When Miyoko Hikiji’s friends first suggested to her that she run for office, she was hesitant. Am I really qualified for this? Would I be prepared? Those were the questions that went through her mind before she realized how silly the doubts were.
“I’ve done a lot of scary things in my career,” the Iraq War veteran and mother of two young girls finally decided. “If I can go to war, I can probably survive [a campaign] and do well in it.”
Hikiji is now a candidate for State Senate District 20, which covers the Johnston, Urbandale and Grimes parts of the Des Moines metro. She already holds some experience dealing with the state legislature, having advocated for military sexual abuse legislation last session. And she’s already built up a decent profile in the state after authoring a book on her time in Iraq. She hosted a campaign kick-off this past weekend, and Starting Line sat down with her in recent months to take a closer look at her life and what motivated her to run for office.
Cedar Rapids Upbringing
Hikiji was born in Cedar Rapids to a Iowan mother and a father from Kauai. Her parents had met in Hawaii, where her father served in the Army, and later Air National Guard. Her mother was an UNI-educated teacher who convinced Hikiji’s father to move back to Iowa with her. There Hikiji’s mother worked at the National Czech and Slovak museum while her father worked at Quaker Oats.
“Growing up in a large family, that’s the first example of community,” Hikiji says of her upbringing with two brothers and two sisters. “We had a garden, we had chores … In our neighborhood, we had a man on our street who had polio and was in a wheelchair. So the kids in the neighborhood took turns – there were days that you went there to help Roger get a can off his shelf or do something. There was this idea that we were all in it together. We mowed people’s yards and we shoveled people’s sidewalks, and you never really asked for money. Just from the beginning, there was an idea that that was the way you did things.”
Her father’s military service added to a sense of a higher calling in life. That led Hikiji to join the Army right after high school.
“In my family history, my father lived there during the bombing of Pearl Harbor,” Hikiji explains of how her father’s life pushed her in that direction. “And there were some World War I veterans and people in my family who were taken out of their homes and put in internment camps. So for him to still feel compelled to serve was his way to say, despite those things, American values and services were still things he believed in and he was going to participate in regardless of that history. Maybe even in spite of that history, sort of as a way to prove his allegiance and his belonging.”
Serving Her Country
Looking to leave Iowa for a while to satisfy an “adventurous spirit,” a sense of duty and to help pay for college, Hikiji got her chance as she was stationed around the country at Fort Jackson, Fort Lee and Fort Bliss. She eventually returned to Iowa to the National Guard in order to go to college. Then 9/11 happened, and she was activated for force protection at Camp Dodge for six months. Soon after, Hikiji was called up for a tour in Iraq.
Beginning in 2003 Hikiji was mobilized for the Iraq War for over a year. She was part of the 2133rd Transportation Company, comprised of service members from Cedar Rapids, Muscatine and Centerville. They were sent to Northwestern Iraq, based primarily out of Al-Assad, an old Iraqi Air Force base. Their mission was to support the 3rd Armor Calvary out of Fort Carson, who was tasked with securing that corner of the country.
“I was in a truck-driving company,” Hikiji says. “I went as a motor transport operator. We were there to move ammunition and prisoners of war, and food, water, fuel.”
This was before women were officially assigned to combat roles, yet that didn’t mean Hikiji’s job was any less dangerous. Driving trucks through the Iraq war zone was the most dangerous job at that point in the war, facing IED attacks and a constantly changing, nonlinear battlefield. Her regiment lost several dozen soldiers, including two of her close friends.
After a 403-day deployment in Iraq, Hikiji returned to Iowa and Camp Dodge, where she went to work as a contractor. As she continued her education back home, eventually earning degrees in journalism, mass communications and psychology, Hikiji reflected on her service and what it meant to be a woman in combat. She decided to share that story with others to highlight female soldiers’ roles and experiences in war, writing a book entitled All I Could Be.
Advocacy and Running for Office
As she continued to share her story as she promoted her book, Hikiji began to get more involved in both her local community and state legislative issues she felt were important.
“Last year I had this rare opportunity to work on a sexual assault bill that passed,” Hikiji recalls, noting she worked with Senator Steve Sodders on the legislation. “I didn’t think I was going to end up in any type of lobbying role or advocacy role, but really looking back it was a progression. In talking about my book, it was a lot less about my story, and a lot more about what it meant to everybody else.”
After being a part of the process she saw how she could be engaged again the next year in working on veterans or women’s issues bill, or even helping craft the legislation as part of the Senate herself. After prodding from friends and some self-reflection, Hikiji decided to run for the State Senate, challenging Republican Brad Zaun in the Johnston/Urbandale-based district. Veterans’ services will drive a large part of her campaign, but keeping Iowa’s education strong, the very reason she’s in the state, is at the top of her priorities as well.
“My mom felt that, having grown up in Iowa, this was really the best place to educate your children,” Hikiji explains of why her mother brought her father back to her state to start their family. “‘For me, the Urbandale, Johnston [school district] are the best … It’s something this particular district prizes because it’s so well-known for having some of the best education in the state.”
“There are very few other things that are as good of an investment, not just for me and my kids, but for the future of this state than making sure we’re raising an educated citizen base,” she says of the need for a better funded school system. “That really turns into people who are prepared to work the best jobs in science and technology, and helps create the best workers. ”
On veterans issues, Hikiji notes that it’s “a population that’s extremely vulnerable that deserves to be able to come home and have a job and healthcare and mental health services.”
She also wants to put a focus on water quality problems to make sure the children in the district have access to safe, clean water.
“As a farming state, it’s something we need to seriously address,” Hikiji says. “And we can look at it as a national security issue too. It’s something we need to be aware of, tracking, and improving.”
On the national security front, she also sees Iowa’s role in renewable fuels as key to keeping the country safe.
“We really need to have a better way in which we manage our energy and our resources,” she says. “The conflicts in the Middle East have been extremely controversial, and it seems to me what we’re doing right now is not the answer … We have to have energy resources that go beyond my kids and their kids. We need to have something more sustainable.”
A Unique Story That Could Win?
Defeating the popular Brad Zaun in this Republican-leaning district will be no easy task, something Hikiji is well aware of. That’s why she’s gotten an early start, has assembled a campaign team and is already working the district, speaking with voters in person. She’s found that while many voters have an affection for Zaun, few know completely where he stands on the issues or have had much contact from their Senator.
“Having a military background is unique for an area that is Republican,” Hikiji says she believes is what will help her stand out. “Having stood at the gate at Camp Dodge for six months, everyone who lives and works around Camp Dodge and Johnston and Urbandale saw me out there, rain or shine, for six months straight. So I think there’s some trust for that. Regardless of different party positions, or different opinions, I think trust goes a long way for some people to say, ‘I know her well enough to know she’s going to try to do something that’s better for all of us.’ And I think most people recognize you’re not going to find someone who agrees with what you believe 100% of the time. I think they’re looking for someone they can believe in, that’s accessible to them.”
by Pat Rynard