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Blinded and badly wounded in Iraq, a young man looks forward to lovely new home, future

NEW TAMPA

Arocket blast in Iraq stole four fingers on Army Sgt. Joel Tavera's left hand, destroyed his right leg, caused brain trauma, burned more than 60 percent of his body and left him blind.

Yet he recently celebrated the anniversary of that day three years ago. Bottom line: It didn't take his life.

He calls March 12, 2008, his "live" day.

"Who I was then did die," he said this week. But the new Tavera is, in many ways, better.

And, he believes, blessed.

Today Tavera plans to attend a groundbreaking for his new house, to be built by William Ryan Homes and the nonprofit Building Homes for Heroes.

He has visited a model and expects that his home, in New Tampa's upscale Grand Hampton development, will be complete in July. The home was designed with wide hallways and other features to help him easily navigate. He ticks off a list of other amenities: a whirlpool off the master bedroom, a pool and a bonus room. It'll be "awesome," he says, enthusiasm evident in his voice.

His parents, who left their home in North Carolina to care for him, will live here while he gains independence. His father, Jose, said goodbye to a government job, while his mother, Maritza, left an 18-year business cleaning military homes.

In the interim, they all live in a North Tampa apartment near the James A. Haley VA Medical Center, where Tavera has received treatment and goes for regular therapy sessions.

The $325,000 house is the ninth that Building Homes for Heroes will give to a severely injured veteran, said Andy Pujol, president of the organization he started after helping in Sept. 11, 2001, search-and-rescue efforts.

"I made a promise to all those who lost their lives and all those who gave their lives that I was going to do something to give back," he said.

Donations are close to covering the costs of Tavera's home, and he hopes to help raise money for more homes by telling his story at fundraising events.

At 20, Tavera liked to camp, play guitar, sing, snowboard, surf and go "muddin' " in his Jeep. Back in North Carolina, the high school girls loved his wit and his blue-green eyes. They wouldn't leave his curly mop of hair alone, he remembers.

Then he joined the Army as a signal support specialist before realizing he wanted to serve in another branch. So he signed up for the U.S. Naval Academy and the Merchant Marine Academy and was scheduled to leave for testing back home.

But with two days left in Camp Adder in Iraq, he volunteered to cover another soldier's guard duty shift. He was riding in an SUV with four other soldiers when he felt a sense of fear like none he'd ever experienced. He opened his back door right before the rocket landed on the vehicle. Three of the other soldiers died in the blast. He thinks that open door saved his life.

His last memories of sight: light, blue sky, the sun and the face of Capt. Kevin Lombardo, who came to his rescue.

Lombardo kept Tavera alert as he put on a tourniquet by talking about family, baseball and a tattoo on Tavera's right arm: "Hebrews 4:12," under a cross, signifying two blades. It's one of his favorite verses.

For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.

Tavera isn't sure how he lived, how he pulled through 81 days in a coma or 60 surgeries that patched him together. He leans on God's word and figures the Lord must have plans for him.

"Not every soldier is like that," he said. "Some choose to give up, but … my life is not over with."

Tavera received the Purple Heart and Bronze Star for his service, but he barely talked those first two years and got around in a wheelchair. These days, he's making up for it.

He is asked to speak at events often. He writes poetry and is working on a book. He wrote an inspirational song, Just to Be With You, soon after he learned that he was blind.

In the past month, he walked two 5Ks: the Gasparilla Distance Classic and the Second Annual Wounded Warrior Lone Sailor 5K.

Both times, he exceeded his goal pace.

"I pushed my heart out," he said.

He has a handful of surgeries to come, including one in May that will take a flap of skin and muscle from his back to reconstruct the shape of his head.

His 24th birthday was Thursday, and earlier this week he was planning to see his favorite team, the New York Mets, play the St. Louis Cardinals in Port St. Lucie.

Then he hoped to stop for dinner at Red Lobster. He says others he has met in Tampa's blind community inspire him. Someday, he hopes to find a mate, maybe raise a family in his new home.

Being blind is a challenge he embraces.

"I see people for who they really are," he said. "There's no going back. If there were, I don't know if I would."

Elisabeth Parker can be reached at eparker@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3431.

>>fast facts

Homes for Heroes

To help with costs for Joel Tavera's home or to donate to houses for other severely injured veterans, visit

buildinghomesforheroes.org.

Upcoming Building Homes for Heroes fundraisers include:

• A celebration for Joel Tavera at 6 tonight at the Kennedy, 2408 W Kennedy Blvd. Admission is free, but donations will be accepted.

• A golf outing at 11 a.m. Saturday at Emerald Greens Golf & Country Club, 13903 Clubhouse Drive, Tampa. Fee is for $150. Just show up or call (813) 625-8221 to register.

To help furnish Tavera's home, visit joeltavera.org.

Blinded and badly wounded in Iraq, a young man looks forward to lovely new home, future 03/24/11 [Last modified: Friday, March 25, 2011 5:12pm]
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