The Jernigan Family (Silver Star)
Kim Jernigan probably never imagined her life in its’ present format. Who could? Taking care of a warrior who gave up his vision (literally) in service of the Marine Corps probably wasn’t a position she could’ve ever imagined she’d be in. Still, if you asked her now she’d proudly proclaim that she has indeed found her calling. She’d probably even tell you she’s dedicated her life to Michael Jernigan. It’s hard for many to imagine living such a selfless existence but this is Kim’s reality, and she shines the brightest of all when times are at their most adverse. There are quite a few commonalities between the veteran community and that of the caregivers. Selflessness is an identifier that ties the two groups together in beautifully succinct harmony. Michael and Kim have both learned the wondrous value of that word, harmony. They move in symbiotic step together through life, Kim being Michael’s vision, his bright light in a dark place. Kim spoke openly and sincerely about what brought her to this place, what grew her into this testament of legitimate sacrifice. It’s a ravishing image. Michael tragically giving up his eyes for his beloved Corps, and Kim steps in to bear a portion of that weight and loss.
Still, we must get to the innermost core of who Kim is and where that sense of selflessness developed. Much of her life, including the early death of her mother, has been about overcoming the odds and forging her own path. That’s irrefutably appropriate when you look at her husband’s service to the United States Marine Corps. In many ways, Kim represents those Corps traits in her own life. Something that kept coming up in our interview were those values: honor, courage, and commitment. Her honor always preserved in the way she is a credit to Michael’s impeccable service to our nation. Her courage is ever-present in taking on those barriers that are a constant part of living with Michael’s injuries. Her commitment is undeniable in her daily service to Michael and organizations that they stand behind. Here’s Kim with a look into the life of a Silver Star wife.
What was your life like growing up?
KJ: I grew up in southern California in Downey. I’m a SoCal girl. We didn’t have a lot of money growing up. We stood out and I was bullied quite a bit because of that. There were circumstances I had no control over as a child. It was hard but I had a good life. There is nothing about my childhood that I could say my parents didn’t do all that they could. That’s what matters.
How did that help prepare you for life?
KJ: It taught me to always be humbled and kind. Life can be unpredictable and you should be thankful for every moment. I think we all have different limitations or circumstances in life that we don’t always have control over, so it’s best to not allow those things to take away happiness. My parents, especially my mom always taught us to let the bad roll off your shoulders and to focus on the good. So in life I focus on the positive and remain true to who I am, it’s not always that easy, but what is?
Do you think that impacted your place now and where you stand?
KJ: We didn’t have a life of luxury but it made me who I am today. I don’t take life or any moment for granted. I appreciate every opportunity that is presented to me and I try to never get big-headed. There are strong people that fall sometimes even at the top of their game. You can never be too proud to humble yourself in the moment. There will be times when you may have to cut coupons and go to a less expensive grocery store or budget. You may have chicken instead of steak for dinner and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. When life kicks your ass if your pride gets in your way you won’t bounce back from that. You will succumb to your own inability to improvise, adapt and overcome.
What do you remember about your mother?
KJ: My mom was Mother Teresa to me. She is who I aspire to be. In the beginning she was making $9.00 an hour with her company and she worked her way to the top to become part owner of it. In 2007 on New Years I found out my mom was in the hospital. She wasn’t feeling well so I went to the hospital to spend time with her. Her abdomen was huge like a basketball and filled with air. It was 11 hours later they did an emergency surgery because her bowels were cut. We sat there for quite some time. They were wheeling my mom off to surgery and she told me to go home and that she would be fine. She always said that to me. I said to her, “Shut up mom, I will be here the whole time. I love you.” She came out of surgery and went straight into recovery. The doctors told us it was a successful surgery and I had gone home to get some rest. I was thinking that the next day she would be in a regular room. I bought her popcorn, diet coke, balloons, flowers, and all of her favorite things to take to her the next day. It was very scary because I just couldn’t imagine this happening to my mom. I got there and she was on life support. I slept on the floor in the ICU waiting room until January 17th when they took her off life support. It taught me to always be humbled and kind. Life can be unpredictable and you should be thankful for every moment. My mom was the best this world has to offer. She always loved without fear and welcomed everyone into her life with open arms. She was someone everyone knew they could rely on and come to in a time of need. My mom and dad were best friends and truly loved each other.
How’d you meet Michael?
