A Dancer's Tour of Duty

Iraq changed Marine Sergeant Roman Baca — ballet brought him back

We got sent to Twentynine Palms, California, to acclimatize to the heat. We flew from Twentynine Palms to one of the air bases in Iraq. The minute we got to Camp Victory, we were told to fill our magazines with as many rounds as they can hold. And they laid out in front of us just ammo can after ammo can after ammo can. It nailed home the fact that we were going to a place that was very dangerous. And then we were trucked in to Fallujah.

It was completely flat. There were a couple main highways that came into the area, and there were three small villages. The engineers had gone in and made makeshift sand dunes, so we couldn't get attacked, but otherwise it was arid and flat and hot.

Fallujah at the time was an extremely dangerous place. The base got mortared a lot. The very first patrol that we went on, we rolled up onto an area where a Humvee had been hit with an IED or a mortar or some sort of explosive, and we actually found a helmet. So what was supposed to be a normal, run-of-the-mill patrol turned into something that emphasized that we weren't in a safe place.

LEATHERNECKS: Sgt. J.P. Boucher, left, and Baca, right, on their 
last mission in Fallujah, Iraq, spring 2006.
Courtesy Roman Baca
LEATHERNECKS: Sgt. J.P. Boucher, left, and Baca, right, on their last mission in Fallujah, Iraq, spring 2006.
MILITARY EXERCISE: Baca with his wife, Lisa Fitzgerald, in Habibi Hhaloua, at University of St. Joseph, West Hartford, Connecticut, May 2009.
Courtesy Roman Baca
MILITARY EXERCISE: Baca with his wife, Lisa Fitzgerald, in Habibi Hhaloua, at University of St. Joseph, West Hartford, Connecticut, May 2009.

They allowed some Iraqi locals to work on base. And because I'd had a little bit of college, I got trained on the imaging machines to screen these people getting on base, and worked with the interpreter to make sure they didn't have anything. Because of the machine, we weren't allowed to wear any protective equipment—no flak jacket, no helmet. I wasn't allowed to have my M-16 because I was usually conducting a body search. My cover man was the man who carried the M-16. And by the time the locals got to our tent, they were supposed to be totally clear of anything that could be dangerous. Knives, weapons—they were supposed to surrender all of that at our armory.

One day, we were in the tent, and there were two Syrian men coming through our post. When they got to our tent, the translator asked one to empty his pockets, we went through his stuff, we put him through our machine, he was totally fine, we asked him to step out, and we asked his friend to come in. When he came in, we put him in front of the machine, and I got an image that we weren't supposed to have at this point.

We were given so much training as to what bomb vests looked like, what they could do in a short amount of time, the trigger mechanisms. The only protocol for a bomb vest was to neutralize the threat. Immediately. Right between the eyes. I gave a signal to my cover man to aim his M-16, and instead of doing what I should have done, I told the translator to tell the guy to lift his shirt. And as soon as the translator told him that, the guy went white and lifted his shirt, and he was wearing a bulletproof vest. It was just a bulletproof vest.

That day we took a chance. I'd like to say I did the right thing. I don't know why I asked him to lift his shirt. It was just that day.

By the time I left Fallujah, I thought I wouldn't dance again.

I had met somebody new before I went to Iraq, and we had a tumultuous relationship before and through the deployment. Most of the communication was done through e-mail or over the telephone—you had these huge trailers that had 20 or more phones, and you went and took a stall and dialed. She was there when I got home, when I got off the bus in Chicopee, and I think our relationship, from that moment forward, started to improve. Improved enough that she's now my wife.

I wanted to do everything I thought responsible people did. I got a really good job as a technical specialist at a storm-water company, and bought a condo in Waterbury, Connecticut. I thought things were going really well for about six months. And then my girlfriend sat me down and said, "We gotta have a talk."

I was like, "Sure, let's talk."

And she's like, "You're not OK. I don't like the person you are." She said I was anxious, I was depressed, I was angry. I was mean. I had some episodes when I was driving on the freeway, and traffic was getting bad. I wanted to ram into other cars. That was part of the standard operating procedure when you were dealing with other cars in Iraq. You take care of the situation. We had a couple incidents where we had to travel along a main thoroughfare and we had to escalate to using force. So now, back home, I had to pull off the freeway and walk around a supermarket and call my girlfriend and talk myself down from that place.

We would take the Metro-North train into Grand Central, and when we would walk through the station, I'd get angry at the lack of personal space, and I would get anxious. Instead of just dealing with those feelings, I made it a game to see how hard I could bump into somebody. I thought it was funny, but now, looking back, I'm embarrassed. People would tell me they were afraid of me.

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