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Spc Jerral Hancock
Service: U.S. Army
LANCASTER - Jerral Hancock wears a black T-shirt that tells a lot of his story: "When I die I'll go to heaven, because I surely have spent my time in hell. " Printed on the shirt is a cartoon figure of a little fork-tailed demon standing atop a map of Iraq.
For Hancock, hell began on his 21st birthday, Memorial Day, May 28, 2007, and the demon he met was one of the most powerful bombs in the terrorist inventory.
As people back in America observed the holiday with department store sales, barbecues and military remembrances, the M-1A Abrams tank that Hancock was driving down a Baghdad street got caught in the fiery explosion of an EFP - an "explosively formed penetrator."
The EFP is a particularly lethal piece of ordnance that the American military says is imported from neighboring Iran, a country that exports weapons and terrorist militia fighters into Iraq.
Hancock was piloting the enormous battle tank down a street where the American armored cavalry unit had made several patrols without incident. He was driving on the day that his time and luck ran out.
"I don't remember anything," he said. "I woke up a month later in a hospital."
He awoke to find himself paralyzed and burned.
"When I got to Iraq, I had four tattoos," Hancock said, reflecting on the bomb that nearly got him. "Now I've got 1½."
In addition to the four
tattoos, Hancock also had two arms.
He now has just one, his right. The left was sheared off, right at the shoulder.
Hancock's Abrams tank, just about the heaviest piece of armored firepower in the American inventory, weighs around 70 tons. For troops in the Iraq combat zone, such a vehicle offers a great deal of added protection. A lot of protection unless, of course, the weapon used against it is an EFP.
The EFP device, which
has exacted a toll on troops, penetrates the
heaviest armor, usually by blasting through
the vehicle floor and showering hot steel
inside the armored carrier.
"When I heard that he was going to Iraq, I said, 'It's for sure that you're going to be in a tank,' " his mother, Stacie Tscherny, said. "I wanted him to be safe, and I thought a tank was safer."
In most cases being in a tank instead of being in a lighter vehicle such as a Humvee provides greater protection. The EFP bomb fires a hard shaft, most easily through a flat bottom, and spins up a wall of fire and melting, showering spinning steel within the penetrated tank or armored vehicle. In effect, the bomb makes the armored vehicle the weapon of injury.
Hancock's three crew mates were wounded, but none so seriously as Hancock. Everyone believes Hancock was trapped in the wreckage for about a half an hour.
The tanker, assigned to the 1/8 Cavalry of the 1st Cavalry Division, was transferred from Germany to Fort Sam Houston near San Antonio, Texas.
During his aftercare odyssey, Hancock suffered through at least a half-dozen complex surgeries and finally went for advanced therapies on the Stanford University medical campus under care of the Department of Veterans Affairs' Palo Alto Polytrauma Rehabilitation Center.
"I never want to see a hospital again," Hancock said. "I can tell you I probably wasn't a very good patient. They weren't sorry to see me go."
For his mother, the catastrophic wounding of her son became a matter of changing all of her life priorities on the fly. She tried to take leave from a new job, only to find out her job was taken because she needed flexibility to care for the wounded soldier.
Hancock's wife, Rachel; his toddler son, Julius; and his newborn daughter, Anastasia, all made the trip to Texas. Anastasia was born about three weeks before the explosion.
His mother moved in full
time at an apartment unit furnished for
immediate family of the catastrophically
wounded. From there, it was a matter of
doing laundry, cooking on a microwave and
moving around in shifts between appointments
Her son was moving in and out of various medication regimes and the agonies of his injuries. At one point, the mother asked her son if he wanted her to remain alongside him or could she leave to make some arrangements.
"He cried and said he wanted his mother with him," she related in an e-mail to friends.
Nothing happens smoothly
for so many of the nearly 10,000 Americans
wounded so badly they required medical
evacuation by air. Hancock has endured lost
paperwork, tardy installation of disabled
access equipment and myriad red tape
"Paperwork gets lost when it's to their benefit," Hancock remarked, speaking of delays that involve shortchanging the wounded veteran.
"My mom has gotten a lot of problems pretty well ironed out," he said. "I've got my (wheelchair) lifts and I've gotten my vehicle grant."
