After two tours in Fallujah during the Iraq War, US Marine and Combat Veteran Roman Baca came home ravaged with depression, anxiety, and anger. With few places to turn, Roman went back to his first passion, ballet, as a way to cope — and discovered that through dance he was able to “reprogram” himself and begin to heal.
Apr 18, 2024 — 5 min read



Roman Baca is classically trained ballet dancer and choreographer and the founder and artistic director of Exit12.

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Roman Baca: All right. Before we start using the M 16, there's a couple things you need to know and think about. The first thing and the most important is to keep your finger straightened off the trigger. The second thing is to make sure you do not point this rifle at anyone you do not intend to shoot. I know their props, but for me, that's a huge thing. Then we start shouldering the weapon. Once we shoulder the weapon, you want to think about a couple of things. Nice strong stance, making yourself as small of a target as possible. Your eye gaze is looking right over the top of the sight at your target. You are going to take that nice pivot, trying not to bounce as much as you can. Then from here, you transition, run, slam against the wall, heels down, arms come down, and then you start the stomping pattern and up.

I didn't grow up wanting to be a dancer. I wanted to become an engineer or do something with math, but at the end of high school, I started taking classes in hip hop and jazz and ballet. I loved being on stage. I loved the rehearsal process in the community, the opportunity to express myself. I didn't see being a dancer as a career. I wanted to make a bigger positive impact in the world and to help others. I thought the quick and easy way to do that was to step into the recruiter's office and sign on the dotted line to join the United States Marine Corps.

And we're there. Good. Relax. Yeah, guys. Really, really, really nice job.

The image of a marine is this hardcore take no crap individual who would basically mow down the door in order to achieve their objective. In Fallujah, when we got into the war zone, there was a clear set of rules that we had to follow with the people in Iraq. We were trained to be aggressive to survive, but we were also among civilians that you're trying to help. How do you be a marine in a war zone and a human being at the same time? That created a lot of conflict inside of me. Dance and choreography has allowed me to go back and to try and make sense of both the right and the wrong of what happened. When I got back from Iraq, I remember this escalation of anger. I didn't see this. Other people saw the effects of war in me. My wife noticed that I was angry, that I was anxious, that I was struggling with depression, anxiety. It wasn't me anymore, and she was afraid of who I was. I assumed that she was just going to leave and instead she said, I want to help you. She said, if you could do anything in the world, what would you do? And I told her I'd started a dance company and I remember her looking at me and saying, okay, let's do it. 

Then we're going to put the stage here.

Speaker 2: So you are talking. Then Everett, right into sometimes silence. You're going to need a pause before conflicted for custom changes.

Roman Baca: We started exit 12 to showcase the experience of war through dance. The competition of being a small dance company in New York City is intense. The numbers are automatically against you. Everybody's vying for dancers. Everybody's vying for performance space. Everybody's vying for funding. On top of trying to sell tickets, one of the biggest challenges is sufficiently articulating what it is that we do in a way that attracts an audience.

Speaker 2: Dance show on the Intrepid.

Roman Baca: Would you like to see a dance show on the Intrepid

Roman Baca: You want to see a show about the military on the intrepid. It's a dance performance. We use choreography as a way to talk about the experience of serving. I am. I served in the Iraq War in 2005, 2006. 

Speaker 3: Are you a veteran? Will you be in the show? Oh.

Roman Baca: I'd love to see you there. 

Speaker 3: Okay. Sure. I'll try. 

Speaker 4: I’m going to be in town. I’ll try to make that. Thank you. 

Speaker 2: Thank you. Door's open at six. 

Speaker 5: Yeah, no problem. 

Speaker 2: Before seven is perfect.

Roman Baca: Okay, and thank you for your service, sir. Thank you. 

Angela Scimonelli Myers: My son Jake, went to basic training directly from high school. Sam. He was only 17. We had to sign for him.

They ended up being deployed together. We took them to the airport and they went to board onto the plane. Both of them turned around and they waved and my knees just buckled. I think it finally sort of hit me that they might not come back. When my boys were deployed to Afghanistan, it was like they shut the lights out. I couldn't see where they were. I couldn't feel where they were. I couldn't experience where they were. You can get very lost in that dark, dark place. You have no idea what it is to wake up in the morning and wonder if your children are alive.

Every morning, every day, every moment I thought about them.

Roman Baca: But I do need to send one more email, so okay. When I started to dance company, I had a vision that it would be easier than it is. Okay. If I need you, I'll just call you back. I'm doing the website, scoping out the theater, reading books after books on grant writing, on networking and worrying about selling enough tickets to cover costs. A couple of years ago I was at the end of my rope wondering if this was the right choice, wondering if we could make it, and then two Marines close to me took their own lives. One of them was one of my platoon mates in Fallujah. After that, I decided that I wanted to do more than just performances and that's when we started doing veteran workshops.

Speaker 2: Next, everybody three and four, breathing, five and six. Good.

Roman Baca: Military training is extremely powerful. It affects not only the body but the mind. In bootcamp, you're taught these repetitive movements and it's designed to train anyone ultimately how to kill. The problem with that is after service, how do you make that part of the training disappear? I'm going to introduce five words to you. I want you to put gestures to those words. You go back to your military training and let them inspire what you do. With dance, we can transform our experiences and start to loosen that training and we can hopefully move on.

Everett Cox: I was sent to Vietnam in the spring of 1969, 245th surveillance airplane company. One night a rocket blew up very close to me and we all got stuck. I was in a total panic. Never in my life had I imagined I would fail under fire and it broke me. When I came home from war, I was having a very hard time. Lots of depression and lots of drugs, suicide attempts, and it went on for years. Writing and expressing myself has been what's kept me from returning to the darkest places. There's a liberating energy to it. It releases things inside of us. I still struggle with addiction and serious depressions nowadays. I spend my time with vets, with problems, vets who are suffering. I want to reassure them that no matter what their situation, deep inside of them, there is a spirit of life that wants to keep moving forward. That is my purpose because I believe life wants to live. It is as simple as that. Life wants to live.

Roman Baca: After sometimes silence. There's going to be an intermission, and then after the intermission, the veterans are going to go out and do their workshop piece. You guys got this. Let's go again. Hoorah!

Pursuing a career in the arts has been incredibly challenging, but the thing that gives me motivation to keep going is the people we're impacting and seeing that through performance. I think the image of a service member of a marine, of a soldier, of a veteran is misunderstood. You can't put a veteran in a box and say, this is what they are. The effects of war on individuals are so massive and diverse, just like the population that serves Every story is not being told and every voice is not being heard. Veterans are emboldened when they are able to share their lives with not only other veterans, but other people. I was incredibly proud of earning the title United States Marine. The time I spent in Iraq changed who I am. This work and this community of veterans has helped me understand who I've become.



Mohammad Gorjestani


Erick Kwiecien

Taylor Feltner

Executive Producer

Justin Lomax


Exit12 is a dance company founded by Iraq war veteran Roman Baca, who is one of 2.5 million veteran businesse owners in the United States. Learn more about his story and why veterans like him are pursuing entrepreneurship.

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