Air Force Senior Airman Jonathan A.V. Yelner, 24, Lafayette

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Jake Yelner thought he’d pulled a fast one on his mother.

He enrolled at Diablo Valley College near his hometown of Lafayette, in the East Bay -- but he never showed up for classes. His mom finally busted him, dragging him to campus to prove that he wasn’t a student.

“He never went to school at all, that little brat,” Yolanda Vega recalled. “I gave him two choices: go back to school or join the military. And if you do join, I said, I’d love it if you joined the Air Force.”

Yelner joined the Air Force on Oct. 7, 2003, and more than once raised his hand to serve on dangerous missions.

A weapons crew load member, he volunteered to provide escort duty to contractors in Iraq and volunteered to be sent to Afghanistan this year for a program to help residents build roads and buildings and set up water supplies.

On April 29, Senior Airman Jonathan A.V. “Jake” Yelner, 24, was killed when his vehicle struck a roadside bomb near Bagram, Afghanistan, north of Kabul. He was assigned to the 28th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D.

“He loved wearing the uniform. He loved serving his country,” his mother said. “I’m sure as a 24-year-old he had no idea he was going to die. He went to help the people of Afghanistan, to help build their homes. He’d say ‘Mom, I’m making a difference.’ ”

Yelner, who was Jewish and Puerto Rican, attended Catholic schools throughout his childhood and graduated in 2002 from De La Salle High School in Walnut Creek. He also embraced his Jewish heritage and completed the bar mitzvah coming-of-age ceremony at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, his mother said.

He was active in the campus ministry and the theater company’s set crew in high school.

On his MySpace page, the self-proclaimed “Puerto Rican heartthrob” wrote that he was “living each day like my last. Cause it might be.” The website displays a photograph of Yelner dressed in his Air Force jacket leaning against a display in a music store.

His pride and joy was the Ford Mustang he had recently purchased. He described his interests as “role-playing online and on paper.” He enjoyed rock music, lacrosse and golf, and he had begun studying martial arts. “I am a simple guy with simple interests and a complicated brain,” he wrote.

Yelner also wrote on MySpace that he wasn’t “one of those guys that says ‘Darn I wish I did that.’ ” He also admitted that he was blunt: “I say what is on my mind and the truth no matter what.”

His mother agreed. She said her son was the skeptic when she tried to introduce him to new experiences. Once, on a trip to Morro Bay, she had raved about the beauty of the spot, only to find it smothered in fog when the family arrived.

Yelner looked at his mother and said: “Mom, it’s a rock.”

Recalled Vega: “That’s my boy. He was a pragmatic kid. It was like he was from Missouri. Show me. He got excited about things, but first it was always show me.”

While in Afghanistan, she said, her son called home weekly. “I got a call from him on Monday night and found out Tuesday that he had died,” she said.

After his death was announced, flags flew at half staff in Yelner’s honor at De La Salle High School and across the state of South Dakota, his mother said.

He was buried at Oakmont Cemetery in Lafayette.

In addition to his mother, he is survived by his father, Bruce Yelner; his stepfather, Bill Theile; and a brother, Mathew Luis Vega Yelner.

As a boy, Yelner was active in the Boy Scouts and served as a chaplain’s aide, troop guide and assistant patrol leader. He achieved the rank of Eagle Scout in 2002.

His mother said that he went to her for help in finding the right quote for the speech he gave to accept his Eagle Scout award. “He said, ‘I want a quote I can use that will wake people up and pay attention to me,’ ” she said.

They looked together through some plays by Shakespeare until she spotted a line he liked. “He said ‘Mom, look at this: Be not afraid of greatness. That’s the one,’ ” she recalled.

She read the speech at his memorial service.