KELLI KENNEDY, Associated Press

MIAMI (AP) — Sgt. Joel Tavera has had 75 surgeries in the nearly four years since his armored SUV was struck by five rockets in Iraq in 2008.

Tavera suffered severe head trauma and lost his right leg and sight in both of his eyes. But the 23-year-old is remarkably upbeat, joking about how doesn’t want to wear dress pants for an upcoming dinner meeting and his plans to hunt for a girlfriend in a few years. He’s ditched his wheelchair and is looking forward to four more surgeries so he can go to blind school and learn to live on his own. Tavera still has his down days, worrying about bills and the future, but mostly he’s grateful.

The nonprofit group, Building Homes for Heroes, presented him Saturday with a new 4,200 square-foot, four-bedroom home in Tampa, specially outfitted with full wheelchair accessibility, a therapy swimming pool and iPad electronic controls throughout the home.

“I’m human. I’ve faltered a few times, but there’s always something that reminds me God is always with me. And lo and behold I got a home,” Tavera said in a phone interview.

Dozens of well-wishers crowded the flag-lined streets during a 7-mile procession Saturday on the way to Tavera’s home in a homecoming fit for a hero.

“It was wonderful. It was very embracing,” said Tavera, who will move into the home in a few weeks.

“The happiness the family feels, and the expressions on their faces will say what no words could possibly convey,” said Andrew Pujol, president and founder of Building Homes for Heroes.

Tavera was riding in an armored SUV in southeastern Iraq when it was struck by five rockets. The blasts killed three of his buddies. Tavera, who later received The Purple Heart and Bronze Star, suffered burns to 60 percent of his body.

Tavera travels around the country, giving motivational speeches. He’s vivacious and flirty, but he said he’s going to wait a bit before pursuing a girlfriend because he wants to focus on himself.

A piece of his skull is still missing and his left hand constantly aches, but “mostly God gets me through it, my strong faith that I believe in,” he said.

His family is living with him now, helping out until he finishes a few more surgeries. He’s overwhelmed by the new home, saying, “it’s a huge weight lifted off me because I was still wondering where I was going to retire.”

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.


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