? Try it again and I’ll break you down shotgun style!”
I am now in a horrible mood. I have to ground myself. What just happened? This individual saw a blind person standing in front of some stairs. He probably
thought that I did not see the stairs and needed help. So he reached out and grabbed me to spin me around to find the staircase. As usual, he did not say
anything. These would-be helpers never do. Maybe they do not know what to say. I do not know what they are thinking at that moment, but I can tell you
what happens to me. I immediately flash back to Iraq.
I am standing in a crowd of Iraqis. We are trying to push the gathering crowd back to clear an area. All of a sudden a large Iraqi man wraps his arms around
me. I cannot move. I cannot bring up my rifle to defend myself. The only thing I can do is reach my Ka-Bar (a combat fighting knife). You can imagine what
is to happen next.
It is a war and you cannot just grab a Marine and think that you will walk away unharmed.
This is where my head goes when I am touched unexpectedly. I know the man who grabbed me on the Georgetown campus was just trying to help. Why do I become
so angry so quickly? Why do I threaten physical harm? I do not know. It happens so fast that I do not even think, I just react. That is what we are trained
to do. It is the difference between a live Marine and a dead Marine.
I’ve come to learn that responses like the one at Georgetown are common to people suffering from P.T.S.D. I’ve begun to understand my own experience a little
better and am making progress. But there is still the innocent, ignorant student who grabbed my arm. How will that gap be addressed?
Hopefully, President Obama’s signing of the veterans spending bill last Thursday will help raise awareness of problems like these. But there is something
we can do that no legislation can: educate.
Throughout history, warriors have been taught not to speak of their emotional struggles. Earlier generations of American veterans mostly suffered in silence.
That tradition can change.
We can share our experiences — today more rapidly and widely than ever — so that this generation of soldiers can let others know about those struggles
without embarrassment or shame. So that when the worlds of the soldier and the civilian meet, they’ll come together, not collide.