American Homecomings: 1st of 5 installments

After six unhappy years in the Army, veteran unlocks life of many passions

By Gary Peterson / Contra Costa TimesPosted on June 4, 2012

One of Emily Yates’ favorite spots on the UC Berkeley campus is the top floor of a tall building, a place so typically deserted and peaceful that she prefers not to reveal its location lest her public sanctuary become overrun.

From where the Army veteran sits, the Bay Area lies before her in a scenic panorama. You could make the case that this is life imitating metaphor, that the world is indeed at the feet of this 29-year-old Oakland resident with many interests and a boundless passion with which to pursue them.

Yates is a student, working toward a degree in Near Eastern Studies. She is a musician who performs her own songs on the ukulele (or, in a pinch, a banjo strung and tuned to mimic a ukulele), and who will soon release the 12-song album “I’ve Got Your Folk Songs Right Here.” She is a photographer whose work was recently displayed at a female veterans’ art exhibit in San Francisco. She is a published writer and poet who posts her work on her aptly named website She has dabbled in social activism, and joined Iraq Veterans Against the War.

Self-expression is a lifestyle, attributable in large part to her nature. But to fully understand her seemingly unquenchable thirst for life, you have to go back to her six years in the military, when she was trapped between her inclination to speak her mind and the Army’s insistence on circumspect obedience.

It was an ill-fated alliance from the start.

“We couldn’t believe our ears,” said Yates’ mother, Amy Danial, recalling the news of her daughter’s enlistment at 19. “Her thing was, she never liked rules and she didn’t like to work hard.”

Home-schooled until she was 16, Yates earned a GED rather than complete high school. She ran away from her family’s Liverpool, N.Y., home to pay an unannounced visit to her aunt in New York City. She was so relentlessly rebellious that her parents felt compelled to send her to boarding school.

“We felt it was like saving her life,” Danial said.

“I was probably a 7 or an 8 on the scale of (difficult) teenagers,” Yates said. “I was just unhappy, for some reason, with myself.”

Yates saw the Army as a place to get training for an aspiring career (since abandoned) in journalism. It was a place to go when she ran out of money for community college. It was something she hadn’t tried.

“It was going to springboard me into anything else,” she said. “I basically thought: Military — I haven’t done that yet.”

A public affairs specialist, she served two tours of duty in Iraq. Though she was removed from the front line, there were enough explosions from insurgent ordnance near her post to underscore that death was a way of life in the war-torn country.

During her time in the Army, she was married, then separated from her first husband. (She has since divorced and remarried.) She was part of the 2007 surge in Iraq, during which she was “stop-lossed” — forced to serve past her scheduled discharge date. She was ordered to attend anger-management counseling, during which she was advised by an Army doctor to “lower your expectations.”

Instead, she continued to bristle against the ritual obedience and conformity of Army life.

“I never met a person who was less cut out for the Army,” then-Sgt. 1st Class David Abrams, her direct supervisor during her first deployment, wrote in an email. “She’s a fundamentally good person. I don’t think she was able to comfortably fit herself into the cookie-cutter demands of the military. She was funny, she was lively, she questioned authority, she colored outside the lines. I don’t think she was very happy during her time in Baghdad, but she made the most of it.”

Yates felt constrained in her public affairs duties, ordered to report the Army’s view of the war instead of what she believed to be the truth. Eventually she was banned from writing editorials for the bi-weekly Marne 3rd Infantry Division newspaper.

“I got much angrier because I then had absolutely no outlet,” she said.

So she began channeling her frustration — and her searing wit and sarcasm — into an anonymous blog that she made available to certain friends and family on the condition of secrecy. “The only thing that saved me,” she said.

“Her blog was a great venting place,” her mother said. “You could definitely hear her getting angry and cynical.”

Reflecting back, “I definitely had some really happy times,” Yates said of her time in the Army. “I have some great friends. I did some really cool things. But I was not a happy person for most of my time in the military.”

In some respects, however, she got exactly what she wanted from her Army experience: a springboard to something else. After her June 2008 discharge, she was able to travel the country on income she received from the Army. The Army is paying for her college education. And she emerged from her service even more committed to seeking out as many new ideas and experiences as a 24-hour day will accommodate.

“I was inquisitive in a way,” she said, recalling her decision to enlist. “I wanted to try everything out. I was experimental.

“Still am.”

Contact Gary Peterson at 925-952-5053. Follow him at