Steven Miska grew up on the North Fork, going first to elementary school in Cutchogue and then moving to Greenport, where he graduated from high school in 1986.
Not sure he was making the right decision, he accepted an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. “I needed a lot of discipline, and I needed all four years there to get that,” he said. “I think I was someone not mature enough to go away to college.”
In the years since he graduated from West Point as a U.S. Army officer, Mr. Miska has had an extraordinary life and career. He has more than lived up to the education and training – and promise — he received at West Point.
While based in Iraq in 2007, and deeply worried about the safety of Iraqis who worked as interpreters for the American military, then-Col. Miska began helping the Arab men whose loyalty he depended on get visas to leave the country. They needed help navigating the mountains of paperwork and endless interviews; he wanted to streamline the bureaucratic process and get these men out of harm’s way.
He had seen what happened to some Iraqis who, at great risk, had unselfishly helped his men. He tells their stories in his book “Baghdad Underground Railroad – Saving American Allies in Iraq,” which was published in May. Consider the story from the book of one Iraqi he calls “Jack.”
“Jack was killed in January 2007,” Mr. Miska said, his voice clear as he speaks of a beloved friend he lost. “He worked for me. He was on patrol with me every day. He went home to be with his wife, who had given birth. He had been approached before on a visit home by some insurgents and he told them he wasn’t working for the Americans.
“So at that point they let him go,” he said. “He went home the next time to be with his wife and they assassinated him in the street and left a note for his daughter to find. Two weeks later a store owner on the base who always took care of American soldiers so well, he was gunned down by Shia militia because he was supporting Americans.”
While serving in Iraq, Col. Miska had deep concerns about the strategy and mission. He shared his views with a friend he’d met after graduating from West Point, Gen. David Petraeus, who would become commander of American forces in Iraq.
“He asked me if we could win,” said Mr. Miska, who is now retired from the military, living in California, and working with a variety of nonprofit organizations. “I told him it would be very hard. I told him the truth. I shared with him a strategic view of where we had gone wrong in our strategy and operationally, what was working and not working.”
Mr. Miska spent his first school years in Cutchogue. His paternal grandparents had a farm in Mattituck that was later sold. He finished his schooling in Greenport, where on his first day met Dan Horton, who today remains a close friend.
“That first day, Dan walked up to me, a perfect stranger, and said, ‘My name is Dan, who are you?’ We’ve been friends ever since.”
He spent some of his teen years working at a dockside inn on Front Street, opening the business at 5 a.m. and making bacon and eggs for fishermen. As he neared graduation, his father, who had served in Vietnam, touted the officers he’d encountered who had graduated from West Point as a cut above.
I was trained to serve, and they deserved the very best from me.
His first assignment after West Point was in Panama. Before departing for that 36-month stint, he married a girl from Southold, Amy Brown, whose father taught science in the district. Her mom worked at San Simeon.
From Panama the couple moved to Fort Benning, Ga., then Fort Bragg, N.C., where he trained with members of the 82nd Airborne “to jump out of perfectly good airplanes.” It was there that he met David Petraeus.
“He pushed me to teach,” Mr. Miska recalled, “and I went back to West Point. I left there in 2001” – an ominous year – “and we moved to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Because we both grew up on the East End, we have salt water in our blood. Kansas was 10 months of torture for us.”
From Kansas, Mr. Miska shipped to Germany. The war in Afghanistan and later Iraq was underway. A very different career loomed on his horizon. The war in Iraq upset him deeply.
“I thought this was a big mistake,” he said. “It was visceral for me. But I was trained to serve, and they deserved the very best from me.”
Ultimately, he would do three tours in Iraq, totaling nearly four years. It was there that he grew close to Iraqis who risked their lives working with the Americans. The New Yorker writer George Packer embedded in his unit. A later story by Mr. Packer about the war and the Iraqis working with Americans “was very raw for me,” Mr. Miska said “It took me four times to read it. The lack of any policy from the U.S. to protect our closest Iraqi partners was tragic.”
Then “Jack” was gunned down, and the store owner on the base. “I wanted to help those guys,” Mr. Miska said. “They were torn apart by the bureaucracy and the embassy interviews and the very small number of visas and all the paperwork. We pushed through that and, if they were successful, we got them to Jordan under aliases so their families in Iraq would not be threatened.”
Looking back today, at what he calls his proudest achievement in the military, Mr. Miska can count three dozen Iraqis whom he shepherded to safety. Several of them, once in America, enlisted in the U.S. military and returned to their home country to fight the militants. Some went to Afghanistan.
Of them is “Ronnie,” who got out and today lives in Tampa, Fla. He still uses a nickname, as he has family back in Iraq.
“He got a special immigrant visa in late 2007,” Mr. Miska said. “He came to me and said, ‘Thank you very much.’ But he then said he didn’t want to go straight to the U.S. He didn’t want to be dependent on anyone. He said he wanted to stay in Iraq to save up some money.
“I get back to Iraq later and Ronnie reaches out to me,” he added. “He was rooming with a captain in the Green Zone in Baghdad and saving up his money. But there was a fire and he lost all his visa paperwork and $10,000 in cash. I got him transferred to where I was and in 2009 he left for the U.S.
“His sponsor was the mother of the captain he had roomed with,” Mr. Miska said. “From there, he enlisted and deployed again. He cares about his country and he cares about our country. The captain’s mother later told me Ronnie was a second son to her. He broke her heart when he enlisted.”
Mr. Miska worked in the Obama administration on Iraqi affairs and today works with a host of nonprofits focused on a cause dear to his heart: getting Afghans who worked with the Americans to safe haven as the Taliban continues to take over more of that country.
“There are major Taliban gains every day,” he said. “There is backlog of some 18,000 Afghans trying to get out, who helped us. Many of them are now in areas controlled by the Taliban. We are working around the clock to get them out.”
He said he agrees “in spirit” with the American pullout. “We have not been able to accomplish what we had to in 20 years,” he said. “I disagree that we should not have anyone there.”
As he works to help relocate Afghans who helped Americans, he thinks back on his own journey. “George’s article was very influential for me and many others,” he said. “My first commitment as a commander is to the sons and daughters of those who have served.
“I owe them the best leadership to bring them home. And we can’t do the mission without local support. The book is that story, that we did the best we could. It’s a way to balance it all out and show the lives we saved. The best we can do is help as many people as we can to get out, but many thousands won’t.”