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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Iraq war veterans share stories of loss, life
They reflect on injury and recovery in Alive Day Memories, a poignant HBO documentary.
By Eric Deggans, Times TV/Media Critic
Published September 6, 2007
Marine veteran Mike Jernigan had the diamonds from his wedding band embedded in his prosthetic eye.
[Times photo: William Dunkley (2006)]
James Gandolfini poses with Iraq war veteran John Jones, pictured on poster at left, as he arrives for the premiere of the HBO's "Alive Day Memories: Home From Iraq" in New York. The film surveys the physical and emotional cost of war through memories of their "alive day," the day they narrowly escaped death in Iraq.
Alive Day Memories:Home From Iraq Debuts at 10:30 p.m. Sunday on HBO. Grade: A
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It's a tough concept to grasp: celebrating the anniversary of the worst day in your life.
But even before Mike Jernigan knew his ritual had a name, the St. Petersburg native always took time to commemorate Aug. 22, 2004 - the day a roadside bomb in Mahmudiyah, Iraq, exploded next to his Humvee, taking his eyes, crushing his forehead and mangling his right hand.
Blindness was just the first sacrifice for this third-generation Marine. Jernigan, 28, lost his independence and fell into a dark wave of depression and drinking.
The marriage to his sweetheart from St. Petersburg High School ended a year after his injury, leaving him with no wife, no military career and an uncertain future.
Still, Jernigan marks every Aug. 22 with a good meal and time alongside his family and friends. But it wasn't until he sat down with a documentary crew from HBO that he learned there was a name for the day he felt compelled to honor like a second birthday.
The moment any serviceman or woman narrowly escapes death, starting a new life on the other side of a severe combat injury.
"I always referred to it as the day I got blown up," said Jernigan, his laughter crackling through the phone from his temporary home in Virginia, where he's attending college.
"Every year, I celebrate it as a day that I look back on everything I've accomplished since then," he added, fondly recalling his last Alive Day, spent eating steaks with his father and godfather, who are also both military veterans. "Look how much I've changed. Look how much I've become better adjusted. Look how much further I've come in life. . . . Looking back and trying to see how far you've come - that's what the Alive Day is about."
Not always special
HBO introduces the world to Alive Day through a powerful documentary, Alive Day Memories: Home From Iraq, featuring Sopranos star James Gandolfini interviewing 10 veterans about their struggles to cope with life-altering injuries.
And though each soldier's segment begins by noting their Alive Day, leading into poignant, often bittersweet stories of struggle and loss, not every veteran featured in the film views the occasion with Jernigan's relentless optimism.
"Everybody makes a big deal about your 'alive day,' especially at Walter Reed Hospital," said Sgt. Bryan Anderson, a triple amputee whose story kicks off HBO's movie. "And I can see their point that you'd want to celebrate something like that. But from my point of view, it's like, 'Okay, we're sitting here celebrating the worst day of my life. Great. Let's just remind me of that every year.' "
The hook HBO hopes will pull viewers into these complex, challenging tales is Gandolfini, who returned home from a USO tour of Iraq and grew angry at the dearth of news coverage about wounded veterans' struggles.
"I went to Iraq because I was playing this tough guy on TV and I guess I wanted to meet a few real ones," Gandolfini told TV critics during a July press conference. "Then I came home and thought, 'There's nothing (in the press) here. What's going on?' I saw numbers (of soldiers killed in Iraq). That's what I saw. I didn't see anything else."
While Gandolfini fumed, HBO documentary guru Sheila Nevins pondered how to plug the actor into a film she was planning about G.I.s returning from the war - in the tradition of HBO's searing documentary about a military hospital, Baghdad ER.
Nevins was attracted to a doubled-edged achievement: Advances in wartime medicine that allow a landmark 90 percent of soldiers to survive combat injuries also have created a record number of veterans struggling to cope with lost limbs, brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorders.
