Officials in the Tampa FBI office recently awarded a badge and credentials to a non-agent for what, according to their research, is the first time in the bureau’s history. Sgt. Joel Tavera, USA, received the honor in recognition of the sacrifice he made serving his country and to pay tribute to his persistent spirit. But he set the process in motion with a little playful cheek.
During a November ceremony in Tampa to dedicate a house constructed especially for Sgt. Tavera and his parents by Building Homes for Heroes, the sergeant heard the FBI was in attendance. Not one to waste an opportunity, he quickly asked, "When do I get my badge?" Instead of laughing off the comment, Steven E. Ibison, the special agent in charge of the FBI Tampa Division, took up the challenge, and in December, he presented Sgt. Tavera with credentials and one of the centennial badges released in 2008 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the bureau. His badge resembles the first one ever carried by agents.
Ibison explains his reasons behind the effort, saying, "In my opinion, Joel represents every American who has honorably served in our great nation's armed forces and who have personally sacrificed themselves to protect others. The FBI's motto is ‘Fidelity, Bravery and Integrity,’ and Joel is truly emblematic of these special traits. As a result, I thought it was appropriately fitting to present him with a commemorative FBI badge and credentials."
The price Sgt. Tavera paid for the honor is high. During a tour in Iraq in 2008, enemies attacked his vehicle with rockets. Several of his fellow soldiers were killed, and the then-specialist lost sight in both of his eyes. He also lost his right leg and four fingers on his left hand, sustained burns to 60 percent of his body and suffered a serious head trauma that left him in a coma for 81 days. When he woke up and learned about his promotion to sergeant, he said, "Don't tell me I have to do push-ups!"
The joke is typical of Sgt. Tavera’s personality, but he says that during his recovery he went through dark times, though not as bad as some of the other wounded warriors he has met. His release from the hospital marked an uptick in his outlook. "I finally got out and turned my life around," the sergeant says. "I started doing 5Ks. I started getting more gutsy." One of his major accomplishments was getting out of his wheelchair, which he thought he might need for the rest of his life. "I was so proud of myself," he states.
Sgt. Tavera already has undergone several surgeries and has more to go. He will remain on active duty until these procedures are complete. Though his main job is recovering, he spends much of him time speaking to various groups. Despite all the publicity and the number of invitations he has received, he was surprised when the FBI actually presented him with the badge, which he adds to what he calls his "Mr. T collection" that includes a Bronze Star and Purple Heart.
In addition, Sgt. Tavera, who is a signal support specialist, received the Signal Corps Regiment Association Bronze Order of Mercury. Since surviving the rocket attack, many of the signaler's pre-injury wish-list items have become reality, including meeting the G-6 of the Army, Lt. Gen. Susan Lawrence, USA, to whom he was introduced during the 2011 LandWarNet conference. He will have a chance to talk with her again soon when he speaks at the Signal Ball in March, which happens to fall on his 25th birthday. "What a wonderful day to actually have a Signal Ball," Sgt. Tavera states.
Another opportunity involved meeting the commander of the Joint Communications Support Element. But even with all the high-ranking officials honoring Sgt. Tavera for his service and sacrifice—Gen. Peter Chiarelli, USA, the vice chief of staff of the Army, was one of the four-star leaders who attended the house dedication—the sergeant says the FBI badge will stand out, especially since he had considered joining the bureau before his injuries. "This will stay in my office forever and ever and ever," he says.
Now, he is waiting to hear the results of a second challenge he made during that November speech, regarding a promotion to staff sergeant, when he asked: "When am I going to get my rocker?"