KJ: A mutual friend introduced us. I met Michael post combat and immediately fell in love with his beautiful mind. There is so much more beauty than what you see with your eyes. Do I wish my husband could see? You bet, every single day of my life. Do I cry several times a week because my heart hurts for him? You bet. When you go to war not everybody is going to be a KIA or have those invisible wounds. There are those that wounds that are visible and in your face. This is the cost of freedom. I don’t ever have to ask myself what the cost of freedom is because I live with him. It was my husband's freedom and independence. That is reality. There is no making it glamorous. It is what it is.
It’s a hard reality and we have to live with it. We wake up with it every single day. I would give every limb on my body for Michael to have just one eye. I can get new limbs but he can’t ever have eyesight. They will never be able to give him his vision back. We know people who have lost multiple limbs but would choose that over eyesight. Eyesight is the worst thing to lose. Imagine yourself trying to navigate around your house in the dark and trust you remember where things are. Michael has to do that every day. I get everything done in the house for a reason and it’s not OCD. The structure and order makes Michael safe plus it allows him to retain some independence. I get up early in order to do that for him and will until the day I die.
What was the hardest thing with getting used to Michael's wounds?
KJ: It was not that hard, but there have been moments. The hardest thing was just seeing how badly wounded he was. The hardest thing was just seeing how badly wounded he was but we realize how lucky he is here today. Everyday I wish I could take Michael’s pain away and give him his independence back but I can’t, He will always be blind and his other injuries will always affect him. Everyday I wish I could take Michael’s pain away and give him his independence back but I can’t, He will always be blind and his other injuries will always affect him. There are times when I wish I could change it for him and I simply can’t. We’re just thankful he’s alive, healthy and thriving.
Was it tough getting to where you are today?
KJ: It wasn’t tough. It took patience. Michael will tell you I have the patience of a saint (laughs). I think I do because I exude it in all things. There is never a time when I feel rushed. Why would I rush through life to die? I don’t speed while driving (laughs). I’m not in a race with anyone. We all rush around way too much these days. I think because I am very laid back, calm, and patient that makes it easy. There are difficulties in moments where I have a lot to do. I have to check myself because I want to make sure he is doing as much as he can. I don’t want to take anymore away from him. One of the most common things I hear about is they get bitter. There is this extreme bitterness towards their veterans. When you are a caregiver and that is what you do day in and day out there are needs you have that aren’t met. I think I have been lucky because that has never happened to me. Michael and I just go together. We just mesh like the perfect pair of shoes you never want to let go of. We were married in April of 2017. We didn’t rush anything and had a very laid back wedding. Our wedding was in a cigar factory, The last working cigar factories in America. We had twenty people and it was very low key. It was just like us.
What is the best thing about that love?
KJ: We laugh. Michael and I never get tired of each others’ company. We truly enjoy spending moments together and have a great friendship with each other. I love his mind and the fact that we talk about absolutely anything with one another. Our communication is the best thing we have hands down. There are so many people that misinterpret, take things out of context and we never do that. We are slow with our words and very open with each other. We respect each other.
What advice would you give to someone who is a new caregiver?
KJ: I would tell them to pay attention to the 90/10 rule. Ninety percent of the time you better have it together and make sure everything is on point. It’s always better if you do it with a smile too. If you can get to the point where you smile and laugh without effort, it’s a beautiful thing. Ten percent of the time you need to allow yourself to cry, be mad, be hurt or be whatever emotion you need to be. The ninety percent of the time you need to be together. Your warrior depends on it. I always tell Michael that you cannot be 100 percent all the time or it will drive you insane.
If I have a moment of frustration or something bothering me, I just tell him I need a moment. He respects me, gives me my moment and we move on. You have to communicate and not bottle things up. I believe that telling them what’s wrong helps the situation instead of bottling it up. You must verbally communicate every single part of it. This what builds a strong relationship and it’s uncomfortable at times but necessary. There are times when he is talking about things he doesn’t want to share with me but knows it’s important to be open. It wasn’t easy to get to our level of communication but eventually we broke that barrier and that was a relief.
What advice would you give to get someone to open up and communicate?
KJ: I think there was so much that was just natural for us. I do believe that people judge too much. I never judged Michael, even on some of the darkest days. I never did. I never let him see me crying because I needed to be strong for him. People need to be their partners best friend and support them. One way to get them to open up be the light is to just not push it but genuinely tell them they are there for them. In 2016 Michael had a difficult time with dealing with combat issues and that was the year it all came to a head. His main thought was, “Why me?” This is question every injured person asks. If they talk to you just stop talking and listen. When they open up and talk to you, sit there and listen. You will get to the point where you can give advice to them but at first just sit and listen. They don’t need a problem solver. They need someone who actually listens to them.
