Roman Baca IAVA Veteran Stories of Service
My name is Roman Baca, I'm originally from New Mexico. I grew up in Washington state and now I live in Queens, New York.
I'm a US Marine Corps veteran.
I served from 2000 and I got out in 2008.
So I was a reservist. We got deployed once in 2001 to 2002 as a quick reaction force, we didn't actually go overseas. And then we got deployed again in 2005, we got sent to Fallujah. I was trained as a 0352 which is a toe-gunner, and we fire the toe anti-tank missile off of humvees, but in Fallujah they didn't need toe-gunners anymore, so we were cross trained as heavy machine gunners. And we patrolled the local villages with a combined anti-Hummer team, three Humvees that rolled out looking for bad guys and also interacting with the public.
So from like 1997 to 2000 I was in Connecticut training to be a classical ballet dancer, at a conservatory. After I graduated from the Conservatory, I started freelancing in NY and Connecticut picking up jobs here and there. After doing that for awhile I wanted to challenge myself in a different way, I wanted people to see me in a different light, and I wanted to serve my country. So I joined the United States Marine Corps, and found myself standing on the yellow footprints in Paris Island North Carolina.
My parents are separated. My mother was very worried when I entered the Marine Corps, and it was a large change from being an artist to being a soldier, a service member at arms, so she was worried, she was concerned. When 9/11 happened she got extremely concerned for my safety and what we would be doing. My father didn't agree with it, and he was worried as well.
So I served in Fallujah from 05-06. When I got back from Fallujah I had that laundry list of things you think about overseas that you think you're going to do when you get home. I went scuba diving, I learned how to salsa dance, I got a good job, I used most of my combat pay to get a condo, and I thought things were going really really well, I thought things were transitioning well. In the classes that they give you in the combat zone they tell that you after 6 months, things are going to significantly change and you're going to start to encounter struggles, personally, professionally, and in relationships -- and I didn't believe them, because I thought I was getting along very very well and it took my girlfriend who's my wife now to sit me down and say "Something's off, something's wrong, you're not the same person you were before the war. And you get agitated a lot easier, you're angry, you're uh anxious a lot of the times and depressed." And she wanted to help me with that, she wanted to help me grow and to move on and transition better.
I served in the United States Marine Corps from 2000 to 2008. I was deployed to Fallujah Iraq from 05-06.
I knew a lot of Marines in my life and each one made a significant positive impact on me and on my life. When i looked at that transition from transitioning from an artist to a Marine, I understand the values, I understood Marine Corps leadership traits, and uh I wanted to emulate those. I wanted to have a chance to do something that had a greater purpose in my life. So I joined the Marine Corps to be able to have a chance to live up to those values in my own life. And I had a chance - we got called to Fallujah Iraq and suddenly we're in a war zone looking for bad guys. And we spent months driving around looking for ghosts, looking for bad guys that may or may not have been in the desert, and as we drove around the villages we saw little kids and their families. And I was lucky enough to go with about 60-70 other Marines that wanted to go and make it a better place. And so we added a humanitarian element to some of our missions - we went into some of the villages and we took school supplies to some of the schools, we wrote home and collected warm clothes and took those to the locals, and, our last mission was, trying to develop a neighborhood watch program where the local villages could contact the base if something was wrong.
So being a Marine was something much more than just picking up a weapon and going onto a war zone - it was taking all of those things, taking those Marine Corps core values, and trying to positively impact the place where we served.
Being a Marine for me was much more than just picking up a weapon and going into a war zone. It was emulating the core values enough that we wanted to make a positive impact, no matter where we were.
So I got home in 06. My wife noticed a change in me that wasn't positive and she wanted to challenge me to grow.
So in 2006 when I got back from Fallujah, my wife noticed a change in me, and she challenged me to do something kind of radical to grow and to heal, from being overseas. So we started a dance company as a way to kind of investigate the war, and to try and advocate for veterans in the military through performance. So for five years we're creating these works about the military, about their families, about the loved ones and everybody affected by the wars, and we're performing them around Connecticut and New York, trying to build support for all of my fellow comrades that are going overseas and coming home and dealing with the, you know, the joblessness, the unem, uh the relationship troubles and the suicide epidemic, and.. I had all of these visions to do something more but I felt like I needed to build up more of the foundation and do a lot more radical stuff with the company before it would ever come to fruition.
After five years of doing this work, two suicides rocked my world. One marine in my platoon took his own life because life had overtaken him, and a Marine that I knew of and that I followed as a role model also did the same thing. And after that event, I knew I wanted to do something, I knew I had to do something to serve my community and try and stop all the things I saw going wrong with my fellow service members coming home.
So I applied for a fellowship with The Mission Continues, and in January I was awarded a fellowship with an organization right down the street, Battery Dance Company, and we settled on three missions we were going to accomplish: one was going into New York City public schools with the program they have called Dancing to Connect, which gets children to choreograph dance work based on themes that are important to them. We were also going to take this program and augment it to work with veterans, to, investigate and augment their body language to make it more acceptable to the civilian world. And our most lofty goal was we were going to go back to Iraq and use the same program with Iraqi youth to get them to talk about things that troubled them or were important to them living in Iraq. And in July we accomplished all three missions.
