I Warned You Not to Touch That

Tag: purple heart

Sgt. Tavera

by on Dec.20, 2009, under Essays

I saw Sergeant Joel Tavera when I arrived at the Purple Heart ceremony.  A hero at twenty-two, only he and one other survived when a rocket demolished their vehicle.  With burns over sixty percent of his body, he was blind, had limited mobility and a bandaged head.  In a different era, he would be dead.  As I drew closer to him, I became afraid.  Not by his looks.  I knew, if I tried to speak with him, I’d lose my composure. 

The military mandates a constant state of readiness, so the preparations took less than twenty-four hours.  Imagine creating a celebration for 175 people in less than a day.  Flags displayed.  Programs printed.  Generals flown in.  Family gathered.  To one side, a beautiful, one-legged soloist waited to sing the National Anthem.  Captain Kevin Lombardo, the hero who heard Tavera’s muffled cries and pulled him to safety, stood by his side.

I asked about seating while trying to keep a lid on my emotions.  The first rows were for family with an open area designated for wheelchairs.  Not counting Sergeant Tavera’s, I counted nine of them.  All different configurations.  They made up for what the bodies couldn’t do themselves.

Most of the guests wore military fatigues.  I studied the many versions of camouflage.  The soldier’s ranks clear to each other and invisible to me.  There were naval dress whites, air force blues, army khakis, and a marine in blue and red honor guard regalia.  Sprinkled in among the civilian’s attire, these added colors seemed planned and purposeful. 

Despite my own raw emotions, the mood was upbeat, even festive.  How could the crowd be so gay?  I saw burned faces, dented skulls, and missing limbs.  One veteran arrived tilted to one side with a sleeping baby secured to his lap.  When his wife spoke to him, she leaned close and gently held his face in her hands.  This was her best hope to reach him.  Another father touched the smile of a son he would never see.  Across the packed room, a service dog trailed his owner as he visited other wheel-chaired veterans.  The light mood told me the crowd chose to celebrate the living.  These were veterans.  Veterans of combat.  Of loss.  Of ceremonies. 

We stood as the official party entered.  Sergeant Tavera along with his parents.  Everywhere I looked, I saw smiles, yet my heart ached.  I knew nothing of this kind of bravery.  I looked down at the patterns of the carpet to hide my tears.  They looked like blurred official seals.  The hero endured fifteen months in recovery to reach this point.  He would have the rest of his life to continue it. 

The Invocation followed the National Anthem.  The chaplain was good.  His practiced words were a tribute to the hero and a balm to the crowd.  The guest of honor sat in his wheelchair facing us as the ceremony progressed.  I don’t know what I expected.  They save military flyovers for internments in Arlington National Cemetery.  I closed my eyes to push back a fresh wave of rain and tried to imagine the world as Sergeant Tavera saw it.  Sounds of babies fussing.  Cameras clicking.  A program falling to the floor.  I felt the warmth of the room on my face and wondered how much heat the sergeant must have felt.  Must still feel. 

Tavera’s father pushed a button and up rose his son.  It was a sight worthy of the finest Las Vegas illusions.  Miraculous.  After all he had been through, Sergeant Tavera stood facing Major General Michael Oates.  It didn’t matter that the chair created this miracle.  The effect was amazing.  His once-collapsed body recovered to stand in front of all of us.  It was a gesture of determination, of respect, of pride.

The announcer didn’t mention all the other awards and decorations already given to the sergeant.  When wounded March 12, 2008, he was twelve days shy of his twenty-first birthday.  After many months of pain and recovery, he sat among us.  It was official.  The Secretary of the Army and President proclaimed it.  The presenters carefully placed the ribboned medals over Tavera’s bandaged head.  They pinned the rarest medals to his chest.  The Purple Heart.  The Army Cross. 

 

I thought the ceremony was over.  The proclamations made and medals presented.  Sergeant Tavera wanted to say something.  The audience leaned forward, barely breathing.  Softly, he said thank you.  Thank you to his parents.  To the people who had put him back together.  To the army.  To us.  A young man who had nearly given his life for his country was thanking us.  When he finished, the room stood and cheered.

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