(AP) California town builds house for wounded GI
By JOHN ROGERS
When Jerral Hancock came home from the Iraq war missing one arm, with another that barely worked and a paralyzed body that was burned all over, he was a hero to this Mojave Desert town that wears its military pride on its sleeve.
Soon he was being called upon to use his one remaining hand to cut ribbons and wave to people during parades. Then, everyone would go home, and he would be forgotten by all but his two young children, who live with him, and his parents, who live across the street.
Then the students in Jamie Goodreau’s U.S. history classes learned that Hancock had once gotten stuck in his modest mobile home for half a year when his handicapped-accessible van broke down, and that the hallways of his tiny house were so narrow he couldn’t get his wheelchair through most of them.
They would fix that, Goodreau’s students decided, by building Hancock a new home from the ground up. One that would be handicapped accessible. It would be their end-of-the-year project to honor veterans, something Goodreau’s classes have chosen to do every year for the past 15 years, usually raising $25,000 or $30,000 for veterans charities and a celebratory dinner.
This time, however, the stakes would be much higher.
It’s six months later and the students have closed escrow on a $264,000 property. Blueprints have been drawn up for the new dwelling and the students plan to break ground next month.
After Goodreau’s students shocked Lancaster and neighboring Palmdale by raising $80,000 in four months _ mainly by holding yard sales, pizza nights and peddling things like T-shirts and refrigerator magnets _ the whole community began to get involved.
Big box stores are offering discounts on building supplies. A construction contractor has volunteered to pitch in when the building begins. An architectural firm provided the blueprints. The real estate agent waived her commission. The credit union at nearby Edwards Air Force Base is kicking in money from new loans it writes.
Even the inmates at the local prison held a sale of their art work and donated the proceeds.
An Iraq war veteran himself, Kennedy met Hancock after he learned the former Army specialist had been stuck in his home when the oversized van that accommodates his wheelchair broke down and he couldn’t get the 70 miles to the nearest Veterans Affairs hospital to see a dentist to fix his teeth, which were rotting from the effects of the painkillers he must swallow each day.
Kennedy’s boss, who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, pressed the VA to reimburse local doctors and dentists who agreed to treat Hancock whether they were paid or not. Then Goodreau, who met Hancock at the annual Pride of the Nation Day, invited him to tell his story to her students.
He recounted it again on a recent desert-hot fall afternoon as he sat shirtless in his living room, making no effort to hide the burns that still scar his body. A prosthetic arm sat unused on a counter because, Hancock says with a grin, it’s heavy and hard to use _ and it looks even scarier than no arm at all.
Hancock was driving a tank through the streets of Baghdad on May 29, 2007, when the vehicle was hit by an improvised explosive device that blew a hole through its armor and set it ablaze. A chunk of shrapnel lodged in his spine, paralyzing his legs so that he couldn’t get out. It happened on his 21st birthday.
Due to leave the military in a few months, he’d bought a mobile home near his mother’s place in Lancaster. It was small but a good first home for a young guy with a wife, two kids and a dog. But he hadn’t planned on coming home in a wheelchair.
After his wife left him and his 9-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter, his mother and stepfather became his caretakers.
In the Antelope Valley, he quickly became well known. The area, tucked into the farthest northeast corner of Los Angeles County and dotted by Joshua trees and sagebrush, is immensely proud of its ties to the military. The Air Force’s B-1B bomber was built here and it was at Edwards Air Force Base that legendary test pilot Chuck Yeager became the first person to fly faster than the speed of sound.
The area, Kennedy says, contains more veterans per capita than any other place in the country.
Thus Hancock was honored often at public events. But after the fist bumps of hello and goodbye (he can’t quite use his hand to shake someone else’s), people would go their own way. They assumed, some said, that anybody that badly hurt must have a huge support group behind him. Hancock admits he let them think that.
Then Goodreau’s students took up his cause. He’d met her at several events and trusted her enough to open up to them.
Since then, he says, the nightmares have pretty much stopped as helping the students with their effort has given him a sense of purpose.
Actually, they gave up even more. Goodreau’s veteran projects normally end with the summer. This year’s group, whose members have already collected their A grades, vowed to continue the project they call Operation All The Way Home until Hancock has a new roof over his head, hopefully by next summer.
When asked why she’s continuing, Nicole Skinner, 17, who graduated in June and is now a college freshman, laughs.