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California town builds house for wounded GI

Monday - 11/11/2013, 6:16pm  ET

Volunteer Rose Sliepka removes a flag after a yard sale held to benefit Jerral Hancock, a 27-year-old Iraq war veteran who lost his left arm and was paralyzed from the waist down in a bomb explosion in Iraq, on Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013, in Lancaster, Calif. When the seniors in Jamie Goodreau's high school history class learned Hancock was once stuck in his modest mobile home for months when his handicapped-accessible van broke down, they decided to build him a new house from the ground up. 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. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

JOHN ROGERS
Associated Press

LANCASTER, Calif. (AP) -- 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.

"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 artwork 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.

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