The city of Lancaster in the Antelope Valley region of Southern California is justly proud of its military heritage.

The area reportedly contains more veterans per capita than any other place in the country, 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.

Now, a group in Lancaster has again put their city on the map – while also bringing pride to their school – by helping a wounded veteran.

The subject of this feel-good story is Jerral Hancock, an Iraq War veteran. He was driving a tank through the streets of Baghdad on May 29, 2007 – his 21st birthday – 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 Hancock's spine, paralyzing his legs.

Hancock came home from Iraq missing one arm, with another that barely worked and a paralyzed body that was burned in the blast. Still, he used his one remaining hand to help his community, such as cutting ribbons or waving to people during parades.

In recent years, students in Jamie Goodreau's U.S. history classes have chosen an end-of-the-year project to honor veterans, usually raising $25,000 to $30,000 for their charity work.

When the students learned that Hancock was having difficulty maneuvering through the narrow hallways of his mobile home, they decided to build Hancock a new home that would be handicapped accessible.

Goodreau's veteran projects normally end with the summer but this time, even some of last year's graduating seniors decided to continue with "Operation All The Way Home" until Hancock had a new roof over his head.

In the last year, the students raised $182,000 for Hancock, mainly by holding yard sales, pizza nights and peddling things like T-shirts and refrigerator magnets. Businesses were inspired and got involved. One offered discounts on building supplies, a construction contractor volunteered to pitch in with the actual construction, an architectural firm provided the blueprints, and even the inmates at the local prison held a sale of their art work and donated the proceeds.

Gary Sinise, the actor who played the role of Lt. Dan in the 1994 film "Forrest Gump," is an active supporter of the veteran community through the Gary Sinise Foundation. This Saturday, Gary Sinise & the Lt. Dan Band, will hold a concert in Lancaster with all proceeds going towardsreaching a $500,000 fundraising goal.

What started as a class project has not only inspired individual lives, but transformed the life of an entire community.

By Jim Zbick

editor@tnonline.com