Roman Baca still loves ballet but adds work with returning veterans to his life
NEW YORK CITY — In his long campaign to combine arts and soldiering, Iraq War veteran Roman Baca has reached a Labor Day milestone. Think of it as Operation Urban Employment.
After years of one-off performances, temporary teaching gigs and daring dances on aircraft carriers, in high school auditoriums and at Middle Eastern community centers, Baca recently secured a full-time job with The Mission Continues, a national service organization that helps post 9/11 veterans find their way in the world after combat.
In his new job, Baca, 38, is the group’s alumni associate. It puts him in contact with veterans around the country — each of whom has served a six-month partnership with a local nonprofit group.
Baca calls them, monitors their personal “missions” and tries to inspire them, the same way he did as a fire team leader of a tank patrol unit in Falluja.
“It’s like running a squad,” he says, sitting in his modest work digs on the fifth floor of an office building in Manhattan’s Tribeca neighborhood. “You’re constantly giving direction and checking in with your people so they keep the depression and discouragement to a minimum, so they can move forward.”
But don’t get the idea Baca has hung up his dance shoots. Far from it.
His dance company continues to go strong, with rehearsals, performances and plans taking up many of Baca’s off-hours. He’s currently interviewing new dancers for his annual, military themed production of The Nutcracker ballet in the fall.
“I have both parts of my life going on the same path, one of them artistic and one of them professional,” he says. “We were at rehearsal the other day, working on a new piece, and Lisa (Baca’s wife, dancer Lisa Fitzgerald) said, ‘I want to tell you something. The dancers have noticed a change in you. How present you are in rehearsal. How happy you seem.’ And they’re right.”
It couldn’t come at a better time. Financially, he and Lisa have been stretched wafer thin. The Mission Continues job means Lisa won’t have to keep moonlighting as a waitress. It also means Baca will spend more time around people who speak his language: post-9/ll veterans.
“In the military, your rank almost walks in the door before you do,” he explains. “Then you get out of the military and that title is gone. You go into job interviews and get treated like a peon. And when you get a job, you find out that military professionalism and civilian professional are two different things. If you go strictly by military professionalism, you’re going to be thought of as crazy or mean.”
That sort of insight is what makes Baca a good fit for his new role, his colleagues say. His press clippings as a choreographer don’t hurt, either.
“It’s like having a mini-celebrity here,” says Aaron Scheinberg, a former infantry platoon leader and civil affairs commander in Iraq who is now director of strategy and research for The Mission Continues. “His story is inspiring.”
Younger veterans in particular are hungry for help from other veterans in making the transition to civilian life, according to Scheinberg.
“That’s who we can relate to,” he explains. “We can say certain things to them and they’ll understand it. People of my generation in the professional world don’t know what we veterans have been through and what has been ingrained in us. Trust. Duty.”
Baca treats it as something of a sacred honor.
For instance, he’s working with a veteran in the throes of unemployment while trying to go to nursing school and raise her son. He talks with her frequently.
“We’re trying to keep her in school, but we found out she’s getting evicted from where she’s living,” Baca says. “She’s faced with homelessness, and the homeless shelters she’s called aren’t ready to handle a veteran with a son. We got her a voucher for housing and we’re trying to find her a job.”
You might not think that sort of challenge is compatible with creating ballet. Baca, however, says both sides of his seesaw life replenish each other. They address the challenges of veterans in body and soul.
He even wants to make a second civilian trip to Iraq, repeating the dance program he led several months ago.
“I’m still knocking on doors,” he says.