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Joe Henderson Columns

Tavera's walk a picture of triumph

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Published:   |   Updated: March 19, 2013 at 06:17 PM
TAMPA -

Joel Tavera couldn't see the people cheering for him as he took the last steps of the 5-kilometer Gasparilla Distance Classic race Saturday morning, but he could hear them. He couldn't see the smiles and tears from his friends, but he knew they were there.

None of the thousands of other competitors on race day could have known what he overcame to get to that moment. They could see the carbon fiber prosthetic limb below his right knee, but so what? People can have artificial limbs and still compete.

For this story you have to go back almost three years, when it took four adults to lift him to his feet. Taking a single step required so much effort. In those days, it took Joel about a half hour to walk 10 halting steps.

You have to look harder, past the applause he received at the finish line, to the scars on more than 70 percent of his body. They are left from burns that should have killed him.

You have to see the stubs on the end of the fingers of his left hand. The tips were blown off when the enemy missile struck his armored SUV inside the Tallil air base in southeastern Iraq.

Three soldiers died in that attack on March 12, 2008. U.S. Army Specialist Joel Tavera was one of two who survived the blast, but he was burned, blinded and bleeding.

His lower right leg was destroyed. He would spend 81 days in a coma, which was a blessing of sorts. When he came to, the pain from his burns was so intense he needed heavy medication for nearly a year.

For about the last two years, he relearned basic life skills at the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital in Tampa.

"Standing was a huge accomplishment," he said. "Walking the stairs was a huge accomplishment."

People said he should be satisfied with the miracle of survival. He certainly wouldn't walk again or function on his own. But there he was, finishing his race in downtown Tampa, just like thousands of other runners on a warm, bright morning - but, of course, not like them at all.

Even though he was walking with escorts - his parents and friends - there were fears he could get knocked down in the crush of thousands of runners. So he was allowed to start on his own, about an hour before the official start of the 5-kilometer race.

They figured it would take him about two hours to walk the course, but once again he fooled them all and finished in an hour and 13 minutes.

As he neared the finish line, his name was announced over the loudspeakers and people began to cheer. He moved ahead by himself and crossed the finish line by himself, a picture of triumph.

"Praise God," he said. "I did it."

Joel's journey to this moment began when he agreed to take another soldier's duty shift. He was two days from being shipped home from Camp Tallil, home to about 14,000 people and a fleet of C-130 transport planes.

Then, the first of 26 missiles fired from 17 kilometers away hit nearby.

"I heard the impact of one as it came in and got a panic attack in the back of the SUV," he said. "I had to get out of there. That's probably what saved my life. I opened the door just before it hit us. I saw a flash of blue sky, and that was it."

He had been an active young man, playing soccer, basketball, baseball and track. He was a linebacker in football. But in the aftermath of the attack, he was a scarred, scorched shell. His right leg was blown off below the knee and he was horribly burned. Doctors had to remove part of his skull because his brain swelled.

He was evacuated to Baghdad, then to Germany, and finally to the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. His parents - Jose and Maritza - were waiting.

Jose had spent 25 years in the armed forces, including tours at Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom. But even though he knew the risks, this was different. This was his son.

"When the casualty officer first called to tell me what happened, I still had to make sure," he said. "So I had another man call me from his unit in Virginia to make sure they were telling me the truth."

Even then, Jose wasn't sure until he got a third confirmation from an Army website. He tried to prepare his wife for what they were about to see, but how can you really? Joel was unconscious, scarred and in a protective bubble.

"It was awful," she said. "I said, 'That's not my son.' "

Yes, it was.

How do you go from that to Gasparilla? One step at a time, for starters.

"I've always been goal-oriented," Joel said, so about six months ago he set his sights on Gasparilla.

Most of his preparation took place inside Building No. 68 at the Veterans Hospital Polytrauma Transitional Rehab Program, where he has spent much of the last 18 months.

Most race participants, even novices, carve out a training plan and build the miles as the race date gets closer. Joel's approach had to be a little different. Keeping his balance on his artificial leg isn't easy, for one thing. Blindness multiplies the challenges, but he keeps getting onto the treadmill, into the pool, or handling whatever else they can throw at him.

"He is the most motivated person I have ever met," therapist Lindsay Thurston said. "He is awesome. If I'm having a bad day, I come in here and see him ... it all goes away."

Joel, now 23 years old, has come so far but he has miles to go. He'll need additional surgery on his skull and continued therapy on his hands and fingers. Eventually, he'll move out on his own into a house being specially built for him in north Tampa by a group known as Building Homes For Heroes.

Down the road, he may do some motivational speaking. He might learn computer programming. He wants to learn to scuba dive. He'll do more 5k races, and not just walking. He plans to run one before long.

Joel received a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star from the Army. Saturday morning, he got a Gasparilla finisher's medal.

"I kind of like it," he said with the satisfaction one can feel after doing something people said couldn't be done.

Never walk again, huh? He couldn't see the happy smiles all around him but he didn't need to. The one on his own face spoke loudly about what he was feeling inside.

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