A Dancer's Tour of Duty

Iraq changed Marine Sergeant Roman Baca — ballet brought him back

By Roman Baca as told to Jonathan Wei

published: February 13, 2013

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.

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.

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.

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.

When my girlfriend sat me down, instead of saying, "It's over," she said, "Let's figure out what we can do to fix this. If you could do anything in the world, and you didn't have to worry about money or time, what would you do?" I told her I'd start a dance company. And so we did.

On a very basic level, I had walked away from the arts, and figured that I needed to live a corporate life, a "normal" life. So this was recognizing that art could still be a part of life. We started working on choreography. Some of it was autobiographical, about a dancer who became a Marine and went to Iraq, and some of it was more about what it meant to serve in a war. It gave us the opportunity to bring the war into places where nobody wanted to talk about it and nobody wanted to think about it. And so it became more than just dancing.

Our first work was a piece called Habibi Hhaloua, which is an Arabic phrase that I learned as meaning you have my eyes, or when I look at you, all I see is you. The Iraqi people are very passionate people, and they have ways of saying things that we compartmentalize into "I love you."

The piece was about a Marine on patrol in Iraq. And during this patrol, he does what we all do in the midst of monotony—our mind wanders, and we create a world within a world. And so he creates these characters that represent everything tying him back to where he's from—life and courage and home and love. And the love character becomes real to him, and they dance a duet together. And because he gets pulled out of that very alert state, he gets injured, and his comrade has to take him to the medevac.

When we were in Fallujah, there was a Syrian sniper that was picking off Marines left and right. He was brilliant. He would get them right in the neck, because he knew that it would get stopped by the helmet, and it would get stopped by the ceramic plates in the flak jacket, so he knew exactly where to aim. In Habibi Hhaloua, the Marine who is injured in the dance gets hit by that sniper.

Next I did a piece about the war's effect on families. We recorded letters—letters that my sister had written to me, letters from my girlfriend, letters I had written back home. Whenever I talked to my mom when I was in Iraq, she would always be, "Things here are just great. How are you?" I had this image in my head that my mother was a rock. And when I got back and started talking to people, they all said the same thing: "Your mother was a basket case while you were gone. You couldn't talk to her about it, because she'd lose her mind." And so we created a ballet called Homecoming. The letters are read, and the dancing is everything the letters don't say—the loss, the longing.

We also created another work, called Conflicted, about the relationship between the American military and the Iraqi people. And next month we're starting a piece that's going to be choreographed by the mother of two Army soldiers who are deployed to Afghanistan. She wanted to do a piece about being a mother waiting for her only sons to come home from the war.

Two Marines that I knew took their own lives. One was a Marine I served with. Another was a Marine I used as a template on how to live after the Marines. He was a volunteer at The Mission Continues, a nonprofit organization that gives fellowships to post-9/11 veterans to serve their communities. He did his fellowship responding to disaster areas. And I guess he decided that life was a little too difficult. That rocked my world.

Then I applied for a fellowship with The Mission Continues myself. I was awarded a fellowship last year to work with a dance company here in New York called Battery Dance. [Baca moved to New York City in 2011.] They were already doing overseas work with dance, and we developed a program to bring workshops to Iraq.

And so I went back to Iraq last April.

I didn't get to take anything with me—no flak jacket, no helmet, nothing. I had my dance clothes and a 95-pound female dancer from New York City who went with me. We get in the car to go to JFK and she turns to me and she says, "I'm scared. I've been to Africa and Cambodia to do this program, and when I tell people where I'm going they're always like, 'Great! Do great work!' But when I told people I'm going to Iraq, they were like, 'Be careful.'"

So I tried to calm her by pulling the Marine card and saying, "I'm a Marine and nothing's gonna happen to you." But when the plane left Istanbul, we were the only Americans on the plane, the only people who spoke English. When we landed in Arbil, we had to get from the plane to the parking lot to catch our bus. We were the first ones on the bus, and I was like, "This is great, the bus is gonna leave, we're gonna be fine." But the bus didn't leave, and we sat there while more and more people got on—and they were all military-age males. And suddenly the Marine Corps training is kicking in, and I'm putting myself in a corner, and making sure I have eyes everywhere.

Then a family of four gets on. A wife and husband and two little kids. And as the bus starts, her bag falls over. And I pick up her bag and I lean it against my leg so it won't fall again, and she looks at me and says, "Thank you," in broken English, and smiles. And then my traveling partner starts to play with one of the little kids, trying to make him laugh. And that's when I knew it was going to be a different sort of trip.

Through a grant from the U.S. State Department's cultural diplomacy program, we went to northern Iraq and did a dance workshop with 30 kids. Half of them were from Kirkuk, which is Arab, and half of them were from Arbil, which is Kurdish. We brought them together, and in five days the kids choreographed a dance about the struggles of being a young Iraqi, what it's like to live through a war, what they thought the Americans thought of them and what they thought of the Americans, and their hopes for a better future.

We performed that piece in a theater for 240 community members—their families and friends, people who saw our banner and came to the show, members of the Ministry of Culture in Iraq, and members of the U.S. Consulate in Arbil. And at the end of the performance, the families had just two questions: When were we coming back? And what city were we going to next?

And so now we are planning another trip back to Iraq.