Wounded veteran inspires

Sgt. Joel Tavera remains cheerful in the face of adversity.

Once you meet U.S. Army Sgt. Joel Tavera, you cannot forget him. I can say that with full confidence, having first met this relentlessly positive person in 2011 at the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital Polytrauma Transitional Rehab Program. At the time of our meeting, he was preparing to compete in the Gasparilla Distance Classic 5K race — a task he completed, by the way, walking unassisted across the finish line. He had come a long way in relearning life's basic functions after a missile struck his armored SUV inside the Tallil air base in southeastern Iraq.

The attack in March 2008 killed three servicemen and left Joel maimed, blinded and burned over more than 70 percent of his body. His lower right leg was gone, and doctors said he would never walk again. And all he could talk about that day was how grateful he was.
Right after the attack, doctors had removed a fist-sized portion of Joel's skull because his brain was swelling. It was necessary but left him with a misshapen skull (something he never complained about, by the way). That hole remained there until Tuesday, when doctors at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., filled it with a titanium plate.
The procedure, called cranioplasty, gave his skull a normal shape. He has had more than 70 operations since the attack. With any luck, this was the last major one. The surgery was supposed to last five hours but went so well that doctors needed only 90 minutes. Joel's father, Jose, captured a compelling photo of him in the recovery room — smiling, upbeat, and ready for whatever comes next. If you know him at all, you won't be surprised by that.
He was from North Carolina originally, but Joel and his family have settled in north Tampa, in a home specially built by the nonprofit group Building Homes For Heroes. The family hopes to be back here in about three weeks, and he'll resume appearances for motivational speaking and living life full measure.
"He is helping a lot of people, just by talking to them and telling them his story," Jose said. "The way he deals with his disability is to inspire people wherever he can. People tell us all the time what he means to them. I know what an inspiration he is."
We all do.