After inviting Gandolfini to see a screening of Baghdad ER and watching him interact with wounded veterans at Walter Reed, Nevins thought of bringing the actor to interview veterans at the hospital. There he could spend time with soldiers' families and see their rehabilitation up close.
But when news stories questioning the care veterans were receiving at Walter Reed led the military to shut down HBO's access, Nevins instead invited a range of veterans to New York City, where they sat down with Gandolfini in a bare studio, recounting the worst moments of their young lives.
"If I contributed anything, it was in helping Jim learn how to interact with the soldiers," said Jon Alpert, an award-winning documentary filmmaker (Baghdad ER, One Year in a Life of Crime) brought on as a producer and director.
"(Gandolfini) doesn't have any reporting experience, and you don't want him to pretend he's a reporter," added Alpert. "But he's a really shy person, and he doesn't want to be in the spotlight. A lot of the questions (a journalist) might ask, he had trouble asking. So, in the beginning, he was really hesitant to ask people to raise their pants and show us the extent of their injuries and tell us how it all happened."
Showing his soft side
Indeed, for a project trying to use Gandolfini to raise its profile, Alive Day Memories features as little of the Sopranos star as possible.
He appears in profile or shown from behind, a bulky figure asking short, sensitive questions to get the soldiers going. Occasionally, he offers an awkward hug or a mumbled word or two of praise.
"Jim plays a tough guy on TV, but he doesn't project that type of feeling in person," said Alpert, who was initially skeptical about Gandolfini's ability to pull off the gently probing interviews. "He's more of an everyman - he doesn't sit up straight, he's got spaghetti stains on his shirt from lunch. Once you get past the idea that you're talking to the most famous actor in American television, you feel like you're with a regular guy."
When viewers first see Jernigan, he is smiling and buoyant, showing off a deep blue prosthetic eye studded with diamonds from his wedding band - a twinkling reminder of how his injury helped unravel his 2-year-old marriage. His left eye socket can't support a prosthetic eye.
The former Marine corporal tells Gandolfini about the explosion that wounded him and killed another man in his Humvee, as HBO shows film of the attack. Through much of the film, producers alternate videos and photographs of soldiers in their physical prime - Anderson is shown deftly executing a series of gymnastics moves - with present-day footage of their post-injury life.
Though some other veterans in the film express regret that they served in the military or frustration with delays in care, Jernigan remains gung ho about his experiences and the medical treatment he has received. Indeed, one reason he agreed to participate in the film was HBO's assurance that they weren't assembling an antiwar screed or trashing the veterans' health care system.
"The media's always had a great skill at exaggerating problems," said Jernigan, "Things are going good (in Iraq)? Yes. Things are going bad? Yes. It's a war. . . . (But) I thank God every day for the time I had in the Marine Corps. And no matter what happened to me, I would do it all over again."
Time to move on
Much as Gandolfini has complained about a lack of press coverage, these veterans and their stories aren't necessarily new to the media.
Anderson's story has appeared on the cover of Esquire magazine. Jernigan has been profiled widely, including by the New York Times and the St. Petersburg Times. Producers found him at a writing camp for veterans presented by the National Theatre Workshop of the Handicapped reported on by the Associated Press and others.
But HBO's film brings the viewer nearer to these veterans than many similar stories, introducing the audience to some who have paid a high price for this war.
Jernigan returns to St. Petersburg this week for an invitation-only preview Friday night at the Mahaffey Theater. He remains confident enough these days to hope he might become the country's first blind president, or at least St. Petersburg's first blind mayor.
"One thing that I learned was I can't dwell on the past and feel sorry for myself; if I want to live a productive life and feel happy, I'm going to have to let go and move on," said Jernigan, who credits therapy with helping him past the depression and drinking.
"It's a fight every day - and it probably will be for the rest of my life," he added. "It's always going to be a fight to be happy, to be comfortable, to have that independence. And you have to be comfortable fighting that fight."