Iraq War veteran’s military experience shapes worldview
Dusk is settling over UC Berkeley. The campus, which teems with activity during business hours, is quiet.
In room 100 of the Genetics and Plant Biology Building, Emily Yates’ day is still going strong.
Yates, a full-time student, activist and musician who jokes about “overbooking” her busy days, pecks away at a MacBook, attempting to set up live streaming for a documentary she is screening for a live audience of about three dozen on the anniversary of Sept. 11. The subject: Islamophobia in the U.S. military.
The 31-minute film is a compilation of interviews with veterans of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is well received by the audience and inspires a robust discussion. It also is an example of how, five years after she left the Army, Yates’ military experience continues to shape her worldview, drive her higher education and offer potential career paths. All this, despite how intent she was, after her discharge, to leave her Army experience in the rearview mirror.
“I look at my life the way it is now and compare it to four years ago and change when I got out of the military,” she said a few hours before screening her film (and two days before turning 30). “It is so vastly different from anything that I would have imagined.”
Yates, an aspiring journalist, enlisted in the Army at 19 because she had run out of money for community college. “If all those dice had fallen the way I had intended them to fall back then, I don’t know what I’d be doing now,” she said.
It’s difficult to believe her life would be this eventful. She doesn’t so much juggle her various interests and passions as she integrates them.
Her documentary is an example. It was an assignment in an Islamophobia class Yates took in the spring. The screening? It was sponsored by Iraq Veterans Against the War, a group Yates was inspired to join after two tours in Iraq as a spirited, authority-bucking public affairs specialist.
Her Near Eastern Studies major? Funny story there.
After her discharge in 2008, Yates took a cross-continent road trip. On her journey, she met her husband, Erik Yates, and settled with him in Oakland. After taking classes at Berkeley City College, she was ready to transfer to UC Berkeley.
Asked by a transfer counselor what she wanted to study, Yates suggested English literature. The counselor countered with Near Eastern Studies, contending it would make Yates’ application stand out in a crowded field.
“I was like, ‘Whoa, what would that entail?’ ” Yates said. “She said, ‘You could study the language. You could study history. You could study art and culture.’ I thought, I bet I could study Iraq. I realized that I wanted to have a greater understanding of what it was the military was doing that I was so opposed to.”
Yates wasn’t necessarily opposed to Iraq or its people, but she had soured on the U.S. military mission there. Erik Yates believes that joining Iraq Veterans Against the War was a turning point for his wife.
“I remember seeing a sort of light go on in her like, ‘There’s a lot of vets who are sort of like me,’ ” he said. “I think her military experience has had the effect of bringing her political awareness out, maybe even creating a sense of political awareness that otherwise wasn’t there. It’s been a logical progression. It’s given her a lot of drive.”
Farah Muhsin, who lived in Baghdad when Operation Iraqi Freedom began in 2003, assisted Emily Yates on the documentary. She didn’t know Yates before her Army career, but admires her community involvement.
“I know her as an activist,” Muhsin said. “I know her as a passionate Emily and I know her as a person who wants to effect change, and the right kind of change in the world. I carry a lot of admiration for that.”
Yates is on track to graduate next spring. And then?
“I’m not sure,” she said. “I want to continue learning Arabic. I want to learn Iraqi dialect. That’s going to mean, hopefully, spending some time living in the Middle East. I would also like to, at some point, help put together some sort of veterans group to go back to Iraq and do something good there.”
She also wants to “figure out what my goals are as a musician. I want to do more dovetailing between music and activism.
“I’m pretty much open to anything happening,” she said. “It’s so exciting.”