Southeastern Guide Dogs created a program in 2006 that is near and dear to many people’s hearts because it serves our veterans. An extension of Southeastern’s mission of matching people with visual impairments and world class guide dogs, this program looked to serve veterans returning from war with visual impairments.
The first veteran to benefit from the program was a soldier who had his humvee blown up by an IED (improvised explosive device) just six months into his first deployment in Iraq. That attack left Cpl. Michael Jernigan, USMC (ret.) with a crushed cranium, a mangled hand, a shrapnel-filled knee — and without his eyes.
Many surgeries later, Jernigan’s tenacious spirit was given a boost when he was matched with a lovable goldador named Brittani. The pair has been working together for the past six years and, in that time, Jernigan got married, went back to college and recently graduated from USF St. Petersburg. Jernigan’s name may sound familiar as he was also recently honored with the American Hero Award and joined the staff here at Southeastern Guide Dogs as a Community Outreach Coordinator.
After hearing from our graduate veterans that their dogs acted as catalysts for mobility and independence, and also helped them transition back to civilian life by providing a constant calming influence, an extension of the program was created to serve veterans living with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
While the primary focus of Southeastern Guide Dogs continues to be providing top-notch guide dogs for individuals with visual impairments, not every dog is cut out for that demanding job. “Career changed” dogs, not perfectly suited for guiding, may now be trained as Veteran Assistance Dogs. These dogs provide veterans living with the symptoms of PTSD a calm, steady influence and the dogs act as an anchor in their tumultuous world. The dogs work with a dedicated team of certified Southeastern trainers to learn very specific commands that will give the veteran better control of his or her environment.
There are another set of extra special dogs that provide comfort and support to thousands of wounded warriors. Southeastern’s Facility Therapy Dogs are placed at a variety of military medical facilities to greet, console, encourage, and love soldiers who have been wounded in the course of duty. We have placed dogs at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, the VA in West Palm Beach and most recently at Quantico, among others. These dogs spend their days in therapy rooms encouraging recovery, visiting bedside to offer that special canine TLC and wandering the halls with their handlers to meet and greet and brighten the day of everyone they come in contact with.
On this Memorial Day, remember the soldiers who paid the ultimate price for our freedom and thank those who have served and made it home safely. I’m going to head down the hall and thank Mike for his service and sacrifice and give Brittani a pat for helping him to reach his goals. And if you would like to help us help others, please visit www.guidedogs.org.