ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
When Jerral Hancock returned from Iraq six years ago, he received a hero's welcome in his hometown of Lancaster, California. But his celebrated homecoming was short-lived. Hancock was severely wounded in the war, and returning to everyday life has been difficult.
Gloria Hillard reports on how a group of local high school students is helping the Iraq veteran return to normalcy.
GLORIA HILLARD, BYLINE: The room Jerral Hancock spends most of his time in is painted blue, the color of ocean or sky. It's been some time since the 27-year-old Army veteran has been to the beach. And when it's difficult just getting outdoors, sky blue walls have to make due. Jerral's speech is somewhat slow due to pain medication.
JERRAL HANCOCK: I mean, I know nothing will ever be the same but a big word that they use now, a new normal.
HILLARD: The closest thing to normal in Hancock's life today is welcoming his kids home from school. From his wheelchair, he leans toward his 6-year-old daughter so she can give him a hug. Right behind her is her older brother.
HANCOCK: How's school?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Good.
HANCOCK: Cool. Can you do dad a big favor? Can you turn that heater down? Push...
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: The power?
HANCOCK: Thank you.
HILLARD: When Hancock returned home, it was with a body scarred by burns and paralyzed from the chest down. His left arm is gone. He has partial use of his right one. He was driving a tank on the streets of Baghdad back in May of 2007 when an IED tore through the tank's armor and exploded into flames.
HANCOCK: I've kind of had to piece together the story because I guess it was about 90 minutes that I was stuck in it while it was burning and whatnot.
HILLARD: It was his 21st birthday. Today, the mobile home he shares with his two children was meant to be a starter house for his young family when he returned home from Iraq. Three years ago, just before Christmas, his wife left him and their children, and he became a single dad. His mother and stepfather, who live across the street, became his caretakers. And the mobile home in this high desert region of Southern California became his prison.
HANCOCK: I had no way to get down the stairs first six months I was home. My children's bedrooms I can barely get into. My son's, the hallway is so tight, I can barely make the turn.
HILLARD: The thin walls can't keep out the piercing cold desert wind and the ceiling is water stained. Chances are we wouldn't have heard of Jerral's story if weren't for Lancaster High School teacher Jamie Goodreau. Earlier this year, she invited Hancock to be a guest speaker at her U.S. history class.
JAMIE GOODREAU: And he's got an amazing sense of humor and he's close to their age and they just connected. There was a bond. And we inquired through community members what his circumstance was and that's how we found out about the house and the living conditions. And he's been there for six years.
HILLARD: The students decided they would build Jerral a new handicapped-accessible house. They called the project Operation All The Way Home. They spent the summer fundraising. They designed and sold T-shirts and sweatshirts. There were yard sales, bake sales. They spoke to anyone who would listen. So far, they've raised more than $130,000.
GOODREAU: A lot of them have their own battles. Some of them have their own challenges at home. If people knew some of the things that these individual kids have to go through just to get to these meetings and do the work, that's another whole story.
Bye, Ian. Good job today. Don't forget your skateboard.
HILLARD: When Jamie Goodreau's last class of the day ends, the members of Operation All The Way Home get to work. Seventeen-year old Nicole Skinner has been involved with the project since first meeting Jerral.
NICOLE SKINNER: He opened up to us and told us about his story, and it moved us, you know.
HILLARD: The students say the project is teaching them lessons they'll never forget. Senior Joey Mallyon credits his teacher with impressing upon him that one should never assume people facing challenges have the support they need.
JOEY MALLYON: So you don't ask the question if they need any help. So it's always better to ask than to assume. So there's probably tons of Jarrels out there and we want to see them have a better life.
HILLARD: The students have just closed escrow on a $264,000 property and will be making the mortgage and utility payments. Talking about the students brings a rare smile to Jerral's face. He says they have not only given him a new home but renewed sense of purpose. And, yes, he's pretty proud of them.
HANCOCK: They really impress me, that's for sure. Yeah, that's how it feels, like I got 30 little brothers and sisters.
HILLARD: The students, with the help of the community, plan to break ground on the new house at the beginning of the year. Jerral's children have dubbed the three-acre property The Ranch, and it lives up to its name - a wide open space with unending views of the mountains and the desert's resilient Joshua trees. For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard.
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