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Featured Image: Soon after releasing a book chronicling work in the Iraq War to protect interpreters who worked with American soldiers, Steve Miska (pictured in the center during a key leader meeting at Combat Outpost) joined a recent effort to help similar people in need in Afghanistan. Photo: Courtesy of Steve Miska
By C. Jayden Smith
In the wake of Col. Steve Miska’s May 2021 release of Baghdad Underground Railroad—a book detailing his work with colleagues to protect foreign military interpreters—the local author has remained a busy man.
For about the past eight months, Miska has poured time into an operations call center with essentially the same mission—only this time helping interpreters evacuate from Afghanistan, where about 60,000 of them and other visa applicants remain, according to State Department estimates reported by the Wall Street Journal in December 2021.
Miska’s efforts originated during the Iraq War in 2006 and 2007, during which an average of more than 2,300 Iraqi civilians were being killed every month. As the commander of Task Force Justice, Miska, now a retired U.S. Army colonel, set up operations in Baghdad to help translators acquire visas.
Interpreters were extremely at risk because of their proximity to American soldiers, and he and others knew that they had to assist the people who had helped them to a tremendous extent daily and without whom they could not complete their missions.
“They’re not just translating, they’re helping us understand the cultural contours of a very foreign environment for us,” Miska said. “Based on that … we can’t look ourselves in the mirror unless we do something (to) help these guys.”
When working with interpreters in their own lands, the soldiers learned that the nationals are in constant conflict, while Americans have the opportunity to come back to the U.S. for some rest following a deployment. Thus, their partners were added to the standard ethos of leaving no one behind.
“These are people who don’t get that break, and their families are at risk on top of it by virtue of (interpreters’) service alongside, what many consider, the infidels or (occupying forces),” Miska said.
He began researching how to protect the military’s soft networks, partners who are easily accessible to the Taliban or other adversaries. The military would be “culturally blinded” without the eyes, ears, and mouthpieces of the interpreters, according to Miska.
After his book was released, Miska was asked to join Evacuate Our Allies, a coalition among a number of organizations trying to rescue interpreters and advocate for them.
When President Biden announced last year his plans to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, the coalition saw the oncoming struggles that the evacuation would bring.
“We quickly realized that our advocacy was being rejected, and we started getting just distress calls that were really rough,” Miska said of Evacuate Our Allies’ dilemma in the wake of the evacuation.
With no recourse from the federal government to assist the Afghans in need, the coalition members knew they had to take matters into their own hands.
The group increased its efforts, starting in August, by meeting twice a day and seven days a week, to figure out how to best respond. He repeatedly suggested establishing a 24/7 operation center, but when others in the group heard but did not put his plan into action, Miska grew frustrated.
“I’m thinking, No. 1, I’ve got a consulting practice, but it’s me; I’m just one guy here,” he said. “These major nonprofits with resources, why the heck can’t they figure this out and get the ball rolling?”
Miska eventually decided to call up his separate contacts and start an operations center on his own. He started with a friend and colleague, Jerrold Green, the president and CEO of the Pacific Council on International Policy, an independent organization dedicated to global engagement.
Green allowed him to take over his office suite in Downtown Los Angeles, and Miska continued to call Pacific Council peers and other people to help manage the fallout from the U.S. withdrawal in Afghanistan and answer distress calls.
He recalled getting a friend from San Clemente to join, a former Marine aviator who had recently returned from Afghanistan and knew the complexities of the environment and the culture abroad.
“He was able to work the night shift, and when he came on, that was the first day I actually got sleep, in I don’t know how long,” he said.
By the end of the week, about 20 people were on his team. They initially worked 12-hour shifts that often lasted longer before switching to an approach of three shifts per day.
The team ran the center in person for the month of August with people in various roles such as support, logistics, financing and administrative assistance, all to support two coalitions, Afghan Evac in San Diego and the Washington, D.C.-based Evacuate Our Allies. They soon transitioned to a virtual capacity in September.
“What that meant was, we didn’t have to pay hotel bills anymore, where you’re feeding everybody,” Miska said. “We were able to send them home, and they can function from home, and we transitioned our information systems so that we all didn’t need to be there with our phone banks.”
Despite the change in settings, they continued to receive calls nonstop, from either concerned Americans or those in Afghanistan.
Now, with a team of a dozen people, they work with other organizations to make referrals as intermediaries. It is the best way to help sort through the hundreds of thousands of current cases.
When they receive a call or a case, Miska said they try to identify the individual and whether they qualify for a visa from the U.S., find another nonprofit that may be able to accept them, and advocate on their behalf.
“From the first week when I stood this up, I realized how challenging this was going to be for the operators who I brought in, the people who are picking up the phone,” he said. “Every single one of them has been told, ‘You are the first human that actually answered the phone when I called.’ ”
The waiting period for interpreters can be brutal and full of anxiety. The Taliban is seeking them out through interrogation, often of nearby friends and family, and the interpreters can feel as if they do not have a future, according to Miska’s memories of previous interactions he has had with people in need.
There is also discomfort living as a refugee and trying to enter an inhospitable country, dealing with the tedious process of bureaucracy, or having no legal status when entering a nation such as the U.S.
“They’re just in limbo,” he said. “Those (refugees) live under the anxiety that they could possibly get sent back to Afghanistan. They’re trying to deal with that, and our resettlement agencies are overwhelmed (and short on resources).”
With the number of calls from U.S. senators’ offices, retired ambassadors and other military officials, and journalists from major media organizations, Miska remembered, he felt bewildered by the impact his small team was having on the situation.
The team operates on two principles of humility and empathy, with which Miska had extensive experience given his time spent in conflict zones.
“I think it’s insane that somebody 9,000 miles away in Los Angeles can tell somebody in a life-threatening situation what do to,” he said. “What my team does, is they provide the most up-to-date, relevant information to allow callers to put things in context themselves and weigh the risks themselves and make their own decisions.”
Although they do not have the power to provide immediate help, there can be hope found in the fact the callers, especially in Afghanistan, can talk to people on the other end of the phone who will listen to them and provide emotional support, according to Miska.
Those conversations can have traumatic effects on the operations staff as well, which is why they also have outside psychiatric support available.
“They’re all people who want to help, and they’re serving to make a difference, but it’s really challenging when you’re listening to somebody in real distress and you’re not able to help them; there aren’t good options other than (to) be a good listener,” he said.
Significant collaboration between the center and the federal government has remained, as Miska and his colleagues attend regular meetings with the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, and with other high-ranking officials.
Miska said his team is hoping to receive funding from either of the Afghan Evac or Evacuate Our Allies coalitions that will support them through the end of 2022.
People can support Afghan refugees by donating to various nonprofits such as the International Rescue Committee that provide food, clothing, and shelter, or to the International Refugee Assistance Project, which helps refugees resettling in the U.S.
C. Jayden Smith graduated from Dana Hills High in 2018 before pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in digital and broadcast journalism from the University of North Texas. After graduating in December 2020, he reported for the Salina Journal in Salina, Kansas. Jayden loves college football and bothering his black lab named Shadow.