LANCASTER, Calif. – 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 artwork and donated the proceeds.
Goodreau, who met Hancock at the annual Pride of the Nation Day, invited him to tell his story to her students.
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.
Goodreau’s veteran projects normally end with the summer. This year’s group vowed to continue the project they call Operation All The Way Home until Hancock has a new roof over his head.