Oakland, Calif. – Sometimes it’s as subtle as an arched eyebrow. Other times it’s a full-on, in-your-face confrontation. No matter how the message is delivered, it grates on Emily Yates:
You are not a “real” veteran.
“I want to be given credibility where credibility is due, that’s all,” said Yates, an Oakland resident and UC Berkeley student who served two tours in Iraq during her six years as an Army public affairs specialist. “I’m not asking for anyone to put me on a pedestal. I just don’t want anyone to discredit me when I haven’t done anything to earn it.”
Upon her discharge in 2008, Yates hopped in her car and embarked on meandering cross-country journey. She hasn’t slowed down since. In addition to her education — her major is Near Eastern Studies — she has immersed herself in activism, music, photography and writing.
But to her, the coming-home experience is diminished when her military service is dismissed as something less than legitimate. She has some theories why that is sometimes the case — why some have trouble reconciling her anti-war stance with her Army career, or why people in the VA office look at her “like, so who’s your father?”, or why she was told during a heated debate at a recent Cal Veterans Group meeting to “get the (expletive) out” if she didn’t like the way the group was being run.
First and foremost: She’s a woman.
Second: She was in public affairs. “They’ll go, ‘OK, maybe you’re a vet, but you’re not bad-ass like I am,’ ” she said.
Third: She loves to discuss politics (she belongs to the group Iraq Vets Against the War).
And fourth: “There is my reluctance to ever back down from a debate,” Yates, 29, said laughing.
Yates, who freely admits she resisted authority — not always gently — while in the Army, finds it disheartening that her veteran status is challenged most stridently by other vets. She finds it ironic that she would take so much “blowback” at UC Berkeley, an academic environment in which free speech historically has been celebrated.
“I didn’t expect that kind of mentality from people of above-average intelligence seeking higher education,” she said.
But that’s what she got at a Cal Vets meeting when she wanted to know why her posts to the group’s Facebook page were being deleted, and what the posting guidelines should be going forward.
“Two guys just got in my face and started yelling and cursing at me,” Yates said. “I did not get the sense that if I were 6-foot-2 and 250 pounds, they would be talking to me that way. They weren’t talking to anyone else that way.”
Dottie Guy served in Iraq in 2003. As an Army National Guard MP, she came face to face with high value prisoners at Camp Cropper. Currently a student at San Francisco City College, Guy describes herself as nonconfrontational.
Though she may differ from Yates in her service and sensibilities, she shares the frustration of meeting people who “have trouble grasping that I went to Iraq.
“They say, ‘What did you do? Administration? Cook? Supply?’ ” Guy said. “I say, ‘No, MP.’ I don’t feel like they treat me like the others. It’s weird having served my country, handled terrorists and people don’t even think of me as a vet.”
That’s not unusual, said Mike Ergo, a former Marine who served two tours in Iraq and now counsels veterans at the Concord Vet Center.
“In my experience, women’s military experience is typically not seen as legitimate as men’s,” Ergo said. “Although we still don’t allow women in the infantry, they’re still manning 50-caliber machine guns. In those situations, they fight the same battles.
“Also, people can be dismissed as well for having anti-war positions, which I think is a mistake. I think it takes a lot of courage to stand up for your convictions. (Yates) has earned the right to have her opinions.”
Yates knows she provokes some of the negative reaction that comes her way. When she encourages veterans groups to participate in political advocacy, she understands she is aggravating vets seeking primarily a social experience.
What she doesn’t get is the conclusions some people draw about her military service based on her civilian avocations — conclusions she doesn’t think would be drawn if she were a man.
“I worked my ass off in the military,” she said. “It pisses me off when that is written off because I’ve said one thing that somebody doesn’t agree with.”
Contact Gary Peterson at 925-952-5053. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/garyscribe.
*Not, in my opinion, a completely accurate headline, but whatever.