Wearing Army boots, Army camouflage pants and an “Iraq Veterans Against the War” T-shirt, Emily Yates worked in an information booth at San Francisco’s Fleet Week in October. It didn’t take her long to detect a pattern of behavior in passers-by.
“They would look at the boots,” said Yates, 30, an Army veteran who served two tours in Iraq, “look at the pants, then when they got to the shirt, they would veer away. Or they would make a face. You’re like, wow, I was your hero until you saw my T-shirt.”
Yates and her fellow Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) members were trying to educate Fleet Week revelers on what she calls “the real effects” of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s not a universally popular conversation starter, and it was an especially tough sell during the Bay Area’s annual, weeklong celebration of all things military. But Yates is committed to the cause — so much so that she shoehorns her involvement with the group into a packed schedule that includes live musical performances and her studies at UC Berkeley, where she is a senior majoring in Near Eastern Studies.
That commitment has roots in her Army experience, little of which she recalls fondly.
“I was in public affairs,” she said in between bites of a sandwich at the Free Speech Cafe on the Berkeley campus. “It was my job to spread a lot of patriotic propaganda about the mission in Iraq. I think I look at IVAW as a way of sort of atoning for that.”
Before considering atonement, Yates sought to dissociate herself from her military career. Going out of her way to spend time with other veterans was something that never occurred to her until she was introduced to a woman at a rock concert in Falls Church, Va. The subject turned to Yates’ service and the wars in the Middle East.
“She asked me, ‘Have you heard about Iraq Veterans Against the War?’” Yates said. “I was like, ‘No, but I am one of those. Where do I sign up?’”