A Dancer's Tour of Duty

Iraq changed Marine Sergeant Roman Baca — ballet brought him back

A Dancer's Tour of Duty

I was born in New Mexico. I grew up in Washington State. After high school, I moved back to New Mexico to go to college, and I started studying dance—ballet and jazz. After a few years, I got the chance to study ballet in a conservatory in Connecticut. Very rigorous training. I worked as a professional ballet dancer for a few years, and then, in 2000, I enlisted in the Marine Corps.

Being a classical ballet dancer has a lot of stigma attached to it. I wanted people to look at me differently. And I wanted to serve my country.

My grandfather was in the Korean War, and my uncles were in the three other services. My family's military history was a factor, but even more than that, I knew so many other Marines. Kids I'd grown up with had gone into the Marine Corps. I had a soccer coach who was a former Marine. All of the Marines I knew had certain values that I felt I wanted in my life.

VETERAN OF THE STAGE: Roman Baca in Manhattan, February, 2013.
Sam Zide
VETERAN OF THE STAGE: Roman Baca in Manhattan, February, 2013.
DRILL INSTRUCTOR: Roman Baca teaching an Exit12 Company class 
in February, 2013, at DANY Studios in Manhattan.
Kelly Schott
DRILL INSTRUCTOR: Roman Baca teaching an Exit12 Company class in February, 2013, at DANY Studios in Manhattan.

I walked into the Marine Corps recruiter's office with an earring in each ear and red hair. The recruiter sat me down and did the typical spiel: judgment, justice, integrity, discipline, and so on. I said, "I'll make this really easy for you. I want to be a Marine."

I didn't tell my friends until after I'd actually signed the papers. I didn't want them to talk me out of it. The night that I told all of my friends, two of them were dancing at an international ballet competition here in New York City. We were driving to drop them off at Fordham so they could be in rehearsals the next day. I fell asleep in the backseat, and when I woke up I overheard them having a conversation about my decision. My best friend was extremely worried that the Marines were going to forever change me.

I went to Parris Island, South Carolina, for basic training. Of course it was very hard. But the ballet conservatory was very hard. I had no problem rising to the physical standards. It was the mental demands and the constant attention of the drill instructors and the amount that they test you. We woke up at 5 o'clock in the morning and had to do pull-ups before we went to chow. You would line up at these pull-up bars and crank out as many as you could, and the first squad to 500 didn't have to do fire-watch that night.

I would have dreams of doing pirouettes down the squad bay. I didn't tell anyone in boot camp that I was a ballet dancer. But the woman I was seeing sent me a book of photos of us dancing, and as I was looking at it, a few of my friends looked over my shoulder. Two of them thought it was really interesting. The third one never talked to me again. We went through basic training together and then to the infantry school, and he steered clear of me the whole time.

I just put dancing away while I was in the Marine Corps. Except for the last day of boot camp, when I already had my papers. I marched right up to my senior drill instructor and snapped to attention, and said, "Sir, this Marine has something he wants to show you, sir!"

He said, "What?"

I said, "I want you to take a look at this." I handed him a manila envelope.

He pulled out the first picture, and it's a picture of me in a tunic and tights with a ballerina, from Sleeping Beauty. And he slowly shakes his head and goes, "Oh, Baca, Baca. I knew there was something weird about you."

Training with the Marines during peacetime, I don't think there was that clear sense of purpose. But once September 11th happened, things got crystal-clear real fast.

I was a reservist, trained as an anti-tank missile gunner and assigned to 23rd Marines out of Chicopee, Massachusetts. On September 11th I was working in Connecticut at a day job. My boss flipped on his television, and we saw the aftermath of the first tower, and we saw the plane hit the second tower. And my phone started lighting up. Our whole unit got on the phone with the company commander and just begged to come down to New York City and help out.

There were rumors of where they were going to send us, everywhere from Egypt to Syria. We ended up getting sent as a Quick Reaction Force down to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, and then deactivated six months later and sent home. But we all wanted to be overseas doing what we had been trained to do. And in 2005, we were sent to Fallujah.

The military is very good at keeping secrets. Even where we were going and why we were there was kept under wraps. And at the time, we didn't know much about Fallujah. There was very little in the media about Operation Phantom Fury; there was very little about the dangers in the area. All we knew was we were going to Iraq, and we were preparing like we were going to the Wild West.

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