I wrote a feature story on St. Petersburg native Mike Jernigan without meeting the Iraq war veteran. But I finished a long phone conversation with him last week wishing I could have hung out a bit in person with the most optimistic guy I have ever interviewed.
Jernigan is among 10 veterans featured in HBO's Sunday documentary about wounded Iraq veterans called Alive Day Memories: Home From Iraq. And he has no harsh words for either the war effort in Iraq or the health care he received after a roadside bomb took away his eyes.
"I do believe veterans are being treated better than the general public thinks they are," he told me last week. "I was never treated at Walter Reed hospital. I was treated at the National Naval Medical Center. We were cared for very well. I have talked to some people who have been treated at Walter Reed; it depends on who you talk to, you get a different opinion about it. I do know that a lot of people have said that its not as bad as the papers made it out to be. But then I have heard people said it was exactly as the papers made it out be. It's one of those things, unless you're there you don't know."
Ask him about what went on in Iraq while he was there, and you get a similar answer: "I don't think anybody can really truly know what its like in iraq unless you've been there... (It's) the same things we've faced in just about every conflict we've ever been in. I don't think anyone can truly get a handle on it. I was over there the entire summer of 2004, and I only know part of the story. I'll be honest with you, I don't pay too much attention it these days. I'm moving on with my life."
In fact, Jernigan was assured by HBO that the documentary wouldn't take sides on political issues, and it doesn't. But after my story was published Thursday, I got an earful from readers who were a bit disappointed with that strategy. (See my media blog here)
They were concerned that veterans seem to get great health care in active duty and emergencies, but then find themselves adrift in the morass of the Veterans Administration bureaucracy for continuing care. Or they were upset that their loves ones had been hurt or killed for a war they didn't think was necessary.
During a July press conference, one of the other subjects -- Army Cpl. Jonathan Bartlett -- did express some frustration with the VA: "I had to threaten my VA with bad press, for them to give me my first set of legs," said Bartlett, who lost both legs in an explosion. "They aren't prepred for how many survivors they're getting. They're not prepared for the fact that we're all in our 20s, some of us very active, who have things to do."
I understand why executive producer (and Sopranos star) James Gandolfini and HBO executives didn't take a political stand. It would have looked too much like they were using soldiers to score political points, and veterans like Jernigan wouln't have gotten involved.
Still, at a time when those who started this conflict have done so much to hide its cost, just telling these stories unvarnished can feel a bit like a subversive act.