What is your release for yourself?
KJ: I don’t have much down time. What is that (laughs)? I volunteer and get involved in different areas. I find great enjoyment in cleaning and getting my house squared away. My down time is making Christmas gifts with the holidays coming up. This is my most favorite time of the year. Each year we take different Christmas items and donate them to multiple families because everyone deserves a Christmas. Michael and I also do things throughout the year for people who are homeless or just having a streak of bad luck.
What is the most rewarding part of being a caregiver?
KJ: My husband is no longer on any medication through the VA that is mood altering. He doesn't take antidepressants or sleep aid. This is my moment when I sit and think about it. That’s when I know we did it. Michael has a traumatic brain injury, PTSD, has a list of things wrong and was diagnosed with epilepsy just last year. All of those things and he isn’t taking any of those terrible pills anymore. I encourage people to not rely and take unnecessary meds. You can’t do that though if your home life isn’t solid. It’s a day to day effort.
Sometimes life is hard and he doesn't get to “see” the beauty of it. I make life and moments beautiful for him. I make them bigger than what they are depending on the situation and how Michael is doing that day. When he smiles, it makes everything worth it. Caregiver work isn’t for everybody. There are more that work now and are no longer a caregiver because they couldn’t do it. It takes a special type of person. I pray everyone finds that special person. You will either sink or swim in the situation you face. I know some really good swimmers and they are some amazing women. Their veterans wouldn’t be where they are today without them.
When you moved from Florida was the transition tough?
KJ: It was very tough. We lived where Michael grew up and he knew that. He could tell you how to get home in three different directions. He just memorized it all. It was very difficult because the Dallas-Fort Worth area is huge. I don’t even know where I’m going 90 percent of the time. He has no idea where we are unless I am verbally telling him. He had to learn a new house and our comfort zone had to change. We had a local American Legion we went to all the time and that was a true place of comfort for him but now we don’t have that.
Why did you move to Texas?
KJ: Michael is a professional speaker and does a lot of events in the state of Texas for us. It just made sense to move here. We will be here for a couple of years and then move to where we want to plant some roots.
Is it hard getting used to the new house?
KJ: I walk Michael through our new house and tell him where things are. He has to bump into things and learn where everything is at. He’ll learn which way is which. In our old American Legion Michael would know how to get anywhere in there. He could go to the bathroom and people would sit there wanting to help him. They didn’t want to see him bump into things. They would ask me if he needed help and I would say no. It wasn’t because he doesn't appreciate the help but he has to learn through trial and error. He would bump the chair and learn the chair was there. He isn’t glass and won’t break. Part of learning is acquiring some bruises along the way (laughs). It’s hard to watch Michael learn through trial and error but I know it’s the best way sometimes.
What are your future goals?
KJ: Our goals are to continue to help others in any way that we can. Whether it be with the resources that we have or dedicating our time. We want to continue to bring awareness to the obvious difference of the “Michaels” as opposed to other combat wounded veterans. We want to change the legislation on that someday. That is a very big goal of ours. We want to never stop fighting. There are so many that went over there and our obligation is to do everything we can for those who come home wounded. It has been 14 years since my husband was hit but that doesn't mean that the fight is over. The Marines will always be a part of our lives and that will never change.
What does it mean to you to have that attachment to the Marines?
KJ: I think it is the mentality of, “Once a Marine always a Marine”. This rings true so much even with WWII Marines. They have such pride and joy in serving their country. That feeling never leaves them. There will always be a piece of them still in the war. There will forever be a piece of Michael in Iraq. I love the Marine Corps and what they stand for. I love the character development they instill when they step onto those yellow footprints. It’s very rare to meet a Marine that doesn’t have integrity and honor. They have commitment to others still even after they are no longer in the Corps. Honor, Courage, Commitment is their code. “Improvise, adapt and overcome,” are qualities that stay with them consistently. Our lives are about all of those things. Those three pillars get us through our lives every single day.
Can you talk about some of the organizations that have really benefited you and who you’ve enjoyed working with the most?
KJ: There have been several really good ones that have helped us out. Semper Fi Fund, Air Power Foundation, and Veteran Airlift Command and a few more have always been there for us when needed.
