Baghdad's Underground Railroad

Col. Steve Miska (Ret.) on saving American allies in Iraq.

I’ve worked with fixers in roughly twelve foreign nations, many of them born and raised in the Middle East in the shadow of an American force presence. They’ve scheduled interviews, found documents, and made the impossible possible countless times. In those days and weeks spent reporting with them, I've also placed my life in their hands. I’ve always returned safely. They are sometimes trapped.

Watching American allies die in Iraq, Lt. Col. Steve Miska promised he’d do something to bring interpreters (the military equivalent of a journalist’s fixer) to safety in the States. His team creates what they called the Baghdad Underground Railroad, to get the "terps" to their repatriation interviews at the U.S. Embassy in Jordan. Sponsors who would help the new immigrants were often friends and families of the soldiers with whom the interpreters worked in Iraq.

From warzone to the struggle of adapting to an American way of life, Miska chronicles what it takes for U.S. allies to get home safely in his new book Baghdad Underground Railroad: Saving American Allies in Iraq, from the United States Veterans Artists Alliance and Onward Press.

In a career spanning the Marine Corps War College, the National Security Council, and as a Task Force 1-2 Commander in Iraq, he worked with local teams tasked with rebuilding their homeland.

We exchanged messages via Twitter and Facebook earlier this week. This interview has been slightly edited and condensed. War, U.S.A., may receive a commission for purchases made through affiliate links.

What are some of the challenges faced by interpreters upon reaching the U.S.?

These interpreters, who arrive on Special Immigrant Visas (SIV), are leaving everything behind, extended family and culture. They sell all their possessions and come to the U.S. with one suitcase each. They come from a cash-based society. When they arrive, they don’t have a credit rating, way to get a job, possessions. The sponsors who support them become invaluable as sources of cultural understanding, help getting a driver’s license, and other fundamental daily tasks.

And for the veterans now returning from Afghanistan?

As human beings, we tend to dwell on the difficult days, the losses, and other dark times. These are the hidden scars of war. Those veterans who are able to emphasize, or at least balance the memorials with the positive aspects of the deployment tend to display more resilience. That is what Baghdad Underground Railroad conveys, the goodness that comes from a very difficult period.

For both groups, what can help them overcome those hurdles?

Gratitude always serves me well in recentering as a human being. It works for veterans and nonveterans alike. Our vets coming home from conflict zones — whether SIV recipients or uniformed service members — can focus on the amazing service they have been afforded. They return to a grateful nation, which hasn’t always been the case in our history, and many shed their uniforms looking to continue serving our country. Having the opportunity to serve gives me a sense of profound gratitude.

Tell our readers something surprising they'll learn if they grab a copy of your book.

Many people think Baghdad Underground Railroad is a war memoir, and to some extent it is. Two thirds of the book is set in Iraq, mainly Baghdad. However, the last third takes place in the United States telling the stories of courageous women opening their doors as sponsors to young, Iraqi men who successfully make it to America. Ultimately, the book is an American tale, about how to maintain humanity amidst extreme violence, but the story also spotlights the good that comes from cultural mixing. The final part of the book is a bit of a soap opera with much room for comedy. 

In the last few years, the U.S. has been less than kind toward its partner forces in Iraq and Syria. How can the U.S. Government work to re-establish credibility and build better partnerships throughout the region?

We start by standing by our closest partners in conflicts zones, interpreters and others who served as our cultural eyes, ears, and mouthpieces. They helped mitigate damage and kept us alive in many cases. Not standing by them has real national security consequences, including with soft networks in other conflict zones, with host nation security forces who work alongside Americans, with potential informants in counter-terrorism cases, and with our veteran community attempting to live up to our core values. We need to “withdraw with dignity” any time we bring the troops home.

Have the recent strikes against militias on the border between Syria and Iraq been an effective strategy for the Biden administration?

They are a component of an effective strategy. The Iranian regime will respond to a consortium of risks and pressure. Strikes against Iranian backed militias send signals that we will not stand by idly while they fire rockets at our troops or contractors. Strikes add tooth to our diplomacy, giving the administration more leverage at the negotiating table.

Anything I missed?

I’m grateful to the United States Veterans Artists’ Alliance for collaborating with me and publishing the book through their imprint, Onward Press. If you know veterans who are looking to express themselves artistically, reach out to USVAA and get in touch. They are a wonderful organization.

Know a former interpreter or veteran who sponsored an SIV? Want to share photos of a significant moment while abroad or at home with a former “terp”? Send us a note or leave a comment below.

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