For Army Sgt. Joel Tavera, this Thanksgiving holiday has proven nearly "indescribable."
Because the severely wounded Iraq war veteran—whose injuries he acknowledges most would consider "the worst thing that could happen in life"—just got a life turnaround that he'll be talking about around tables filled with turkey and stuffing for many years to come.
A brand-new home.
And not just any home—but then again, Sgt. Tavera is most definitely not just any vet.
The $450,000 donated abode in a quaint Tampa, Fl., development is mortgage free. Its 4,300 square feet are custom designed with disabled access and extra wide hallways so that Tavera—who was blinded and lost his right leg and four fingers in a 2008 rocket attack—can travel more easily in it. Also featured are smart phone-controlled automation and a whirlpool off his master bedroom.
"Having this home is a good feeling," Tavera, 24, told The Blaze. "It's something to look forward to."
Tavera got the keys to his castle courtesy of William Ryan Homes during a rousing ceremony by the nonprofit that raised all the money to make this dream house happen, Building Homes for Heroes.
Here's a clip of the festivities last weekend:
Just 12 days shy of his 21st birthday—and a mere two days from the end of his tour at Camp Adder (the old Tallil Air Force Base) in southern Iraq—Tavera volunteered to cover a guard duty shift. It was a fateful decision: His armored SUV was hit by five rockets that killed three fellow soldiers he was traveling with.
Tavera survived but didn't figure to last long, either. In addition to his noted injuries, he suffered brain trauma and third-degree burns over 60 percent of his body. Tavera's parents were told he was the second-most severely wounded Iraq war vet to that point. He also was in a coma for 81 days. If he woke up, doctors didn't see him walking again.
But wake up he did. And walk again he did, too—and then some. (Along with receiving the Purple Heart and Bronze Star, Tavera is also proud to have completed three 5K races this year.)
"You've got a few different choices in life when something happens like this," Tavera said recently of his injuries, which have required 75 surgeries and counting. "You either get over it—accept it—or just be depressed. I like the whole getting over it and accept it better than depressed."
One major source of encouragement was that Tavera's tattoo of the Bible verse, Hebrews 4:12 (along with a two-bladed cross), wasn't destroyed by the flames that engulfed his body during the rocket attack. The verse reads:
For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.
Tavera told The Blaze that one of his first thoughts upon waking from his coma was if his tattoo survived. "I learned a lot of verses since the eighth grade," he told The Blaze, "but this one stuck with me." Doctors told Tavera that the words he chose to mark his relationship with God "stuck" with him, too.
Check out more of Joel's story here:
Despite all the hubub surrounding his new house, Tavera hasn't moved in just yet (furniture is still on delivery trucks). But he did celebrate with a trip to Los Angeles a few days ago to cheer on his good friend, J.R. Martinez, who was competing in the finals of Dancing with the Stars—and Tavera got to see him crowned champion.
Martinez figures prominently not only in Tavera's recovery process, but also in him landing the new home.
An All My Children cast member since 2008, Martinez's previous life was spent, like Tavera, as a soldier in the U.S. Army. And also like Tavera, Martinez was severely burned—his Humvee drove over a land mine in 2003, burning more than 40 percent of his body. He needed 33 cosmetic and skin-graft surgeries over 34 months.
In recovery Martinez found a knack for encouraging fellow burn victims, and that's how he and Tavera hooked up. But once he learned more about Tavera's story and his needs, Martinez got in touch with Building Homes for Heroes and asked BHFH founder Andew Pujol to design and construct one for his newly found friend.
These days Tavera is looking forward to helping those who face similar obstacles through public speaking, writing, and one-on-one encouragement.
"I'm carrying a larger cross than I thought I’d have to carry," he told The Blaze. "But it was a wake-up call" that got him on a path to a new life.
He adds that "I'm really, really blessed. God left me alive for a reason. I find a lot more purpose now than I would if I were still in active duty doing my job, because now I'm helping other soldiers help overcome what's happened to them."
Check out the inspiring video of the Tavera house groundbreaking ceremony from earlier this year: