True patriots Wounded Marine tells Americans to enjoy their freedoms; it’s what the sacrifice is for

Cpl. Michael Jernigan (right), a retired Marine who lost both of his eyes after being wounded by an improvised explosive device in Iraq in 2004, receives an award from retired Maj. Gen. James Livingston during the American Hero awards ceremony Tuesday on the Yorktown.

Severely wounded Marine Cpl. Michael Jernigan has a message for the people of Charleston and the tourists visiting this week.

Go out to eat. Enjoy your families. Do all the things that go with being an American.

It’s what he gave his eyesight for.

“That’s what makes our nation great,” Jernigan, 33, said. “You don’t have to worry about your freedom.”

Jernigan was one of two U.S. servicemen honored Tuesday in the annual 2012 American Hero Awards.

The other, Staff Sgt. Tyler J. Smith, 24, formerly of Fort Bragg, N.C., was honored posthumously.

He was killed April 3 on his second deployment to Afghanistan after an improvised explosive device went off in Kandahar province.

By all accounts, Jernigan, of Tampa, Fla., is a remarkable story eight years removed from his injuries. Six months into his first deployment in Iraq, he was catastrophically wounded by an improvised explosive device on Aug. 22, 2004 in Mahmudiyah.

He suffered the loss of both eyes, a traumatic brain injury, right hand damage and post-traumatic stress.

While his sight is gone, he gets around with the help of guide dog, Brittani, a yellow Labrador retriever.

Today, Jernigan retains the gung-ho optimism that goes with being a third-generation Marine. He graduated with a history degree from the University of South Florida, was part of the HBO documentary “Alive Day” and has written for the New York Times website.

He also helped pioneer and raises funds for “Paws for Patriots,” a veterans program at Southeastern Guide Dogs Inc.

And while his injuries are permanent, he wants Americans and the people of Charleston not to feel guilty about getting on with their lives, even after so many have sacrificed theirs in two wars and nearly 11 years of fighting.

“You don’t have to worry about anything,” he said of the freedoms the military is helping to preserve. “Go about your business. Eat ice cream. Stare at the sights. Go to the beach. Things like that. That’s the beauty of America. That’s what is (glass) half-full about freedom.”

The American Hero Award is sponsored by Trojan Labor. Tuesday’s recognition was held during a breakfast gathering on the aircraft carrier Yorktown at Patriots Point.

Political Editor

Schuyler Kropf is The Post and Courier political editor. He has covered every major political race in South Carolina dating to 1988, including for U.S. Senate, governorship, the Statehouse and Republican and Democratic presidential primaries.