Earlier this year we took the dance company to Eastern Kentucky University to a Military Arts Symposium. And the night we got there we did a performance of our military themed work for veterans and supporters, and then the next day we held two one hour dance workshops for veterans to get them to rediscover purpose in their name and to investigate and augment their body language. At the end of our performance a female Iraq war veteran came up to us and she said that watching our performance was so incredibly moving for her that she cried. And she let us know that she hadn't cried since she left Baghdad. And that our performance moved her to tears. After she came to our dance workshop, she went on to tell us that there was a journal she kept when she was in Baghdad that she hadn't opened since then. And the experience that she had that weekend allowed her to open the journal.
The next day we did two one hour veteran movement workshops to get them to investigate their body language and to find a renewed sense of purpose in their names. After the workshop and after their performances the same female veteran came up to us and said she had kept a journal when she was in Baghdad that she hadn't opened since then, and when she got home because of the experience she had that weekend she was going to reopen that journal.
So uh, when we started, strictly ballet -- pointe shoes, the whole deal, but… and I design most of our work to be transportable, very military like - you know, you can break it down into pieces… going with that same theme, in order to perform at some of the venues we've performed at, we had to get rid of the pointe shoes, because you know we'd show up-- Eastern Kentucky we were on a concrete stage. The Intrepid, when we performed on the Intrepid it's steel. So you know we went sans shoes, and um just kept it flexible, so the movement is classical ballet, gesture, contemporary, modern, , umm Nutcracker is all classical ballet. And then we're doing a partnership with Warrior Writers, where its very improvisational driven, and umm, more gesture and theme oriented. It was interesting we did our first Warrior Writers workshop last weekend, and the veterans who came a lot of them came and didn't know what it was going to be.. a lot of them thought it was going to be a regular Warrior Writers workshop. And so they were kind of tentative to start, and after they saw the first interaction - it was like a jam sessions, like the poet would read and the dancers would kind of mess around with themes and ideas and umm, as it went along, the other veterans saw these themes building and the possibilities and they were like (gasp) "I got one that'll work!" and they'd start pulling out these poems that they'd written earlier in the week or earlier in the month and kinda played around with them and really energetic and enthusiastic about building this work together, as collaborators, it was really fun.
We met this veteran, umm Marie Delous, who works for the Mayor's office, and she didn't deploy, she never deployed, and she wrote this poem about uh seeing a corpse, I think her nephew or her niece passed away overseas, and she's talking about the bloody corpse that came home and do all the bloody corpses understand the people who don't deploy, so it's sort of like her coming to terms with not going to war and the survivor's guilt, and umm so the dancers created this whole thing. One dancer was kind of on the piano bench doing this whole office type you now thing - emulating marie here at home, and we had another dance lay under Marie and the piano bench, the bloody corpse. And for Marie it was that juxtaposition of her being the office person and you know, all these you know fallen soldiers coming home - btu watching it, and seeing it take shape, it was almost that juxtaposition of America, at home you know doing their daily lives, going through their daily routine and underneath it all are these fallen soldiers that America is built upon and you know how we as a society tend to forget, so easily.
I think a big part of umm, not only transitioning home but bridging the civilian military divide has to do with service… looking beyond just yourself and looking at other people. When veterans commit to serving their communities and commit to helping their fellow veterans, it helps them at the same time. I've seen so much camaraderie built between people just having that commonality of serving in the Marine Corps -- "I was a Marine, you're a Marine, hooray" -- or, just being a veteran and building on that camaraderie, and its a beautiful thing when that camrederies can build open doors to civilians, and it takes both the civilian to meet the veteran halfway, but I think one thing that veterans are losing is that we have to come halfway too. We have to actually engage our civilian community and explain some things they might not understand and try not to get frustrated when they don't. And I think a good way to do that is that third element of serving your community. The greatest way I've seen to bridge the civilian veteran divide is a service project, where civilians and veterans get together to clean up a park, or paint a community center --- then you have that commonality of sweat equity, and you know you're both learning how to paint a wall, or you're both grabbing a tree and putting it over your shoulder -- and then suddenly you have something to talk about, because you have something in common.
I ran a service project in Harlem, around 103rd street, and we went to a homeless shelter that houses, it's a homeless shelter halfway house for people that are transition from prison to the civilian world. And they have a community space in the backyard, where they can barbocque in the summer, kinda get some fresh air because they're not allowed to leave the building. And I had just done this incredible fellowship, and I had just gotten all this notoriety, and I thought "All these people are going to want to come out to this service project!" And we had 5. And it takes that engagement somewhere else to build a relationship before somebody is going to give you that commitment to come out and work with you.
So three years ago I started marching with IAVA on veterans day, and I was kind of conflicted because marching in the NY City parade, theres all these people lining the streets, thanking your service and applauding, and I didn't feel like I deserved the applause, because the war was still going on and I still had tons of buddies overseas. Over the years its kind of become apparent to me its important to do that, its important to show the community how many people have answered the call to service and how many people serve. And then to go beyond that, and to couple marching in the parade with a service project, to go out and to affect the community positively on veterans day. So marching in the parade and hearing everyone saying thank you, and showing their appreciation isn't enough. What needs to be heard is thank you, we still need you. We still need you to work in our communities, we still need you to give back, we still need the things that you've learned and that dedication to service that you have, veteran wide, because thats whats going to make our nation better.
Veterans day has been uh… so marching in the parade with IAVA, the one thing I can tell you that I love about it is that I make new friends, and I meet new veterans, and become friends for years.
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