By MELODY JAMESON
RUSKIN – For wounded, war weary American veterans, the distance between the hot, dry, hard sands of the Middle East to the gentle, lapping waves of Tampa Bay is a lot more than half a world.
Just ask Mike Jernigan, a U.S. Marine who, in his first Iraqi tour, sustained disabling injuries that required 30 surgeries in 12 months.
Jernigan, reared in the comfort-conscious old northeast section of St. Petersburg, was in the humvee’s gun turret that August day in 2004 when the explosive blew. Thrown about 20 yards onto the hard sand near Mahmudiyah, about 45 percent of his skull essentially was crushed, one hand was severely damaged, his left knee took a heavy hit.
Talking about it today, Jernigan says “I don’t remember it, but they told me later that I was still conscious and looking for my lost rifle.” Courtesy of that IED, the young marine lost something more — his sight. It would be only later that the PTSD would envelope him.
That day, just six years ago, young Mike Jernigan, a St. Pete High grad who had the world by the tail, began the long journey back – through initial stabilization in the closest field medical facility, through treatment and evaluation in Baghdad, through more intensive medical care in Germany, through long term remediation at Bethesda – to a recent sailing cruise on Tampa Bay.
And how did Jernigan, his wife, the teen-age son they’re raising and a soft-coated, sloe-eyed Goldador named Brittany come to be sailing the bay last week?
It began not long after Bryan and Marilyn Custer’s oldest son, Matt, joined the U.S. Army. Following him through basic, staying in touch through various assignments, keeping up with him on a tour in Iraq, their empathy for the nation’s warriors at war soared.
They came face to face with war’s toll on America’s combat vets measured in the obvious – twisted or missing limbs, lost senses such as sight and hearing, scars permanently etched in skin, and deeper – as well as the not-so-obvious but still multiple manifestations of post traumatic stress (PTSD) or loss of normal mental and bodily functions. Prostheses and wheel chairs and attending therapists bear irrefutable evidence.
Then, there are the wages of war that can be extracted from families of surviving warriors – overwhelming new responsibility, financial hardship, shattered confidence, worry, fear, insecurity, depression.
“We wanted to do something for them,” says Marilyn Custer as she recounts the unfolding events over the last two years as they focused efforts to express appreciation for the awesome bravery and awful sacrifices combat exposes.
They incorporated “Freedom Excursions, Inc.” as a not-for-profit entity with a five-member board of directors in April, 2008, and made its maiden voyage in September, that year, Marilyn recalls. Since then they’ve made 35 boating or fishing trips, endeavoring to give the men and women who have purchased the nation’s freedom at high costs a few hours of relaxed, no-stress enjoyment at absolutely no charge.
The 37-year-old Lindsey motor sailer, equipped with a single diesel engine, includes galley and head, and is designed to sleep seven comfortably in forward and aft compartments. Nicknamed “Sun Catcher,” she is solidly built and handles with ease, Bryan Custer notes, plus she has the flatter decks of older vessels which makes her easier for some veterans to maneuver around.
And maneuver they do, Marilyn adds. Freedom Excursions has hosted vets in wheel chairs, with all manner of prostheses, sighted and unsighted, from each of America’s wars and conflicts since WWII, along with various members of their families. Each veteran’s experience is a story in itself, she says, like the young soldier from New York who had never been on a boat nor caught a fish but gleefully reeled in his first from their deck. Or, the physically impaired vet who carefully made his way to the bow, spread his arms to the sea, the sun, the wind and declared “I’m free.”
It was something like the feelings Mike Jernigan and his wife, Leslie, expressed as the motor sailer bore them, her son, Caleb Allen, plus Brittany the Goldador who rarely leaves Mike’s side, around the bay for a recent sunset cruise. As Bryan Custer and Caleb investigated the finer points of the main sail, Leslie and Marilyn engaged in girl talk and Mike shared pieces of his journey from traumatically injured fighter to husband and father.
After doctors did all that they could, saving his life but removing his damaged eyes, the marine was medically discharged by the corps. No longer able to do what he was trained to do – fight a war; defend his country – he returned to his hometown, trying to deal with the after effects, get a handle on the life stretching out before him, prove he was self sufficient without eyes. Restlessly, he returned to the Washington, D.C., area and determined he would get a college degree. What ensued, though, was a lot of alcohol and a lot of anger, he admits softly.
Leslie entered his life when the tall blonde from Richmond caught sight of him in an Alexandria, VA., establishment as he partied with buddies and approached him to say “thank you for my freedom.” In time, their long distance friendship blossomed into a relationship; they were married by a justice of the peace in 2008 and united again in a great formal beach wedding celebration at Nag’s Head in 2009. It was such a terrific event enjoyed by so many they figure they’ll do it again in five years, they say.
It has not been all clear sailing, however. The PTSD cropped up. Mike struggled to manage his anger. Leslie tried to be patient, understanding. They took advantage of marriage counseling.
Today, they are at home in northern St. Petersburg and both are back in school, this time on the St. Pete campus of the University of South Florida; Mike going for a degree in history, Leslie aiming for a psychology degree. They plan to put their educations to work, see Caleb through college and eventually to retire to a beach. Caleb, now enrolled at Berkeley Prep, says in a few years he probably will be in the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, the fourth generation in their combined families to serve the country with military commitment.
Of his wife, Mike says “Leslie changed my life; she helped me settle down and has shown me how to be a family again.” For her part, Leslie says when she gazes at her charming husband, “I don’t see disability” but rather a partner who teasingly calls her “Tater” and jokes about their imagined future cooking show dubbed “Tater and the Blind Guy.”
The first to receive a trained companion dog from the Paws for Patriots program at Southeastern Guide Dogs, Mike also assists with fund raising activities on behalf of the Palmetto-based organization and will be speaking about VA services for blind vets at the upcoming Blinded Veterans Association national conference in D. C.
Custers are doing much the same as they make presentations about Freedom Excursions around the area. Most of the money to support the operation to date is out of their pockets, supplemented with a few donations, they say, and they want to do more. They have teamed up with other captains to provide charter fishing trips in the Gulf and dolphin encounters from Clearwater Beach, even once put 22 patients on a 60-catamaran to skim along the Manatee River, but there are many more injured vets to reach out to.
And, now there’s a dream boat spotted; a $478,000, 80-foot, multi-deck houseboat with a lift on the stern to both raise wheelchairs to the first deck and lower certain patients into the water for adaptive water sports. This vessel would accommodate many more veterans and their families, Marilyn points out wistfully.
Of course, expanded service requires more help. So, the organization also is building a volunteer base to assist with the many jobs large and small that make a cruise successful.
Anyone who wants to “Catch the Wave” and “honor the bravest heroes” can contact the Custers by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. The website address is www.freedomexcursions.org.
Copyright 2010 Melody Jameson