It was a red, white, and blue homecoming in Zephyrhills, with a parade down Main Street for Tyler "TJ" Jeffries. It was the first trip back since graduation for the 2007 ZHS alum, and he returned home very much a changed man.
After high school, Jeffries went on to serve in the U.S. Army, but he returned without the lower half of both of his legs. Jeffries was injured last year in Afghanistan when he stepped on an IED.
His case was different than the typical IED episodes we often hear about. The bomb he stepped on, was remotely triggered by an enemy insurgent who was lurking nearby, just waiting to strike. He must have seen Jeffries out ahead of his company and blew him up as he attempted to cross a small stream.
Jeffries returned to Zephyrhills after an intense 11 months in the hospital and therapy at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C. He remembers everything in gruesome detail about his attack.
"I was laying on the ground, legless, for 50 minutes, and for me to get on the helicopter, being in such bad terrain, that I had to go through the water and up the other side on a stretcher, just to get to the helicopter to get to the hospital beyond that," recalled Jeffries.
"I never dreamed that I would get a phone call that he was injured. Probably the worst day of my life," said his mother Pam Britt. "I broke down for about an hour afterwards and then I finally decided I gotta get myself together because, I gotta make plans. And about four hours later my phone rang. He said, 'Mom?' I said hello! I never dreamed that he'd be calling me."
"The road's been difficult, it's been hard," offered Jeffries' stepdad, Ray Britt. "I almost lost my stepson and I lost my wife for 11 months."
The family said they are so grateful for all of the love and support. Britt actually left home and stayed by Jeffries' side for 11 months. She had barely been on her new job with Food Lion. The company pulled together and employees gave up vacation time to help her. They also told her she could work remotely from Walter Reed until Jeffries was released.
"I'd only been there a little less than three months and I explained to them what happened and said, 'He's my son; I've got to be there,'" she said. "My boss called me about two hours later and said we don't want to lose you, do what you need to do, we'll work out the particulars and you just call us when you're ready and your job will be here."
Jeffries' shy 3-year-old daughter Ella doesn't quite understand yet what happened to her daddy. His girlfriend Julia Sayre told us she met TJ in rehab at Walter Reed.
Pam Britt said the response from friends and family in Zephyrhills has been mind-blowing, especially the parade downtown Thursday afternoon and then plans for the Homecoming game Friday night.
"Awesome! I'm so excited! I can't believe what people have done," she gushed. "It's just amazing, absolutely amazing what people in the town have done for us!"
Jeffries' then baseball coach, who is now the athletic director at Zephyrhills High School, told us he couldn't wait to see TJ and thank him for everything he's done for our country.
"He's a hero, what he did for our country, and the sacrifice he made and everything," said Bruce Cimorelli. "I can't wait to see him today and tomorrow and give him a big hug and tell him thank you.
"These guys, they stand for what's good in America, what's good in our society, so these kids, the sacrifices they've made are just outstanding."
FOX 13 / WTVT-TV
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