All these are vital components of helping provide some mobility to a soldier who has lost nearly 100% of his mobility.
"Funny," he said. "You get a ding or a scratch, and you get a Purple Heart.
"This happens to you," he said, gesturing with his eyebrows at his wrecked body, "and you get the same medal. Ain't that something?"
While it's fair to say Hancock - like many GIs - has a low opinion of the way the war is being run from the top, he said he was gratified and moved when some Special Forces soldiers from his area of operations caught up with him in the hospital and honored him with a ceremonial coin of the Green Berets.
In between the good moments, the burns and injuries have imposed agonies hard to imagine for people who will never endure such an ordeal.
Along the way, numerous people have helped Hancock and his family. The Blue Star Mothers of the Antelope Valley military support group organized fundraisers to help defray expenses for the family while they were away, and raised thousands of dollars at ice cream socials and pizza nights.
At Palo Alto, the Blue Star Riders, a family support group of military motorcyclists, visited every Saturday, Hancock said.
"Those guys are all right," he said.
Jess Maxcy of the California Mobile Home Manufacturing Association worked with his board of directors. The group, described by Maxcy as "a small foundation" without a great deal of money, managed to put together a check in the five-figure range that, at mother Tscherny's request, paid off the mobile home that Hancock was purchasing for his young family when his body was ruined in the explosion.
Maxcy said he read about the wounded GI's circumstances in an online Antelope Valley Press report and sought out the soldier's family.
"That Jess Maxcy did all right," Hancock said. "He came to visit us up at Palo Alto."
The executive director of the manufacturing association said his board saw it as a duty and responsibility to render support to an American serviceman nearly killed in performance of his duties.
Stacie Tscherny's husband, Dirrick, helps with heavy lifting for the soldier, whose mobility is challenged to the point where he only has partial movement in his right hand.
Hancock's 8-year-old sister, Savannah, helps her mother, and helps Hancock, by pressing on his legs to suppress nerve spasms. His movements are limited to what he can manage in a motorized wheelchair that looks about the size of a riding lawn mower.
For a man who survived a blast of the kind that has killed thousands of American troops, Hancock operates outside the bounds of self-pity. His humor is tough-minded and ironic, the kind you mostly hear from young GIs.
"Hey, the only ones getting rich in the Iraq war are the contractors," he said. "That thing (the war) isn't being at all well run."
He has an advanced, computer-driven prosthetic arm that probably is worth more than a production-line Porsche. It is of no use to anyone else, and it will be a while, with lots of work from the prosthetic experts, before it is of much use to him.
Building the arm was the work of Louis Gibbons and his team members at Palo Alto. Gibbons is a licensed and certified prostheticist, and the micro-processor driven appendage is state of the art. But its use is not yet smooth and never will be natural.
In a telephone interview, Gibbons related that Hancock was badly burned in the explosion, and that makes it difficult for the sensors that would help interface with the wounded soldier's muscle movements.
"We wanted to do something for Jerral because his other arm doesn't have good opposition," Gibbons said.
The key is to get a "soft and flexible interface" with Hancock's body, but it is difficult to press on his skin because of the burns
"We would like him to be able to hold a can to his mouth or to hold something that he may need," Gibbons said.
And that is how life must proceed now for an American soldier brave enough to go to the world's most dangerous combat zone. Hancock is not helpless and has no self-pitying streak. But he must be helped by others.
Sitting in his heavy, motorized wheelchair, the soldier - who slightly resembles actor Christian Slater - remarks, "I can't sit around the house all day. I've got to be out and moving around."
His mother is hopeful for as near a normal life as possible for her son.
"We will be speaking with the vocational rehabilitation counselors," she said. "We're interested in his being able to maybe start a business."
"My interest, my only mission in life," his mother said, "is to see that he receives the care that he has earned and that he needs. I mean to see that happens for him."
Eye-hand coordination - to the limited degree that Hancock has control of it - would be aided by one of the Wii wireless computer games, counselors say.
"He is amazingly normal for what he has been through," Gibbons said, noting that Hancock is one of the approximately 600 military personnel who have suffered wounds in Iraq that either inflicted loss of one or more limbs or that resulted in surgical amputation. "His mother is a trouper. His whole family has been very supportive."