TAMPA — Joel Tavera sat humbly among fellow service men and women as Mayor Bob Buckhorn worked his way through the crowd to shake his hand.
Tavera, an Army sergeant who lost his right leg, four fingers and eyesight in a rocket attack in Iraq three years ago, had met the Tampa mayor a handful of times; he recited the Pledge of Allegiance at his inauguration earlier this year. The two spoke briefly, the mayor reminding Tavera to invite him to the opening of the veteran's new house in Tampa.
Buckhorn greeted more vets — some in wheelchairs, others with prosthetic limbs, others with emotional scars from what they suffered in battle.
His attendance Sunday at the Military Appreciation Day Concert, a charitable effort to raise money for the Valrico-based nonprofit group Supporting America's Finest, was the least the mayor said he could do to honor those who sacrifice much of their own way of life for the cause of freedom.
"We have a good life because of you — not just you, but the generations of you who came before," Buckhorn said in addressing the crowd and noting Tampa's history with the military. "My kids will have a better America because of your sacrifice."
Veterans attended the public concert for free. Admission fees from the rest of the more than 200 people in attendance will go toward support for the Traumatic Brain Injury and Recreational Therapy Unit at James A. Haley VA Medical Center, said Lou Ramos, a retired Air Force colonel and the organization's founder.
So far this year, the group has raised $50,000, with plans to give $10,000 to the hospital, Ramos said.
The event featured a performance from the Southern Souls Band, a five-man rock ensemble that kept the crowd hopping with covers of John Mellencamp, Sugar Ray and other popular artists.
For Tavera, the main draw was the evening's headliner, Theresa Sareo, a singer whose voice he heard personally when he was recovering from his injuries in an Army hospital. Sareo, a New York native, made it her life's work to entertain wounded veterans after she lost her right leg in an auto accident in 2002.
"It's inspirational talking to her," Tavera said. "She understands us."
In prefacing a song she wrote titled Still on My Way, Sareo echoed the sentiments of some of the evening's speakers, saying it's a song about being on a journey.
"It's OK not to have the answers to why," she said. "As long as you're on the journey, and going down the road, the answers get revealed to you."
It was the same message that Ron Ray, a Vietnam veteran and former assistant secretary of veterans affairs, gave the military attendees when he talked about being wounded in battle and later suffering the effects of malaria.
"I thought my service was over," Ray said. "I thought I could not recover from such a debilitating thing."
He learned to keep going by doing good for others, he said.
"If you keep going, there is life," Ray said. "Never give up, there is life."
Dan Sullivan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3321.