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, after everyone had gone home, Hancock would too. That's where he would be forgotten by all but his two young children and his parents.
That was until the students in Jamie Goodreau's U.S. history classes learned how Hancock had once gotten stuck in his modest mobile home for half a year -- "like being in prison," he recalls -- when his handicapped-accessible van broke down. Or how 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 now 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.
"We had no doubt that it could be done," Lancaster High School senior Joseph Mallyon says with a smile as he sits in Goodreau's classroom on a recent afternoon with several of his fellow students. "Now there are some people in the community. You know, the older people, the people who have jobs, who go through life every day and know the harsh reality of things.
"Those people doubt us. But we just accept it and say, `Watch what we can do."'
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.
"It's really just amazing," says J.D. Kennedy, a local field representative for Congressman Howard "Buck" McKeon.
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.
"Yeah," says the laconic former soldier who somehow never lost his sense of humor. "That part really sucked."
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.
"I don't like to complain," he says quietly, adding the recurring dreams of burning to death in a tank were bad enough without revisiting them while awake.
Then Goodreau's students took up his cause. He'd met her at several veterans 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. He is stunned by the magnitude of their effort.
"They gave up their last summer of high school for me," he says in a voice filled with awe.
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.
"Just look at him, man. Many people these days are complaining about their lives and you look at him and what he's been through, and he's still smiling and all. He's not complaining," she says, "He's just so motivating."