A war vet’s strug­gles hit home

Lan­caster High stu­dents build him a hand­i­cap-ac­ces­si­ble house

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Hai­ley Bran­son-Potts

Jer­ral Han­cock is try­ing to squeeze into his 8-year-old daugh­ter’s bed­room, but his elec­tric wheel­chair won’t fit through the door­way.

The door frames and walls are scuffed and scratched from his chair try­ing to make the tight spa­ces in the Lan­caster mo­bile home. He gives up and backs away slowly, rub­ber wheels bump­ing against the wall. Elevenyear-old Julius’ toy-clut­tered bed­room sits cat­ty­corner to Anas­ta­sia’s. He doesn’t even try to go in there.

“This isn’t what I saw my­self com­ing home to when I was out there, I can tell you that,” Han­cock says, his voice husky.

Eight years ago, Han­cock was a spe­cial­ist with the Army’s 1st Cav­alry Di­vi­sion. He was driv­ing an

M1 Abrams tank out­side Bagh­dad when it hit a road­side bomb that pierced the 70-ton ve­hi­cle’s steel ar­mor.

Shrap­nel wedged into his spine, par­a­lyz­ing him from the chest down. Flames “cooked off ” his left arm, the one with the Los An­ge­les Dodgers tat­too, and it would have to be am­pu­tated at the shoul­der.

It was May 29, 2007 — his 21st birth­day.

Anas­ta­sia, a charmer with her daddy’s brown eyes, was born three weeks be­fore the blast. The first time Han­cock met the “baby of the burn unit,” he was propped up in a hos­pi­tal bed, pale and skinny, cov­ered in burn wraps.

Anas­ta­sia slips into the living room as Han­cock tells the story. She’s all blond hair and sass, an extrovert who grew up in hos­pi­tal wait­ing rooms cheer­ing up adults.

She puts her head on her dad’s chest and wraps her arms around his shirt­less, scarred torso.

In her class­room at Lan­caster High School, Jamie Goodreau tries to teach her stu­dents that his­tory is a living thing, that they can be part of it.

A soft-spo­ken woman with kind eyes and a big smile, Goodreau re­quires her stu­dents to cre­ate projects that give back to the com­mu­nity. One year, they or­ga­nized a 1940s-style air­port han­gar dance, hired a swing band and raised more than $10,000 to re­store a World War II B-17 bomber.

When her stu­dents found out the An­te­lope Val­ley had no Armed Forces Day cel­e­bra­tion, they cre­ated one. For more than a decade, they’ve hosted an an­nual din­ner called Pride of the Na­tion. It was there, in 2013, that they met Han­cock and his chil­dren.

Han­cock had been given a hero’s wel­come when he came home wounded. He was grand mar­shal of the Vet­er­ans Day pa- rade. Lan­caster hung a light-pole ban­ner with his photo un­der the words “Home­town Hero.” But pri­vately, he was strug­gling.

He came to speak to Goodreau’s his­tory class, on his 27th birth­day, and opened up about his life af­ter war. There was the phys­i­cal agony. The night­mares about burning in that tank. The post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der play­ing out in a noisy mo­bile home park.

Han­cock’s wife left him and the kids. His mother and step­fa­ther be­came his full-time care­tak­ers, living across the street. Some­times, when he for­got to ask some­one to turn the lights off be­fore bed, he’d just sleep with the lights on, too em­bar­rassed and an­gry to have to call his par­ents or wake the kids to turn them off for him.

Han­cock wasn’t much older than the stu­dents, who were stunned by his strug­gles.

“It broke my heart in­side,” stu­dent Ni­cole Skin­ner said. “I thought I knew war was bad, but wow.”

The stu­dents wanted to help. So, the next day, with a quick class­room vote, they made a rad­i­cal de­ci­sion: They were go­ing to build Han­cock a new house.

Goodreau’s stu­dents dubbed them­selves OATH — Op­er­a­tion All The Way Home. They spent the sum­mer hawk­ing dog tags, T-shirts, cof­fee mugs. They passed do­na­tion buck­ets at Lan­caster Jethawks base­ball games and formed “bucket brigades” out­side Wal­Mart. They had pizza nights, flap­jack fundrais­ers, yard sales.

