The mission that impacted me the most in Fallujah was our last one.
I was deployed with TOW Platoon, 25th Marines to Fallujah, Iraq in 2005. Part of the platoon’s mission was patrolling the local villages around the base. In March of 2006, we were slated to leave Fallujah and one of our missions was to take our replacements on a patrol to show them around the villages. One of our Staff Sergeants got the approval to augment the mission to include a humanitarian element. We would try and set up a line of communication between the local villagers and the base–an idealistic mission that required visiting every house, conversing with the locals, and interacting with the families and children. The villages were full of kids that chased our gun-trucks looking for handouts. The children were always enthusiastic. Language and cultural barriers made communication difficult, and made me wonder: How did they survive day to day? What did they think about the American military presence? What were their hopes and dreams for the future? Did they have a future beyond that little village in Iraq? There was no time to get answers, it was our last mission and we were soon on our way back home.
According to my family, I returned home a different person. In my mind, I returned to a very different country. I tried to move forward in life and got a job, bought a condo, and started a small family (read: wife, cat). I missed being part of a cause that was relevant. I missed helping people that desperately needed it. I missed having a purpose.
With my wife, I started a dance theater company whose works deal with critical themes affecting humanity. We have recently performed works about the military, interactions with the Iraqi people, affects of the war on the loved ones left at home, and the Arab Spring uprisings. Our works communicate the experiences of veterans and their loved ones, and advocate for the power of art within recovery. Supporters were passionate about our work, but for me, it was not reaching enough people, and I was not doing enough to serve.
Then, I found The Mission Continues. They awarded me a community service project to serve at the Battery Dance Company in New York City. The Fellowship allows me to volunteer as a teaching artist with the Dance to Connect program, a highly regarded series of workshops that bridge cultural gaps and address social issues. I am taking the program to a number of New York City Public Schools, but my fellowship is also allowing me to achieve my biggest goal– going back to Iraq and teaching Iraqi youth the art of dance.
In April, I’m traveling to Erbil, Iraq with another Battery Dance Company teaching artist, Robin Cantrell, to conduct a workshop with youth from Erbil and Kirkuk. The workshop will empower the young people to generate movement based on themes that are important to them. It challenges them to utilize collaboration and teamwork to construct a cohesive dance piece to be performed at a theater in Erbil. Through our efforts, I can directly affect questions that went unanswered during the war and win over Iraqi hearts and minds, not through armed conflict, but through art. Through our example of fostering tolerance, support, and sympathetic understanding, we can embolden two nations to work towards a lasting relationship of peace. Our mission continues…
Roman Baca is a current Fellow at The Mission Continues, a national nonprofit that engages veterans to serve as community leaders. He served in the United States Marine Corps from 2000-2008.