What do you think could be improved with some of these organization that aren’t doing it right?
KJ: We’ve dealt with a lot of organizations but there are a laundry list of what organizations can do better (laughs). There is a rather large disconnect between military and caregivers when it comes to non-profit organizations. It’s rare that they know how to overlap and help both people. So many focus primarily on the veterans but they don’t realize that the caregiver is going to be the reason that veteran thrives post-combat. There is never enough acknowledgment or recognition for our nation’s caregivers. They actively, every single day, give their veteran the best possible life they can. I’ve had people tell me nasty things like, “What you do isn’t that difficult.” They just assume it’s a natural role and that it’s something you just do naturally, when realistically it’s one of the toughest things you’ll ever do. A lot of people have opinions with no real understanding.
What do you think our culture can do better from your perspective?
KJ: I think sadly enough stupidity gets equal airtime nowadays. It’s possible that it’s given even more attention than what’s considered normal. It’s great to be different but now doing things outside of the norm means acting selfishly or being an ass just for attention. That brings more attention. Unfortunately, I think some of that has leaked into the veteran sphere where guys are being rewarded for being clowns. Those things get the most views and most attention so even guys that normally wouldn’t have behaved like that, are now behaving that way to get attention. That’s unfortunate. Everyone has to have a phone, take a picture, “snap” something instead of being in the moment. It’s the new generation.
I see a lot of competition between these guys as well where they’re actively putting each other down or slamming someone for their service or lack thereof. Of course, it’s not all of them. I see plenty of guys acting right but it’s definitely a difference between this generation of veterans and the older generations. “You haven’t deployed as much as I have. You were a reservist. You went when there wasn’t that much action.” Those are some of the ways I’ve seen guys put each other down and it’s just sad. Be better than that. The kicker there is some of those same guys are the guys exaggerating their service to make themselves look better. Lift each other up and be proud of your collective service, but that probably won’t happen like I wish.
What have you seen that you’ve liked the most from the veteran community?
KJ: The Marines, of course (laughs). Can I be biased? Also, there’s a common knowledge between veterans where they know what it’s like. They know what it’s like to have a bad day and what that really means. Veterans have a love for this country that is admirable and I enjoy moments when I witness their patriotism.
What can improve in the caregiver community?
KJ: There are certain organizations that offer retreats to caregivers and that’s nice of them. However, I feel that these groups need to be more exclusive to certain caregivers. Michael is blind so I can’t relate as well to caregivers that are dealing with other issues. It would be nice to be in a group, even if it’s small, of other caregivers handling blind veterans. It’s just harder to open up to other caregivers when they don’t get what you’re going through. I’d like more group specific outings. There need to be more resources and help. I feel like unless you fit a certain mold or make or what you see on T.V. you kind of get pushed aside in the wounded community. It’s unfortunate for Michael because he sacrificed so much and I can tell you many of his friends missing limbs have said being blind would be the worst injury of all. Michael lives with that on a daily basis and that’s never gonna change. I know many caregivers and their veterans who do not receive the resources and support that they should, it’s very disheartening because we too know what that struggle is like.
How do you want people to remember you and your life?
KJ: I always loved and lived in every moment. I was someone that they could always rely on for anything whether that was a conversation, a hot meal, or a roof over their head. I was someone they knew they could come to in a moment of need. Finally, that I lived a blessed life full of love, laughter and amazing moments because of my beautiful husband and our life together.
There is an undoubtedly profound beauty found in sincere words, and openness of spirit. Kim is about as blunt as they come, but she practices this brusque approach within a pure construct of empathy and understanding. We can all learn a lot from caregivers and those who know what it means to sacrifice day-in and day-out for their loved ones. Throughout our time with Kim, there was that always-present, selfless conduct. Everything within her day was about taking care of someone else and that “leading by example” mentality exemplifies the values that make her such an exemplary model. We tend to hold our veterans in a special place in our society, placing them on a pedestal in light of their service and this is well deserved. However, what about those who sacrifice for them? What about the Gold Star mother? What about the Silver Star wife? What about the White Star family? What about those who take care of everything at home while their loved one is deployed? What about those broken hearts that continually find ways to give back through such ferocious pain? We can’t forget them, and their words are pertinent markers in history that call attention to an all but forgotten demographic. Those words must be fervently shared.
We’d like to thank Kim for her time, and thank her husband Michael whose story will be featured on The Veterans Project blog. It’s truly inspiring to spend time with two inspiring people working together as one.