Pretty soon, peo­ple all over the An­te­lope Val­ley “took the OATH.” In­mates at the Cal­i­for­nia State Pri­son in Lan­caster even chipped in with an art fundraiser, sell­ing paint­ings and hand­made jew­elry. Af­ter word got out about what the stu­dents were do­ing and how much they had al­ready raised, ac­tor Gary Sinise and his Lt. Dan Band put on a ben­e­fit con­cert in Lan­caster.

OATH raised $170,000 in un­der a year; by the end of the sec­ond year, more than $350,000 in cash had been raised. A three-acre prop­erty in Palm­dale was bought, on a quiet lot on a dirt road, with moun­tain views and Joshua trees.

The real es­tate agent waived her com­mis­sion. Lo­cal ar­chi­tects drew up the blue­prints for free and taught the teens how to go about build­ing a house, how to take bids on the work, how to take out a mort­gage. Ten months af­ter Han­cock spoke to the class, Goodreau’s white Dodge pickup truck pulled up to the L.A. County Build­ing and Safety of­fice in Lan­caster, and teens piled out of the back seat. It was time to get a con­struc­tion per­mit for Han­cock’s house.

Goodreau — whom the kids call Mama G — herded the teens into the quiet, white-tiled county of­fice.

“In­side voices!” she yelled, grin­ning. “Sorry, we’re ex­cited,” she whis­pered apolo­get­i­cally to a county staffer caught off-guard by the rowdy group in jeans and sneak­ers. “I’ll be like a crazy mom, tak­ing pic­tures.”

This ti­tle of town hero has been an awk­ward fit for a quiet, sar­donic sol­dier who has spent the years since his in­jury get­ting tat­toos over his scars. A tank on his chest. A flam­ing Pur­ple Heart on his neck. The Ja­panese sym­bol for war­rior on his cheek. The words “Ride or Die” on his right arm, which was left so weak he can’t drink a bot­tle of wa­ter with­out some­one lift­ing it to his mouth.

The kids rais­ing the money should be get­ting the praise, he says, not him.

“I’m not big on be­ing in the spot­light,” he says, a few months af­ter the project be­gan. Strangers have started com­ing up to him in public, thank­ing him for his ser­vice, giv­ing him fist bumps on his weak right hand. They qui­etly hand him cash, apol­o­giz­ing if they missed OATH events. He feels guilty when he’s down, with all they’re do­ing for him.

A few days af­ter the stu­dents get the build­ing per­mits, Han­cock is in his home, where there are pho­tos ev­ery­where of the baby­faced sol­dier in his Army fa­tigues: hair cropped, smok­ing a cig­a­rette in the desert, mug­ging for the cam­era with the un­mis­tak­able swag­ger of a teenage sol­dier. He was 18 when he joined the Army.

He’d tested out of high school, smart but bored, and be­come a fa­ther.

“I was try­ing to fig­ure some­thing out, work­ing part time and sleep­ing on my mom’s floor with a kid,” he says. “I felt like a bum.” A buddy called and said he was join­ing the Army. Han­cock went to a re­cruiter the next week. He wanted some­thing bet­ter for his son, and this was his chance.

On May 6, 2014, the stu­dents break ground on the prop­erty, where they’re also build­ing a house for Han­cock’s mom and step­fa­ther, Sta­cie and Dir­rick Benjamin. It’s a com­mu­nity cel­e­bra­tion: dozens of res­i­dents, young and old, some of them clutch­ing Amer­i­can flags.

An older man spots Han­cock and grins.

“Jer­ral, brother, how are you, sir?”

“Still breath­ing. Can’t com- plain.”

Goodreau is emo­tional as the crowd grows. “What a jour­ney,” she says into a mi­cro­phone on a stage set up be­tween two con­struc­tion trucks. The stu­dents “were determined to run a marathon at spring speed be­cause Jer­ral had been in that house for six years, and they thought six years was too long.”

