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A Marine's resiliency: To hell and back with a smile

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I was buzzing around the house the other day and NPR was on in the background as usual. It was my favorite show, Talk of the Nation, but, distracted by my chores, I was only vaguely aware that the topic was how participating in military service can change lives. A part of my mind, though, heard Neal Conan’s pleasant voice say, “And joining us now from his home in St. Petersburg, Florida, Michael Jernigan. He served in Iraq from 2002 to 2005 as a Marine corporal. He was hit by a roadside bomb and suffered extensive injuries, including the loss of both eyes.”

I stopped mid-task. Wait a minute. Did he say “the loss of both eyes”? Not “he was blinded” or “he lost the vision in his eyes” . . . but the loss of both eyes?

I listened carefully to the rest of the Talk of the Nation segment and then went to the internet to find out more about Michael Jernigan. Yes, he did indeed lose both eyes. To a roadside bomb that severed a major artery in his leg and crushed his forehead into his brain, literally tearing his eyeballs loose.

“How can someone bounce back from that?” I wondered to myself.

But, as I read on, I was once again flabbergasted at the human capacity for resilience. Michael Jernigan’s bounce back to peace in his life was a slow one. It took years for him to physically and emotionally recover. Yet, today, he is able to say:

I had an incredibly catastrophic thing happen to me. That is what I was told by someone in passing.

I do not agree. I was given a second chance at life.

Jernigan chronicles his story in a New York Times online blog called The Opinionator. The post that caught my attention was To Hell and Back With a Smile. He very succinctly talks about the twin hells of war and his injuries. He shares how he allowed the support of his family and friends to re-ground him to the point where he now feels gratitude and peace. This young man who had his dreams literally blown apart in Iraq is now able to tell the reader:

I can stand tall today and wear a smile on my face that is a country mile wide. I can do that because my family loves me. God blessed me with more days in this world. I beg of you, when it gets too deep and you feel like that it will never get better, smile. Sometimes it is all that we have to fight off the blues and get back on our horse and push through.

Takeaway points: Sometimes physical and emotional recovery takes a long time. Yet, if we open ourselves up to healing agents – such as the love of family and friends – we may get to a better place than we were before.

What do you think of Michael Jernigan’s story?


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Bobbi Emel is a therapist who helps people in Los Altos, Palo Alto, Mountain View and the greater Bay Area manage their stress and develop their strengths.
She is effective in helping people dealing with anxiety, worry and grief; and also those who want to improve their effectiveness and performance.