Steve Miska, a veteran who retired as a colonel after 25 years in the Army, led the “Baghdad Underground Railroad,” which helped dozens of interpreters escape sectarian violence in 2007. The author of a new book chronicling that experience, Baghdad Underground Railroad: Saving American Allies in Iraq, he is currently executive director of the nonprofit First Amendment Voice, and continues to work to help interpreters in the Middle East. Before visiting Zócalo to discuss “What Does America Owe to Veterans of Its 21st-Century Wars?,” he talked in the green room about scuba diving, Iraqi hospitality, and embracing self-promotion.
What keeps you up at night?
The flag behind me on the wall that’s endorsed with the signatures of dozens of interpreters in Baghdad. They wanted to thank me for the work that our team did to help them qualify for the Special Immigrant Visa, but a lot of them didn’t qualify. So there are people in harm’s way right now, in Afghanistan most acutely, but there’s also a lot of Iraqis in danger in other conflict zones. … It’s really all about the advocacy effort at the end of the day. I just want to try to do better. I know we can do better by our closest partners in conflict zones.
What was the best food you ate while you were stationed in Iraq?
Just going to a sheikh’s house and experiencing the Iraqi hospitality where there’s a heaping tray of rice and vegetables with chicken or fish or lamb woven in there. Enjoying that sort of hospitality and enjoying the Iraqi food that went with it and washing it down with a little bit of chai—I was definitely a chai addict by the time I left. That was daily.
Do you still drink it here in the U.S.?
A little bit. It’s different in Iraq. There’s about a quarter to a half inch of sugar at the bottom of this glass. But that strong tea flavor is something that I drink, although I do defer to coffee. While I was in Iraq, my wife and kids were in Bavaria, so being in Europe you get really spoiled on a cappuccino and an espresso. So I’m conflicted between those two vices.
What word or phrase do you use most often?
In the nonprofit world, it’s “Citizenship is not a spectator sport.” Essentially it’s become our tagline. I tend to fall back to a few, like “You can’t wring your hands and roll up your sleeves at the same time.”
Were there any particular words or phrases that were most difficult for your interpreters to translate?
Humor tends to be most difficult to translate between languages, between cultures. The really savvy interpreters could pull it off, but usually they would be cueing us or cueing the Iraqi interpreter through gesture or the way they were speaking that a joke was coming, and then they would be able to translate it. We use a lot of colloquialisms, and that’s hard to translate.
What was the hardest thing about writing a book?
In the military we tend to have a culture of no self-promotion. It’s about the team, and our ability to accomplish the mission. So my mentors were trying to get me to write the book, and I said, “I’ll write a book about Iraqi interpreters.” They said, “The story needs a protagonist, and you need to be the protagonist.” And I resisted that. They were really patient with me, and they knew they’d wear me down at some point.
What’s the last great book you read?
On the fiction side, Martin Walker’s Bruno detective series about this detective in southern France who gets out of the French military and becomes the police chief for a town, but he’s the only cop in the town—that’s been super entertaining. I think there are 17 books in the series. It’s been very entertaining to me as a veteran who’s also hanging out in a small town and trying to have a normal life. I’ve got probably 10 books open in various spots in my house. I’m trying to get through Peter Singer’s book [LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media], and it keeps terrifying me because it’s about the disinformation space and how information warfare is assuming larger and larger roles between nations and between non-state actors.
What do you do to unwind?
When I finish my runs, about a mile or a half mile from the finish point, I take off my shoes and walk barefoot through the surf the rest of the way back. And I’m a scuba diver recreationally. That’s another world; you’re in outer space below the surface, and the ecosystems are incredible to learn about. I dive with a lot of underwater photographers and people who are gifted in that space. I’m just a spotter; I go down there, and I find things for them to shoot.
What’s your go-to karaoke song?
My wife and my buddy and his girlfriend all convinced me to celebrate my birthday on Catalina Island, and we ended up in a karaoke bar. I can usually hold my own with a little Jim Croce or something like that, but we ended the final song singing a duet of [Tommy Tutone’s] “867-5309/Jenny”—“don’t change your number.” We had a lot of fun with the audience and the crowd. That’s my best performance ever of karaoke.
What’s the best thing about being a veteran versus being on active duty?
On active duty, you don’t have a choice per se in terms of service—you’re just serving. And a lot of veterans nowadays are taking off their uniform, they want to serve in some capacity, and they struggle a bit with what that looks like. I’ve found you can be really creative in post-military life and carve your service into something that works for you, where you’re trying to make a difference in your community or your circles. That’s been really neat to explore and try to figure out.