Many veterans go to college after leaving the military, but most do not have to face the challenges that Joel Tavera did. In 2008, he was one of the most wounded soldiers to survive the Iraq War.
Despite losing a foot, a hand, his eyesight, parts of his skull and suffering burns on 60 percent of his body, Tavera recovered and pursued his education. He proudly received his college degree in December 2018.
Originally, education was one of the main reasons Tavera enlisted in the Army. He was also aware of the dangers of military service. His father was a Marine, so Tavera grew up on military bases. Shortly before he enlisted, two of his high school friends were killed in the Marine Corps.
“I had played football with them the year before,” Tavera said. “But still, that wasn’t a deterrence for me joining. I enlisted, learned a lot about myself, learned my job, loved it and did well.”
Then he was deployed to Iraq.
Goes to war
On March 12, 2008, Tavera’s life changed. While driving out of the base gate in an up-armored suburban, Tavera heard a whistling sound. An incoming rocket struck the roof of his truck and blew Tavera from the vehicle.
He was on fire.
It was later discovered that the rockets were a “lucky shot” from a remote device that was set up on a timer to strike the camp. Because he was so close to the base gate, Tavera was able to receive medical treatment immediately, but several of his fellow soldiers in the truck were killed.
“An Air Force guy put an IV in my arm — the only place he could find skin,” he described. “My right foot was blown off, so he put on a tourniquet. My left foot had shrapnel. There was a surgery in Baghdad, then I was in Landstuhl, Germany, that same day. Then I had the long flight to the States. I was in a bubble because I had no skin.”
Returns stateside to recover
After Tavera arrived in Texas, he began his long and painful journey to recovery. He spent 81 days in a coma. His parents were at his side the whole time, and Tavera reports that he heard his mother talking and singing to him.
“I have blindness, spinal cord injury, severe TBI, lost a piece of my skull, and amputation — I hit all the markers for polytrauma,” he calmly summarized. “I’ve had 117 surgeries. The majority were skin grafts. My left hand is mostly skin grafts, and parts of my tattoo from my back are on my leg.”
This soldier described the recovery process as, “a physical, mental, and emotional challenge. I had to rely on other people to drive me and do everything. I had to learn how to walk with a walker and three aides around me. I eventually started using a blind cane and I started doing therapy without my caregivers.”
Even basic life skills had to be re-learned due to blindness. Tavera explained, “In 2010, someone from the VA taught me how to use my first Nokia blind phone. I was able to do Facebook, text people — it was all audible controls.”
Despite his injuries, Tavera retained his sense of humor and his positive attitude. He said, “It’s way too easy to give up, so why give up? There’s always hope. In 2010, I met someone actually worse off than I was. He was a Marine, blinded, double amputee and doing better than I was. There is always someone worse off than you are. We all have our own problems to deal with, our own cross to bear.”
Resumes a new normal
Tavera’s success comes from constantly pushing himself to do more. Three years after the rocket blast that blinded him, Tavera walked his first 5k race.
He said, “I was looking for a challenge. Not bad for being in a wheelchair the year before! I’ve done a total of nine 5ks since 2011. My best time is under one hour. I’m on my own, and usually have a guide with a rope telling me where to go.”
In 2011, Tavera received a mortgage-free home from Building Homes for Heroes. The organization had previously focused on helping veterans rebuild houses. Tavera’s house was the first built from the ground up with 100 percent donations.
Tavera feels grateful and blessed to live in a mortgage-free home, so his disability check can stretch farther. He became a national spokesperson for Building Homes for Heroes and helps them design homes for blind recipients.
“I give a lot of time helping veterans. I like giving back, and Building Homes for Heroes is a family,” he said.
Against all odds, attends college
Tavera’s most recent accomplishment was graduating from college with a degree in history. He originally tried an online class, but felt that he had to work harder to convert the online material to audio. So he attended classes in person at the University of Tampa campus.
A scholarship through Sentinels of Freedom paid for a car service, so he had transportation to and from campus. The Wounded Warrior Project helped too.
Tavera also added, “The ROTC cadet program adopted me and would walk me to different buildings. It was a team effort of the Army cadet corps.”
After earning his degree in December 2018, Tavera became the first in his family to graduate college.
Armed with his new degree, Tavera is now applying for a job with non-profits that help injured veterans. He wants to “advocate for veterans and help them get the care they need.”
Tavera has not let his injuries hold him back. Instead, he constantly challenges himself to do more. He likes to attend conferences, travel and go to networking events.
“I’ve been really blessed,” Tavera said.Read comments