Kae­lynn Ed­wards, 17, smiles at Han­cock from the mi­cro­phone.

“We gave up the sum­mer of our se­nior year,” she says, “but Jer­ral’s sac­ri­fice was big­ger.”

By this Fe­bru­ary, the wooden frames of the two houses stand tall. There are con­struc­tion work­ers on site — they’ve been work­ing week­ends and nights, with lights strapped to their heads — and saw­dust on the floor as the stu­dents step in­side Han­cock’s house. They’re armed with mark­ers to sign the bare ply­wood. Their mes­sages will be painted over, but their words will re­main there for­ever.

Goodreau signs the top of a win­dow frame, the words of “Amaz­ing Grace”: “Tis grace that brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”

When Ni­cole Skin­ner, who is now in col­lege, sees how far the house has come, tears run down her face.

“This is go­ing to be a real house,” she whis­pers. “Like, who does that but us?”

She’s grown close to Han­cock in the nearly two years since he spoke to her class. A shy foster child with a tough up­bring­ing, she con­sid­ers her fel­low OATH stu­dents and Han­cock her fam­ily. In pur­ple marker, she writes on Han­cock’s wall: “You de­serve this, Han­cock! ... It’s a sim­ple act of kind­ness that can make a dif­fer­ence. Keep your head up, J.”

As the house has raised, so have Han­cock’s spir­its. He’s seen the stu­dents grow, and he tells them of­ten he’s proud of them.

He’s also fallen in love. Adri­ana Gon­za­lez, a mil­i­tary daugh­ter with a sar­cas­tic sense of hu­mor on par with his, came to many of the OATH events, where they talked and talked. Last fall, he pro­posed. She said yes.

They move qui­etly through the house, read­ing the stu­dents’ mes­sages, sun­light stream­ing through the wooden fram­ing. She puts her hand on his shoul­der.

Dis­abled vet­er­ans call the day they sur­vive their in­juries their Alive Day. On his lat­est Alive Day — and his 29th birth­day — Jer­ral Han­cock goes home.

His fam­ily pulls onto the prop­erty, es­corted by sher­iff ’s deputies and flag-bear­ing Pa­triot Guard mo­tor­cy­cle rid­ers. Dozens of peo­ple line the drive­way, cheer­ing in the hot desert sun.

A white-haired Navy vet­eran leads the crowd in prayer: “Bless th­ese houses and put lots of love in them, so they’ll turn into homes.” Some­one holds up the in­fant son of the lo­cal con­trac­tor who led con­struc­tion — he’s wear­ing a cam­ou­flage OATH one­sie.

Han­cock’s new hand­i­ca­pac­ces­si­ble house has au­to­matic doors, lights and blinds that can be con­trolled with a tablet com­puter — and wide door­ways.

He steers his chair into his son’s Army-green bed­room, where Julius waves to him with both arms from atop his new bunk bed.

“Look, I’m a pri­vate!” Julius says, mim­ick­ing a sol­dier.

Anas­ta­sia runs into her bright blue bed­room, and jumps on her new bed, with its Dis­ney “Frozen” bed­spread. She’s so ex­cited: In the past, when­ever she wanted to hear a bed­time story, she’d go to her dad’s room, lis­ten to the story, and re­turn to hers to go to sleep.

Now, her dad will be able to read her sto­ries in her own bed­room.

Al Seib Los An­ge­les Times

JER­RAL HAN­COCK, with his younger sis­ter be­hind him, writes a note to Lan­caster High stu­dents on the wood in­side what will be his new home in Palm­dale.

Al Seib Los An­ge­les Times

JAMIE GOODREAU, cen­ter, a Lan­caster High his­tory teacher, joins Jer­ral Han­cock, right, at the ground­break­ing for his new home.

Al Seib Los An­ge­les Times

WAR VET­ERAN Jer­ral Han­cock, with fi­ancee Adri­ana Gon­za­lez, checks out the bed­room of his daugh­ter, Anas­ta­sia, 8, in their new home in Palm­dale.

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