Larry Yake, an Army veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, was one of several "Vets in Vettes" at the front of the Oct. 28 Meadville Halloween Parade.
When the Corvettes provided by Community Chevrolet pulled over alongside the stage erected in front of the Market House, Yake thought it was just part of the parade. Little did he know that he would be going home with one of the cars in the parade — not one of the Corvettes, but a car that promises to go a long way toward improving Yake's quality of life.
"I was surprised," Yake admitted from in front of the Market House, where he had returned after finishing the parade. His daughter, who he's raising on his own, and friends and family members were there, as they had been for the presentation moments earlier -- they had known of the surprise presentation, but none had let on to Yake.
"I was almost emotional," the disabled vet said. "I had to choke it back a little bit."
Army veteran Larry Yake (center, leather jacket) accepts a vehicle from Operation Build Up. Video still from Operation Build Up Facebook.
Yake is the fourth Meadville-area veteran to receive a refurbished car from Operation Build Up, a nonprofit based in Lima, New York. Representatives of the organization rode in the parade behind the Corvettes, pulling a trailer with the white 2009 Mitsubishi Lancer that would be given to Yake.
Justin Cogswell, CEO of Operation Build Up, said the organization had recently started a Pennsylvania hub.
Cogswell knows firsthand the challenges vets can face upon returning home, especially if those challenges include transportation. Soon after he returned from serving with the Marines in 2009, his vehicle became disabled and before he knew it, he had been evicted and had lost his job. For nine months, he bounced from one living situation to the next.
"When I actually got a vehicle," he said, it only took me a couple of weeks to get my life back in order. I realized the main thing that was preventing me from establishing a solid civilian life was not having a vehicle."
Operation Build Up's logo, from Facebook.
"I feel that once veterans lose transportation," he added, "they lose the ability to prosper."
Jim Severo owns RANZ Bar and Grill, a veteran himself and has served on the Operation Wounded Vetz organizing committee for the past five years. Over the summer, Severo hosted an earlier car presentation at RANZ and helped arrange the surprise for Yake, even scheduling "chance encounters" so that Yake was in the Corvette Severo was driving in the parade.
"This town has really embraced them," Severo said of Operation Build Up. "These guys are very passionate about what they do and there's definitely no shortage of struggling vets."
Yake was similarly passionate about his appreciation as he watched the tail end of the parade march past the Market House.
"This car is really going to help me take care of my daughter and meet my VA appointments," Yake said.
Paratroopers of 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division. US Army Photo by Pfc Liem Huynh.
After entering the Army in 2005, Yake served as a member of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, serving in Iraq from 2005 to 2006. After returning home, he served again in Afghanistan from 2006 to 2008.
It's been about five years since he had a car, Yake said, and he already knows what he wants to do first with the car Operation Build Up is giving him.
"I'm going to my parents' house and show them the car," he said, "because they've always been there for me through everything."