Army Sgt. Joel Tavera will be home for the holidays.
The highly decorated wounded Army veteran was hailed with a hero’s welcome on Saturday, as he rode in a motorcade including Hillsborough County Sheriff’s deputies on motorcycles, fire trucks, a military vehicle, biker groups and other vehicles.
The procession made its way from the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital through Lutz, to Grand Hampton, a North Tampa community of upscale, architecturally diverse homes. The entry of the normally gated community was opened on Saturday, Nov. 19, to allow in the flow of cars, trucks and motorcycles.
Flags lined the roads leading to the war hero’s home and people of all ages stood along the sidewalks waving flags and homemade “welcome home” signs as the procession crept through the subdivision. The procession stopped just short of Tavera’s new home at 20007 Outpost Point Drive.
Hundreds of people were there, on a beautiful, breezy morning, to celebrate with the man who has endured 73 surgeries since March 12, 2008, when he was riding in an armored SUV inside the Tallil Airbase in southeastern Iraq. Five rockets struck the armored vehicle, killing three of the soldier’s friends.
Tavera initially was thought to be dead.
He suffered serious head trauma. He lost sight in both of his eyes. He lost his right leg and four fingers on his left hand. He sustained critical burns to 60 percent of his body.
At the time of the incident his parents, Jose and Maritza Tavera, were told that their son was the second most severely injured soldier to survive the Iraq war.
Tavera was awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star, and, on Saturday morning, Nov. 19, he was honored in a homecoming celebration at his new four-bedroom home.
The home is valued at $456,580. It was built by William Ryan Homes as part of a nationwide project spearheaded by Building Homes for Heroes, an organization that organizes efforts to build new homes for returning wounded veterans. So far, nine homes have been built and others are in the pipeline.
Features in the 4,300-square-foot home include hardwood and ceramic tile floors, granite countertops and stainless appliances.
It also has a water softening system for Tavera’s sensitive skin, a 13 feet by 26 feet pool with therapy jets and a swimming exercise treadmill and a front door that opens automatically upon Tavera’s approach.
Tavera was clearly elated during Saturday’s event– delighted both by the gift of the new home and by the size of the crowd of supporters there to share his big moment.
“I’m grateful for everybody who took the time from their busy schedules to make it out here, to come celebrate this with my family – with both my wonderful caretakers, my mother and my father,” Tavera said.
The celebration included plenty of pomp and ceremony. There were bagpipe players, a formal presentation of colors and speeches by dignitaries. Honored guests included high-ranking military officers and top-level staff of the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital.
Kelly Hallman, the Building Homes for Heroes mission leader in Tampa – who also is a Hillsborough County firefighter — could barely keep his composure as he expressed gratitude for Tavera’s service and courage, and spoke of the generosity that resulted in the solder’s new home.
Andy Pujol, the founder and president of Building Homes for Heroes, and Jeff Thorson, of William Ryan Homes, were also there to salute Tavera’s service and welcome him to his new home.
When it came Tavera’s time to speak, he told the crowd that he heard people referring to him as a hero, but he doesn’t see himself in that light.
“You are! You are!” a man shouted from the crowd – to which the audience broke out in cheers and applause.
But Tavera responded: “I got hurt doing my job.”
The wounded warrior was clearly touched by the generosity shown to him.
“I cannot exactly name every single person who was involved in putting this home together,” Tavera said.
A banner posted near the house reinforced how difficult it would be to thank every supporter by name. It listed hundreds, if not thousands, of names of people who helped in some way on the project.
Some of the biggest contributors were nearly two dozen of the homebuilder’s business partners. They donated products, materials and services, totaling about $150,000.
Those supporters include:
–Guardian Protection Services, $50,000
–John Madison Landscape, $24,000
–Masco Cabinetry, $14,000
–Jeffco Construction, $9,000
–Aquascape Pools, $8,500
–Seagull Lighting, $5,000
–Seagull Lighting, $5,600
–Prestige Electric, $5,200
–Hartshorn Custom, $5,200
William Ryan Homes, a family-owned company, builds in three Tampa Bay locations, include Ashton Oaks in Wesley Chapel, Harbour Isles in Apollo Beach and Grand Hampton.
For more information on Building Homes for Heroes, go to www.BuildingHomesforHeroes.org.
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