Dennis

The just-past Memorial Day holiday offers a fresh opportunity for people to examine what they can do to help those who have served their nation at cost of life or limb.

In a rare display of non-partisanship, two of the area’s political heavyweights turned out to support those who served in our nation’s armed forces.

Honored guests at the 2nd Annual Memorial Day Barbecue hosted by Coffee4Vets at the William J. “Pete” Knight’s Veterans Home included the late Pete Knight’s son, Steve Knight, and also Rep. Katie Hill, D-CA, who appeared at her first Memorial Day event as congressperson for the 25th Congressional District, which includes most of the Antelope Valley.

Knight is the son of a man whose name is on the California Veterans Home at Lancaster. USAF Col. “Pete” Knight’s name is on the building because he did so much as a legislator to ensure that Lancaster had a first-class facility that would be a home for veterans in their later years. The late Col. Knight would say he was just part of a team, but he was the quarterback.

At the barbecue Saturday, the younger Knight, an Army veteran, put it simply: “If you can do something for a veteran, just do it. That is one thing that can bring community together and that makes the Antelope Valley a special place to live.”

Rep. Katie Hill, introducing herself as the daughter and granddaughter of veterans, told the hundreds gathered for the barbecue that we all have a responsibility to serve “those that brought the battle home with them.”

To that end, she said she is sponsoring legislation to guarantee improved veterans mental health care and homelessness reduction.

“Put simply, our veterans deserve the best we can provide them,” she said.

Antelope Valley patriots have daily, fresh opportunities to do something for veterans and their families, with timely contributions involving respect for local vets, one surviving, one killed in action.

Today, May 29, is the birthday of Antelope Valley veteran Jerral Hancock. It is also what is called his “alive day.” On Memorial Day in 2007, on Hancock’s 21st birthday, he was nearly blown out of this life by an Iranian-designed weapon called an explosively formed penetrator. It was the kind of improvised explosive device that killed hundreds of U.S. troops in and around Baghdad during the middle years of the Iraq War. Hancock was trapped in a shredded, burning M1-AI tank. He survived, barely, and came home minus his left arm, paralyzed, with severe burns.

For Jerral Hancock’s birthday fundraiser, today, he is asking contributions, of any amount, to the Gary Sinise Foundation. Hancock’s birthday fundraiser can be found on Facebook. Or, donations can be made at www.garysinisefoundation.org and specify the award in Hancock’s name.

The Sinise Foundation collaborated with Operation All The Way Home, the grassroots group composed of students from the history classes of retired Lancaster High teacher Jamie Goodreau. The student-led group spearheaded the effort, and together, the two groups got a smart-access home built for Hancock and family.

The Gary Sinise Foundation was founded by the actor who gave the classic turn as the Vietnam wounded veteran “Lt. Dan Taylor” in “Forrest Gump.” His work is a testament to community effort to serve veterans. The foundation has built dozens of homes for severely wounded warriors.

Steve Knight and Brotherhood of Tanker veterans have visited and broken bread with Hancock, who has proved that while his body may be broken, his mind and spirit are strong.

In a related case of strength after disaster, this Saturday ushers in the Joey Lopez-Pratti Memorial 5K Run, at 7 a.m. at Rosamond High School.

Joey was one of 25 Marines from the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, known as the Darkhorse Regiment, who were killed in a deployment to Afghanistan in 2010-2011.

That deployment was just about the highest-casualty tour of combat duty for Marines of the Afghan war that has now been running for nearly 17 years. It got so bloody that Marine veteran author, correspondent and combat commander Bing West wrote a heartbreaking book about it called “A Million Steps.”

Joey was born Joseph Lopez, but people who loved him knew him as Joey.

Since early childhood, Joey recognized his “step” family, as his authentic family and that is how he came to be known as Joey Lopez-Pratti. Arthur Pratti Jr. became his real brother and Art Pratti Sr. became his dad, a real dad.

Tracy Pratti was always his mom and remains his mom today.

The young man had an unnervingly bright smile. Pure joy, with just the least hint of boyish mischief. In the Marines, the dreaded boot photo, usually in dress blues, requires a grim expression. All of Joey’s other photos displayed that winning grin.

His last message, through Art Pratti, the guy he knew as dad, was to his mom, via text.

It went like this: “Hey dad, I’m flying out of Leatherneck tonight to my area of operation, so this is the last time I’ll be texting you. I have been reading the Bible every day, and talking to God every day, and it’s been helping me a lot, so far. If for some reason something happens to me and I don’t come home, make sure mom understands I have a relationship with God now, and I’m OK. I love you dad.”

Then, Lcpl. Joey Lopez-Pratti, 26, was gone.

The event is dedicated to the memory of Joey and his friends from Darkhorse. Saturday’s 5K will be the seventh annual running of what has become an annual event in Rosamond, the Joey Lopez-Pratti Memorial 5K run in the foothills above the desert bedroom community near Edwards Air Force Base. Brother Marines, veterans and Marines from Joey’s unit at Camp Pendleton show up annually.

In recent years, the fundraising has gone to Youth For Christ, which was Joey’s youth group. Diner owner Jin Hur’s son, Marine Cpl. Richard Hur, served with Joey in the 3/5 during the bloody “Million Steps” deployment, so named because the unit took a million steps on foot. Jin Hur, a marathon runner, and his friend, Army paratrooper veteran Juan Blanco, will be out working the grill Saturday with volunteers from Crazy Otto’s.

Joey and his fallen brothers are memorialized on State Highway 14, that portion of the Antelope Valley Freeway that threads past the hills of Rosamond. Erected with volunteer funds and authorized by legislation, the big highway sign commemorates the Joey Lopez-Pratti Memorial Highway and his brothers of the 3/5 Darkhorse Regiment who were killed in America’s longest war.

Dennis Anderson is a licensed clinical social worker at High Desert Medical Group. An Army paratrooper during the Cold War, as editor of the Antelope Valley Press he deployed to Iraq with a local National Guard unit. He currently works on veterans and community mental health issues.

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