Since a rocket attack in Iraq blinded and nearly killed him in 2008,Sgt. Joel Tavera
has endured an endless regimen of surgeries and rehabilitation measures. Yet even in the few months since he joined the RFB&D community, it's been inspiring to see how far Joel has come toward living on his own terms – and how naturally he accentuates the positive.
During the week leading up to Veterans Day, Joel called a few times from his parents' home in Tampa. As a prelude to sharing some of that conversation, here is an original song he invited us to post. Written shortly after he learned that he would be blind, it was rendered in the recording studio by Jeremy Thomas, a Florida-based musician – one of many folks who have stepped up to help Joel on his way back into life. –Doug Sprei
Listen to "Just To Be With You" by Joel Tavera below, or download the MP3 file here.
The song is remarkable, starting with your lyrics; not to mention a great performance by the singer, and the recording quality.
That's my friend Jeremy from Tampa, Florida who wrote the music. He's the singer and also plays the guitar. He's a professional musician and songwriter who visited me back when I was in the hospital and we became friends. I showed him some lyrics I had written and he sat down to shape them into a song, figuring out what line could go into a verse, into a chorus, etc. And I was there in the studio when he recorded the song.
In this whole grand scheme of things, I have had to learn patience.
I have to admit it was stunning to learn that this is what came out after finding out that you were going to be blind.
It's true; the song is a statement of what was going on in my heart at the time. I had been feeling kind of lost before that and didn't know what to do, and it felt like something good to write about. It's just basically the response I had when I learned I would be blind, like there was no going back and only one way to go forward and respond to this situation.
It's a statement of hope and resolve.
I guess with what I went through, many people wouldn't survive. Fortunately enough, God let me survive. It may take most of my life to figure out why. But that's turned out to have been helpful, because I've since gotten a chance to speak to people and let them know what I've gone through – and I will tell you, giving people a reason not to complain is kind of nice.
What do you attribute your survival to?
It's attributable pretty much to God, and my faith, and my family standing behind me. Without them, I'd probably be not doing much of anything with my life and just wasting away, stuck in a wheelchair and not thinking of helping others like I am doing today.
Are other aspects of your own character in that mix?
I've always been stubborn and hard-headed, and I've always liked just getting things done. I was a pretty active person, always on the move doing things. I consistently have things going on. I'm pretty goal-oriented as a whole, which doesn't say much for the fact that I quit college before joining the military -- that was just a dumb move on my part that I regret to this day.
The good news is, you'll be starting college again at some point soon --
Yes I will, but it's a lot harder to go to college when you're blind, and when you have one less hand. (laughter)
Giving people a reason not to complain is kind of nice.
As far as the blind part goes, that's why RFB&D got started a long time ago.
And here's the practical the reason I like it, because in college I won't have to carry around five or six textbooks; I can just put them in my Plextor Pocket device, get around page to page on it, listen to books after I've listened to lectures. And it's pretty neat, because it has more than one use: if I get bored and the class isn't interesting, I can sit in the back and listen to music instead. (laughter)
Speaking of that Pocket device, you were more than mildly interested in mine when we met and you signed up for for membership, so it was a pretty easy decision for our team to send you one.
I'm grateful for that, most definitely. I just really like the size of that little unit, how it fits and feels in my hand. It's less bulky for me than the Victor Stream; it holds a lot of content, and the SD card is easy to take out and put into my computer so I can copy music files onto it and all.
So what are you carrying around in your Pocket now?
I've got around 20 books from the RFB&D library loaded. I also put a bunch of my MP3 music files into it; and another thing I didn't realize until going through the manual a few weeks later is that it does text to speech too, so I can put stuff like my Word files and poetry on there.
That's a lot of books.
Listening to books is great, any time of day or night. If I had my vision today, I would still personally pay for a service to listen to books.
What are some of the titles you're reading these days?
A bunch of books by Nicholas Sparks; I like his stuff a lot. And I have some pretty heavy material by Friederich Nietzche, the philosopher; and what else. . .some books by George Orwell. . . .
You mean like "Animal Farm" and "1984"?
Oh yeah, definitely "1984." That was a very prophetic book in some ways: "Big Brother is watching you." I think that foretold some of the measures that have been taken by Homeland Security in our time. Don't get me started on that; privacy is not what it used to be, I'll tell you.
Have you written any more song lyrics?
No more song lyrics, but I do write some poetry. I'd like to find a place to start blogging, and doing a dictation on the important things that happen to me weekly. I'm interested in writing more about the soldier's perspective after injury: my rehab, the cool things I got to go through; all the fun things I've actually been able to enjoy.
For example. . .
Like I went to the Super Bowl this past year. That was awesome; I got a chance to meet Gloria Estefan, hang out with some famous people, experience the game play by play. The sound of the crowd was just crazy when the Saints won.
The injuries apparently haven't cut you off from finding ways to enjoy life and set some new goals.
Nothing is really impossible being blind these days. Like that person in the current administration we have now, who works on behalf of people with disabilities; he is a blind gentleman who speaks just as well as President Obama.
You mean Kareem Dale? He actually works for Obama.
Yeah, he was at the BVA Conference where you and I met, and when I heard him speak, it was so profound. You've got to be pretty top dog to be working for any President.
What do you see yourself doing near term?
Living around here for sure. There are excellent blind services in Tampa, good transportation and a lot of blind people who live here. The University of Southern Florida is where I'd like to continue my education; it's an excellent school for technology. But I think I will probably switch over from the computer tech side toward social work.
Why social work?
To keep it interesting and to help others. I've gotten nothing but help since I've been injured. There are a lot of blind people who have become social workers. Maybe I'll find myself working for the Veterans Administration one day.
I'm also getting into doing some public speaking; quite a few people have inspired me about that. I feel accomplished afterwards, especially speaking to organizations that are helping soldiers. I can be a good communicator, but do repeat myself sometimes because of my traumatic brain injury. Over around 16 months of therapy and TBI training, I pretty much came back to normal.
You've never repeated yourself in all of the hours we've spent talking.
Trust me, I can get messed up with brain farts once in a while, like when I speak publicly. I guess I have a reason for getting them, given how messed up my brain and body was after the accident.
The process of the body healing has been so gradual, but compared to where you were even a few months ago, the progress is amazing.
Well, in this whole grand scheme of things, I've had to learn patience. It's something I particularly didn't have when I was younger. And as I get older, the more patience I need.
But there's no turning back.
You're right about that! (laughter). There is no turning back. The thing is, I lost quite a bit, but I've gained quite a bit too. It's all good; I can't really complain about it now. It's been a great experience altogether. It's a slow work in progress; just sometimes I wish I could get stronger immediately. When there's no turning back, patience comes in pretty handy.
Visit the Facebook page for Joel and his family: Prayer for Joel, Our Own Soldier