Leader Spotlight: Roman Baca
As part of United Religions Initiative North America’s #TangibleHope campaign, Veterans for American Ideals is recognizing veteran leaders who are continuing their service by building unity and standing up for American values. Through a series of interviews, we’re asking VFAI leaders to share more about how their service shaped them and what responsibility they feel veterans have to speak up on issues that relate to our national ideals.
Today’s interview is with Roman Baca, a U.S. Marine veteran, graduate student at Columbia University, and classical ballet dancer. He is currently the artistic director and general manager at Ballet Theatre Company and the artistic director at Exit 12 Dance Company.
Tell me about your military service.
I served with the United States Marine Corps from 2000-2008, including one deployment to Fallujah, Iraq from 2005-2006.
Before I joined the military, I was a classical ballet dancer for many years. I was doing well, but not as well I as I wanted to in order to pursue ballet long-term, so I began to look for options to transition my career path.
I knew that I wanted to serve other people and to serve my country, and growing up, a lot of people I looked up to were Marines. I admired the values they stood for and how they carried themselves. I thought about the person I wanted to become and thought the Marine Corps would be the place where I could develop those qualities.
How did your service shape the person you are today?
I joined the Marines to work on qualities such as determination, dependability, and service. The Marine Corps helped me realize all those things, but not in the way I was expecting. Deploying to Fallujah was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done. But I got from the Marines an assurance that if I went decisively, deliberately, and aggressively toward those fears, there would generally be a good outcome.
Being in Fallujah also gave me the opportunity to serve. Part of our job was to go into villages looking for insurgents. What we often found instead were normal people who needed help, who needed protection and assurance. That’s much of what we did in the last few months we were there, incorporating humanitarian elements into our patrols and trying to do some good.
Those experiences in Fallujah really translated into the rest of my life. I am still committed to service and now I will do things regardless of fear because I know that going in with determination and purpose makes a difference.
As a veteran, what sort of responsibility do you feel to speak up on issues that relate to American ideals?
I grew up in an America that valued the mixing of cultures, and that valued caring about and for other people. Serving in Fallujah, and in particular the opportunity to work with local Iraqis, solidified those values in my life.
In Iraq I would ask all of our interpreters why they did what they did. It wasn’t the safest thing for them to do. They were hated and their lives were threatened for helping us. But they helped the American cause anyway. One interpreter I worked with was a rebel fighter who had fled to Syria under the Saddam Hussein regime, and when the opportunity arose, he came back to help the Americans build a better Iraq.
I attribute a lot of what the interpreters taught us—about culture, about how to interact with locals, knowledge that you would not get from the USMC guides—to why we stayed as safe as we did. I look at what they’ve gone through and how many of them are still there, facing the same or worse threats. Having built a relationship with them, then losing touch knowing that’s what they’re facing, really left me with an emptiness and a desire to do more.
I had the opportunity to go back to Iraq in 2012 to teach dance to young adults from Ebril and Kirkuk. We built a dance about the things that were important to them: how they felt about America, how they felt America felt about them, what it was like living through war.
They’re not that much different than us. They want the same things: to find a job they enjoy, to raise a family, to walk down the street without fearing for their lives. I’ve been able to keep up with most of them. Some have become refugees, fleeing to Germany or Russia. A few have joined the fight against ISIS as soldiers or journalists.
Call this vision naive, but we went into Iraq to try to do a good thing. The Marines that walked along that dusty road in Fallujah were there to try to make a positive impact. That is still an important part of who I am.
Tell me about one issue related to those ideals that is of particular importance or concern to you right now. What are you doing about it?
Seeing the wars in Iraq and Syria escalate—the horrific fighting and the amount of people being displaced—is deeply disconcerting. I want to help, and I have dreamed of one day leading dance workshops in refugee camps. I know that will take time and a lot of work, but I still plan to do something.
Recently I got together with a team of dancers to assemble 11 dance companies in spring of this year, and we created a performance called Voices Transposed: A Refugee Crisis, which was performed twice in New York City. We partnered with the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR), donating all of the proceeds to their work.
A testament to the performance of our dancers: the U.N. rep who attended told us when he arrived, he could only stay for a few minutes. He stayed for the whole performance. We’re now looking for more opportunities to share stories coming out of Turkey, Greece, and elsewhere, and ways to get abroad to do some tangible good.
What would you say to other veterans about the role that they can play in these issues as citizens?
We joined the military for a reason—to better our own lives, or the lives of our families, or to help people. Those endeavors don’t stop when we leave the military. Opportunities exist outside of the uniform that will allow you to continue these pursuits.
If you’re a veteran who is missing those things that a lot of vets miss when they leave the service—purpose, comradery—then there are lots of organizations, large and small, who could use a helping hand. Whether it’s a refugee agency, or a veteran’s service organization, or some other purpose, get involved. It’s not hard. These groups are looking for you, need you, and they could use your help.