Paws For Patriots

July 12, 2008

In 2003, board member of the Southeastern Guide Dogs Inc, Bobby Newman, heard about a young Marine who had lost his eyesight in Iraq. Newman who is the executive vice president of the Tampa, Florida based J.C. Newman Cigar Company, heard from a friend from a St. Petersburg cigar shop, that one of it’s regular customers had lost his eyesight, after being hit by an IED.

Marine Lance Corporal Michael Jernigan had been on a mounted patrol near Baghdad in August 2004, when his Humvee was struck by 2 IEDs. Jernigan was peppered with shrapnel, which crushed his forehead and damaged the optical nerves in both of his eyes, to the point that they couldn’t be repaired. The blast also caused severe injuries to his right hand and left knee and he almost bled to death from a laceration to his femoral artery.

“He was still in the hospital in November 2004, when I called his mother and told her I was so sorry about what happened and that we wanted to get her son a guide dog,” Newman said.

After hearing about Jernigan’s injuries, Newman found out, from doing research, that the VA doesn’t provide guilde dogs for blinded Soldiers. That’s when he spearheaded an effort to make military leaders aware of this and let them know that they wished to help these Soldiers. With Newman’s leadership, the program Paws for Patriots was established, to provide guide dogs to blinded Soldiers. They have also placed a dog named Troy at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in 2006, to help encourage the Soldiers who were patients there, as they went through the physical therapy that is often grueling and the most challenging thing many of them have ever faced, as they recovered from their injuries.

About a year after his injury, and after an extremely long recovery, that included numerous surgeries, Jernigan was finally able to take Newman up on his offer. He was medically retired from the Marines and received his first guide dog shortly afterwards. After going through the training school at Southeastern Guide Dogs, Jernigan and his dog went home. Unfortunately, that first dog didn’t work out, and Jernigan got his current dog, Brittani, about a year afterwards. So far, Brittani, a 3 year old Labrador, has been a perfect match.

“She goes everywhere with me, literally everywhere,” Jernigan says. “When I’m on an airplane, she’s on the floor in front of me. When I’m on the train, she’s with me. If I’m at a public restroom, I open the door and tell Brittani to find the urinal and she leads me right to it. She knows where the ticket counter is in the train station, and once I get my ticket, she’ll take me right to an empty chair. She can find elevators, escalators, staircases and different things like that. With Brittani, I have less stress in my life.”

Jernigan leads a very busy and active life. He’s currently attending the Norhern Virginia Community College in Alexandria, Virginia, studying International Studies. His plans are to attend Georgetown University this fall to continue his studies. His life has changed dramatically, even though he’s picked up the pieces of his life and has definitive goals in mind. Brittani makes that change easier. His drive for independence and his courage are boosted by Brittani. She provides the stability and comfort he needs to allow him to be independent.

“You feel that harness at the end of your hand, and you can feel the heat of the dog on your leg and you lean over and her fur brushes up against you, and you know there’s somebody there, always with you, and it’s very comforting and assurring,” he says. “Each successful day builds a deeper bond and you get more confident. And that confidence equates to a lot of other things in my life.”

What an amazing display of kindness to another human being. I applaud Mr. Newman for his efforts and would love to see Paws For Patriots grow and expand. It’s wonderful that Mr. Newman and the Southeastern Guide Dogs, Inc have made it their mission to ensure that our blinded Veterans are receiving the best of the best. Just like our Wounded Warriors who lose limbs, their injuries are also very life altering. If you’d like to learn more about the Paws for Patriots program at Southeastern Guide Dogs, Inc, please visit their website. There, you’ll also find a promotional video about the program.

Paws For Patriots

Salute Magazine, June 2008 Issue


3 Responses to “Paws For Patriots”

  1. Nancy Olivas on July 14th, 2008 9:09 am

    Thank you for your article about Paws for Patriots. I work for Guide Dogs for the Blind and our organization was founded back in the 40’s to help blinded servicemen returning from World War II. We provide our trained dogs (plus transportation to and from our school; four weeks of live-in training; follow-up; and veterinary assistance) at absolutely no cost. So if you know someone who is blind, please tell them about Guide Dogs!

  2. Terri on July 14th, 2008 4:21 pm

    Thanks for that information and for what you do for our wounded warriors. Hope to see you stopping by A Soldier’s Mind again in the future.

  3. Sam Closkey on October 23rd, 2008 10:07 am

    I am with The Old Town Chapter of Brandon, Florida Harley Owner’s Group. We have a fund raiser, Motorcycle Poker Run, on 20 November, in the Tampa area, this is our 4th year, to support Southeast Guide Dogs, Paws for Patriots charity. I think your article would be an excellent vehicle to get the word out thru the local media, to our community to increase participation and raise funds. Would you please return my e mail so we can discuss how best to do this?

    Thank you,

    Sam Closkey
    813 654 5155

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