I saw Sgt. Joel Tavera when I arrived at the Purple Heart ceremony. A hero at 22, only he and one other survived when a rocket demolished their vehicle. With burns over 60 percent of his body, he was blind, had limited mobility and a bandaged head. In a different era, he would be dead. The knowledge of that alone churned emotions inside me. I had been invited to attend the ceremony at MacDill Air Force Base, but hadn't been prepared for such a moving event.
The military mandates a constant state of readiness, so the preparations for the tribute took less than 24 hours. Imagine creating a celebration for 175 people in less than a day. Flags displayed. Programs printed. Generals flown in. Family gathered. In the front of the room, a beautiful, one-legged soloist waited to sing the National Anthem. Capt. Kevin Lombardo, the hero who heard Tavera's muffled cries and pulled him to safety, stood by his side.
To help keep a lid on my emotions, I asked about seating. The first rows were for family. There was an open area designated for wheelchairs. Not counting Sgt. Tavera's, I counted nine of them.
The mood was upbeat, even festive. How could the crowd be so happy? I saw burned faces, dented skulls and missing limbs. One veteran arrived tilted to one side with a sleeping baby secured to his lap. When his wife spoke to him, she leaned close and gently held his face in her hands. This was her best hope to reach him. Another father touched the smile of a son he would never see. Across the packed room, a service dog trailed her owner as he visited other wheel-chaired veterans. The light mood told me the crowd chose to celebrate the living. These were veterans. Veterans of combat. Of loss. Of ceremonies.
We stood as Sgt. Tavera and his parents entered that day in June 2009. Everywhere I looked, I saw smiles, yet my heart ached. I knew nothing of this kind of bravery. I looked down at the patterns of the carpet to hide my tears. They looked like blurred official seals. The hero endured 15 months in recovery to reach this point and would have the rest of his life to continue it.
The Invocation followed the National Anthem. The chaplain was good. His practiced words were a tribute to the hero and a balm to the crowd. The guest of honor sat in his wheelchair facing us as the ceremony progressed. I don't know what I expected. They save military flyovers for interments at Arlington National Cemetery. I closed my eyes to push back a fresh wave of rain and tried to imagine the world as Sgt. Tavera saw it. Sounds of babies fussing. Cameras clicking. A program falling to the floor. I felt the warmth of the room on my face and wondered how much heat the sergeant must have felt. Must still feel.
Before the medals were presented, Tavera's father pushed a button and up rose his son. It was a sight worthy of the finest Las Vegas illusions. Miraculous. After all he had been through, Sgt. Tavera stood facing Maj. Gen. Michael Oates. It didn't matter that the chair created this miracle. The effect was amazing. His collapsed body recovered to stand in front of us all. It was a gesture of determination, of respect, of pride.
The announcer didn't mention all the other awards and decorations already given to the sergeant. When wounded in Iraq on March 12, 2008, he was 12 days shy of his 21st birthday. After many months of pain and recovery, he sat among us. It was official. The secretary of the Army and President Barack Obama had issued the proclamation. The presenters carefully placed the ribboned medals over Tavera's bandaged head. They pinned the rarest medals to his chest. The Purple Heart. The Army Cross.
I thought the ceremony was over. The proclamations made and medals presented. Sgt. Tavera wanted to say something. The audience leaned forward, barely breathing. Softly, he said, "thank you." Thank you to his parents. To the people who had put him back together. To the Army. To us. A young man who had nearly given his life for his country was thanking us. When he finished, the room stood and cheered.
Bill Riddle is a freelance writer and blogger living in Odessa. He can be reached at email@example.com.