Michael Jernigan’s dog, Brittani, has accompanied him on 47 roundtrip flights. They’ve been everywhere together, from routine grocery trips to Yankee Stadium, in New York.
When he graduated with his degree in history last spring from the University of South Florida, Brittani accompanied him across the stage and wore her own gown.
“She went to every class I did,” Jernigan said with a chuckle.
Brittani was at Jernigan’s side when Temple Beth Israel members visited the Southeastern Guide Dogs facility in Palmetto during a summer field trip.
There, members learned his story.
A roadside bomb in Iraq blinded the U.S. Marine Corps veteran in August 2004. He had 30 surgeries over the next 12 months to treat severe head, knee and hand injuries.
More than five years ago, Jernigan became the first veteran to receive a guide dog through Southeastern Guide Dogs’ Paws for Patriots program, which provides service dogs to wounded veterans.
Brittani will be at Jernigan’s side this Friday, when he shares his story at the Temple Beth Israel Veterans service.
“Our goal is to honor a very brave veteran, and at this time, when we observe Veterans Day, to remind the community of their service and their sacrifice to us, and then to, as part of that honoring, try to raise funds for a dog,” said Rabbi Jonathan Katz.
Jernigan said that he hesitated slightly when Southeastern Guide Dogs contacted him about getting a dog three or four months after he was injured but quickly warmed to the idea.
His first guide dog, Kera, didn’t work out because Jernigan has a left drift when he walks, and Kera didn’t correct his gait.
Brittani turned out to be a good fit. Not only did she help him to walk in a straight line, but her outgoing nature matched Jernigan’s personality.
Temple members hope to raise $3,600, which will cover the cost of securing and training one Southeastern guide dog.
Jernigan credits Brittani with giving him a high level of independence.
“I’ve been all over the place with my dog,” he said. “You leave your pet at home, but she goes everywhere with me and helps me when she’s out with me.”