LAKEWOOD RANCH -- Michael Jernigan and eight other visually impaired people will tell you the past month was a life changer for them.
Jernigan and his yellow Labrador, Treasure, graduated Thursday with Southeastern Guide Dogs Class No. 237 at Polo Grill.
"I am not alone anymore," Jernigan said. "I have someone to walk with me."
Jernigan's story, and those of eight other graduates, brought tears from the dais and the audience as well.
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He nearly lost his life to a roadside bomb while deployed to Iraq as a U.S. Marine in 2004.
The blast took his vision and damaged his brain, hand and knee, and led to 30 major surgeries, as well as a year and a half of hospitalization and rehab.
Aside from all the physical damage, the medically retired corporal had to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety.
Not until he received his first guide dog, Brittani, did he begin to rebound and regain his independence. After years of service, Brittani is now retired.
His new dog, Treasure, is "awesome," Jernigan said.
"She is a real sweet dog. She still has a lot of puppy in her," he said. "It's been a while since I've had a dog this young."
Jernigan now serves as community outreach specialist at Southeastern Guide Dogs and helped launch the Paws for Patriots program.
His work with Southeastern drives him and gives his life purpose, he said.
The ceremony marked the end of a two-year training period for the guide dogs, and 26 days of handlers and guide dogs training together.
Pedro Camarena, who lost his vision to glaucoma, corneal failure and cataracts, said he regrets hesitating in applying for a guide dog.
"The people here make you feel normal, make you feel welcome. They help you regain your independence, and with a guide dog, you get unlimited potential," Camarena said.
The affection between Camarena and his Lab, Freddie Gilman,
was unmistakable. Freddie rested a paw on Camarena's shoe as the handler reached down to pat the dog's head.
Larry Newman, a retired U.S. Navy veteran, lost his vision in his 50s, but found new independence with his guide dog, Courage.
When Courage died, Newman went into deep mourning and waited two years before seeking another guide dog.
"If you never saw a grown man cry, you might want to turn around now," Newman said.
It took thousands of volunteer hours, and donations of money to bring him his second guide dog, Nick, Newman said.
And, it took lots of love, Newman said.
The same volunteers who raised Courage as a puppy also raised Nick, Newman said.
Terry Snyder, blind since birth, was the last of the grads to speak. The Nokomis resident said his guide dog, Woogie, is "totally awesome."
He praised Southeastern Guide Dogs as his beacon of light, and said Woogie opened up a whole new door for him.
Titus Herman, chief executive officer for Southeastern Guide Dogs, addressed the grads and offered a note of whimsy about their newfound independence when he quoted Dr. Seuss: "Oh! the places you'll go!
James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee reporter, can be contacted at 941-745-7053 or on Twitter @jajones1.