IAVA | April 16, 2020
Read: Fighting for Nick, Mark, and Alex at Storm the Hill 2020
Submitted by: Román Baca
On March 3, 2020, as part of IAVA’s Storm the Hill contingent, I sat at a conference table in the Hart Senate Office Building and told the following story, addressing Feras Sleiman, Military Legislative Assistant (MLA) for Senator Elizabeth Warren (D) MA:
“Hi, I am Román Baca, a classical ballet dancer and choreographer who took a hiatus from a professional performing career to serve in the United States Marine Corps. I served in Fallujah during the Iraq War In 2005, and when I got back, I returned to dance to first help myself, and then to help my fellow veterans. I started a dance company in 2007 that uses choreography and dance to tell stories of war for advocacy, healing, and peace-building.
In 2010, a young ballerina from New York City, Taylor, joined our company and started performing our works about soldiers, family members, and others who had been impacted by war. Then, a few years later her brother Nick joined the Army and deployed twice to Afghanistan. It made our work far more personal for her, allowing her to relate more deeply to the stories we were telling while also giving her a way to connect to her brother through our art form.
Performing works about the military in alternative performance spaces and working with veterans brought everyone in the dance company closer, almost like a military family. In 2016, as a family would, we gathered together to celebrate Nick’s impending exit from active Army service. A few days later, one day before he was to depart from the Army back to civilian life, Nick died by suicide.
Nick and Taylor are from Massachusetts, and I’m here because of Nick, as well as two of my Marines who took their own lives, Mark in 2011 and Alex in 2019. I am supporting S.785, the Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act of 2019, that builds upon innovative suicide prevention initiatives including alternative therapies, like dance and movement, to help combat veteran suicide. Thank you for your time today.”
My fellow Stormers, my team, from all over the nation, picked up the baton as I started to choke up. They each shared personal stories peeling back the layers of each of IAVA’s Big 6 initiatives. Stories of how they have been defrauded by unscrupulous for-profit universities, how they have been given inadequate women’s care and resources at VA centers, how research into medical cannabis would show the benefits they’ve experience first-hand, and how we all are waiting for the negative health effects from the burn pits that we were exposed to – to start to manifest.
Mr. Sleiman listened intently and then volunteered what steps their office was taking in support of IAVA’s Big 6, asking specific questions to help him understand a bit more. Then, the team stood up, shook hands, and headed off to another building for another meeting.
I have been a member of IAVA since my discharge from the Marines in 2008. I have marched with them in NYC, I have advocated for their work, and I have partnered with them in arts initiatives. This is the first time I had the time available to Storm the Hill with IAVA, and I was honored and humbled by the opportunity and experience. I joined over 30 veterans who have been impacted by war and stood with them to fight for pressing veterans legislation. My fellow Stormers each had incredible biographies and experiences, yet they were servant leaders, setting examples through selfless actions. In a dance akin to a Laurel and Hardy skit, many times we would tussle over who would hold the door for whom, who would get out of another person’s way, or who would help carrying stuff as we hurried across Washington, D.C. from meeting to meeting. Hugs happened more often than handshakes, and kindness abounded. Everyone’s ego was checked at the door, and the focus was on mission impact and each other.
We checked on each other often as our schedule was packed. Over three days, my team alone had 16 meetings, an honor flight greeting, and a Joint Testimony to attend, not to mention the early morning gym sessions or late-night studying of biographies for the next day. The meetings were usually with Congressional aides or MLAs, like Mr. Sleiman, but it was motivating when we did get a meeting with a sitting Congressperson or Senator. In my own opinion, I feel the meetings with congressional aides were more impactful as they listened intently, took notes, and asked relevant follow up questions. I felt that, when we met with their bosses, it was like chipping away at a glacier, trying to make a tiny impression.
Even so, impact only happens with effort, and I was proud to be a part of IAVA’s Storm the Hill effort for 2020.
When I had a tiny break in the afternoon after our meeting with Mr. Sleiman, I sent a text to Taylor and told her that I shared Nick’s story with legislators from her home state and fought in his memory. I am an artist now, fully committed to making art, teaching, and sharing – and yet still fighting for what I believe is important: impacting veteran suicide and other initiatives to improve veteran care and well-being through IAVA’s Big 6. Thank you IAVA, it was an honor to fight by your side.
Román Baca is a US Marine Iraq War Veteran and the Artistic Director of Exit12 Dance Company. He is the subject of the multi-award-winning documentary Exit12: Moved by War, and is a tireless advocate for veterans’ issues. He holds his Masters of Fine Arts with merit in choreography from the Trinity Laban Conservatoire in London, England where he was awarded a Fulbright. He has engaged veterans from multiple conflicts, countries, and sides of the battlefield in art and dance making since 2007 and hopes that his efforts are one day no longer needed when society outgrows war.