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?'"
Yates attended the organization's January 2010 national strategy retreat in Albuquerque, N.M. She was energized by the ideology and comforted by the sense of shared experience in the group. She didn't have to explain about Iraq. They had been there. They got it. In fall 2010, she joined Bay Area chapter members in Occupy Oakland events.
Army veteran Dottie Guy, a former Iraq Veterans Against the War member who worked with Yates on group activities, saw firsthand the passion she brings to a group that experiences shifting goals and ambitions as a result of churn in its membership.
"One thing she focuses a lot on is how the people in Iraq and Afghanistan are treated," Guy said. "She doesn't want us to forget about the other side. She wants to make sure they have their story told."
Yates has found her passion comes at a price.
"It's easy to be burned out," she said. "It's hard to organize politically. I've been trying to be mindful of when I'm starting to lose steam and be like, 'OK, I'm going to back off a little bit.' And then I'll come back. So my involvement has ebbed and flowed."
An example: Yates marched with the group in the 2011 Veterans Day parade in San Francisco, but she skipped this year's in favor of a weekend getaway with her husband, Erik, for some much-needed down time.
Recently Yates flew to Baltimore for a national convention where the organization discussed redefining itself from its name -- which has become an anachronism now that there's no longer a war in Iraq -- to its mission. Yates said they heard from labor unions and organizing groups on how to effectively communicate and collaborate with communities. There were discussions on taking a more active role in advocating for veterans.
Once again she felt at home with like minds.
"The cool thing," she said, "is that beyond social aspects and beyond work aspects of the trip, people were able to support each other."
Yates likened it to being wrapped up in a "loving cocoon," and Guy knows exactly what she means.
"It's hard to talk to someone about war when they don't know anything about it," she said. "And being a woman, it's harder (for people) to relate."
Yates returned to her Oakland home and a busy week at school, unsure when she would connect again with Iraq Veterans Against the War, but certain she will.
"When I hang out with (them), I get such a strong sense of being where I belong," she said. "Most of the people I know in the Bay Area are not connected with that (military) experience at all. It's not anyone's fault. At the same time, that experience has made me who I am and has given me my perspective. I need to spend time with people who have that experience so I feel like I'm not flailing around in an ocean of apathy."
Contact Gary Peterson at 925-952-5053. Follow him at Twitter.com/garyscribe.