Posted July 15, 2004
When Dr. Frank J. Miskena emigrated from Iraq to the United States in the late 1970s, he left behind a teaching job at Baghdad University and a commission in the Iraqi Army.
When Dr. Miskena returned nearly three decades later, it was as a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army and part of the military coalition that ousted dictator Saddam Hussein.
As one of a handful of Iraqi-Americans serving in the Army, Dr. Miskena is a rarity. His firsthand knowledge of Iraq and its culture, his fluency in Arabic and Chaldean, and a face that wouldn't stand out in a crowd of Iraqis made him a valuable resource. Profiles of the Iraqi-born Army officer have appeared in The New York Times, Orlando Sentinel, and Stars and Stripes.
So how does an Iraqi expatriate become an adviser to Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, commander of American ground forces in Iraq?
Dr. Miskena was born in 1949 in Baghdad. His father was an officer in the Royal Iraqi Air Force. After graduating from Baghdad University with a Bachelor of Veterinary Medicine and Surgery degree in 1973, Dr. Miskena was drafted into the Iraqi army for two years.
A 2nd lieutenant in the veterinary corps, Dr. Miskena was stationed in northern Iraq. Once his service was completed, he joined the faculty at Baghdad University and taught veterinary parasitology for the next 2½ years.
His wasn't a bad life, Dr. Miskena admits. As an army officer and a veterinarian, he was part of Iraq's middle class, and Saddam Hussein wasn't yet in power. But he couldn't shake a sense of foreboding.
"When I was in Baghdad, I figured out one day that things weren't right for some reason, although things were OK at that time," he said. "But in the back of my mind, I felt something is not right about my country. I figured that, one day, things would go downhill."
So in August 1977, he left Iraq. His brother and sister were already in the United States, and the three planned on becoming American citizens together. He married Lamia, also an Iraqi expatriate, and they started a family in Michigan. Dr. Miskena worked odd jobs while preparing to get his veterinary license.
Then, in 1984, a year after becoming an American citizen, Dr. Miskena joined the Army as captain. He would stay on active duty until October 1996. During those years with the military, he held a number of positions, but was involved primarily in research and development.
For a time, he was chief of Veterinary Services at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. While serving a veterinary pathology residency at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Washington, D.C., Dr. Miskena earned a Master of Science degree in pathology from Michigan State University.
Afterward, Dr. Miskena was chief of pathology and laboratory animal medicine at the U.S. Army Environmental Hygiene Agency, and later, veterinary pathologist at the Army Institute of Chemical Defense in Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Md.
As assistant chief and veterinary pathologist at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense, Dr. Miskena studied ways of protecting troops against chemical weapons. "We were trying to figure out what was good for our soldiers if something happened to them, so I was working to find out prevention for the soldiers, just in case," he said.
In 1996, Dr. Miskena left active service and bought a small animal hospital in the Detroit area. He couldn't leave the military entirely, however, so he joined the Army Reserve as a major and was assigned to the 308th Civil Affairs Unit out of Chicago.
It wasn't long before his country called on him. Dr. Miskena was activated in 1999 to take part in Operation Shining Hope in Albania. For five months, he was a liaison between Albanian civilians and NATO forces. Afterward, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and returned to his home in West Bloomfield, Mich., and bought two more veterinary hospitals.
Dr. Miskena's unit was activated again four years later, in January 2003, this time as part of coalition forces preparing to topple Hussein. He was among the first U.S. soldiers deployed to Kuwait; two months later, Dr. Miskena flew into Baghdad International Airport, formerly Saddam Hussein Airport.
While he was stationed in Baghdad, Dr. Miskena acted as a liaison between the Army and Iraqi civilian and municipal groups. His first assignment was translating messages from English to Arabic for the provisional military authority via the city radio.
"I said 'hi' to my old neighborhood and the people at the veterinary college," he recalled. "Everybody was so thrilled to hear my voice after, like, 27 years."
But Dr. Miskena's official job was cultural adviser to Lt. Gen. Sanchez. "I used to fly with him all the time, wherever he goes to meet with the high-ranking sheiks and tribe leaders, I talk to them in Arabic," Dr. Miskena recalled.
"When they saw me there as part of the staff of the general, they felt good about it, somebody from their hometown is inside the circle, in a way," he continued. "That brought some comfort to whomever I meet, and I tell them, 'We are here to help you guys. We're not here to occupy your country; I'm one of them.'"
Still, Dr. Miskena couldn't help feeling like a stranger in his native country. The mood was heavier and more somber than he remembered, as if the people had suffered a "psychological injury" from years of living in a totalitarian regime, Dr. Miskena said.
"Some of these Iraqis are not the same as I used to know," he explained. "Their values are different, their perspective of life is different. Some of them, they still have good values. But a lot of them, by virtue of the embargo and economic disparity, they have become corrupted."
It's a consequence of living in constant fear, Dr. Miskena said, and added that, until Hussein was captured, Iraqis were convinced that he would return to power as soon as coalition forces withdrew from Iraq.
Dr. Miskena supported the overthrow of Hussein, as did many Iraqis. "Privately, a lot of them will tell me, 'Guys, you did the right thing,'" he said.
"Winning the war was the easy part," Dr. Miskena said, but added, "Winning the peace is another matter." Attacks by insurgents and terrorists are an everyday occurrence in Iraq. But "99 percent of Iraqis" are looking forward to a stable, economically prosperous country, Dr. Miskena said. Those elements that are using violence, kidnapping, and intimidation to derail the rebuilding process are a small minority, he added.
When his tour in Iraq was over in late December 2003, Dr. Miskena returned to Michigan and picked up where he had left off before the war.
Yet he hasn't forgotten the people he left behind. Dr. Miskena is collecting books and journals to send to the veterinary colleges in Baghdad and Mosul. And he makes numerous calls to the people he met, trying to inspire hope for a new country. One of his new friends he speaks with from time to time is a brigadier general in the old Iraqi army.
Additionally, Dr. Miskena briefed the 1st and 2nd Marine divisions on Iraqi culture before they were deployed to the region. In March, he was invited to speak to faculty and students of Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine.
"I told them that we're American, we have a different education, a different way of life, and we can do a lot more than just veterinary medicine."
Dr. Miskena expected to return to Iraq in late July. In late June, the Pentagon named him to be the political military foreign affairs adviser to Gen. George Casey, commander of the multinational force in Iraq.