A seriously wounded Iraq vet battles on; 75 surgeries later, he's returning to Walter Reed Army Medical Center

Sunday conversation on Joel Tavera, who returned from Iraq after he was hit by a rocket blast in 2008. Joel and his parents, Jose and Maritza Tavera live in New Tampa.
Sunday conversation on Joel Tavera, who returned from Iraq after he was hit by a rocket blast in 2008. Joel and his parents, Jose and Maritza Tavera live in New Tampa.
Published Aug. 11, 2012

He says he's three-quarters of his former self — the man he was before March 2008. That's when Army Sgt. Joel Tavera was severely burned, lost part of his right leg, his sight and the fingers on his left hand after a rocket landed on the SUV he was riding in with four other soldiers in Iraq.

Today, he is finding his purpose. He's a motivational speaker, hoping to inspire other wounded warriors. As he writes on his Facebook page, "Turns out that I am able to do more of my Lord's work now that I am blind, so my eyes were worthless."

Tavera, 25, lives with his parents in a mortgage-free home, compliments of William Ryan Homes and the nonprofit Building Homes for Heroes.

After more than 75 surgeries, he'll be back at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in September to open up his skull and put in a cranium plate. "It's really smooshy right here," he says, touching the right side.

Between therapy and a busy schedule that includes giving motivational speeches, Tampa Bay Times reporter Elisabeth Parker caught up with him at his home in New Tampa's upscale Grand Hampton development, where he walks freely with a cane.

You're pretty busy on Facebook. You have 869 friends.

Yeah, I do try to keep busy. I meet a lot of people. I do a lot of speeches. People want to know mostly about my injury.

I was at a juvenile detention center in Clearwater. I told them they were getting a second chance. If you have friends who do the wrong things, get away from them or you'll end up back in a place like this. It's a wakeup call.

I spoke at a gala in Sugar Land, Texas, this year. The mother of a fallen soldier spoke before me on behalf of her son. After hearing her speak, it was hard. I got really teary-eyed. I couldn't think. I can't really understand how she can have peace of heart. I can't physically see the wounds of war when they come back but I can certainly talk to guys. Keep them upbeat.

What keeps you so upbeat?

Why stress? I used to be a beach bum. I'd have my board in my car. I'd snowboard and surf. My short board is still in the garage.

Are your senses compensating for your losses?

Yes, I remember too much now.

So you got this crazy memory . . .

Yeah, and I can hear like a dog.

And what about food?

Taste is so much better. That's why I've gone up and down in weight the past few years. I eat slow now. If I gain weight, three to four pounds, it hurts to stand on my (prosthetic) leg. I weigh 195 today.

Your mom cooks?

Earlier this year, we went all-organic in this house. And boy do I hate it. All Spanish food, there's grease in it. That's what gives it flavor. But organic, you can taste the foods. . . .

Braille, now that's hard. Only good use for it is to figure out the men's and women's bathrooms. When you walk up, you can tell by the hollow sound. The men's you can tell by the smell. It's horrible. Right when you walk by, you can tell if it's the men's or the women's.

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How are you keeping fit?

Golf, yoga, occupational therapy a few times a week. I'm going to get a prosthetic for my left hand so I can kayak. I'll go out on the river. I won't have a problem smacking an alligator with a paddle.

And you've run a few races, including the last two Gasparilla Distance Classic 5Ks?

That last time, I was not happy. The picture was me leaning on my mom and dad. I barely made it. As long as they held me up, it was a team effort. That's embarrassing. I got this leg three days prior. I had to walk a mile to the start line. Maybe I'll do it again. I give it another year or so. I do want to get a peg leg for Gasparilla.

You like music too, right?

I go to concerts: Darius Rucker, Bruce Springsteen. I met actor Gary Sinise, who played "Lt. Dan" in Forrest Gump. I met Roger Waters of Pink Floyd. Charlie Daniels, he gave me his hat.

Where do you go around here?

Tampa Improv, Smokey Bones (Bar & Fire Grill), (Romano's) Macaroni Grill, baseball games, Rays games. I like Carlos Peña. He's the one I want to meet. I want to get a signed ball from him.

I noticed there are a lot of women on your Facebook page.

I can't help it. Is that picture of the blond kissing me on the cheek still there?

I'm not sure, but are any of them serious?

Not really. I'm not ready to date yet. I'm going to wait till 2014 (after he heals from his skull surgery and goes to a school for the blind). I just know she's going to walk into my life one day.

Do you still want to have kids?

Yeah, I do. I want to be a father one day. I'm the last in my family with my name. I want one of my own, and more than likely I'll adopt one or two more. I like kids because they don't judge. One time a little boy, about a year and a half old, grabbed my leg. I was at a golf tournament in New Jersey to raise money for more homes for wounded warriors. I felt it, and I did this. (He waves his cane.) It didn't hit him, but someone said: "Oh, hey, that's my little boy." I'm like, "What's his name?" So I started talking to him, showing him my prosthesis.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.