Face of Defense: Ranger Turned Bandsman Remains a Soldier First
By Army Sgt. Christopher Gaylord
5th Public Affairs Detachment
EUREKA, Calif., May. 1, 2012 If there’s any one thing Sgt. Norman Montes De Oca envisioned for his life, it was earning the right to call himself a U.S. Army Ranger.
Army Sgt. Norman Montes De Oca, a former Ranger who served two years in the 2nd Ranger Battalion at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., now plays guitar and percussion for the 56th Army Band's swing ensemble, “Swingin' Sounds of Courage.” U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Christopher Gaylord
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
“As far back as I can remember, I wanted to be a Ranger,” said Montes De Oca, a native of San Pedro Sula, Honduras, who grew up in Redmond, Wash., and entered the Army in 2008. “In high school, that was all I ever thought about.”
At a point where his peers were still deciding what to do with their lives, he was studying standard operating procedures for combat, memorizing infantry battle drills and committing the Ranger Handbook to memory. He was preparing for war before he even knew what it was about.
“I knew the Ranger Creed before I was even in high school,” he said. “I was just dead-set on being a Ranger.”
The sergeant set out to follow in the footsteps of his father, who served in the 2nd Ranger Battalion. But sometimes, life turns you in another direction.
Today, Montes De Oca plays guitar and percussion for 56th Army Band group “Swingin’ Sounds of Courage,” a jazz-style big band made up of 15 members -- a guitarist, a drummer and a brass section.
Montes De Oca said he spent his time as a Ranger and deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan with the same battalion in which his father served, and he loved it. But two years in, with Ranger School and the follow-on possibility of leading his own squad in his sights, an injury dashed his hopes.
He and his fellow Rangers were tasked with standing up three massive logs outside the battalion’s headquarters at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., to replace the three that formed a large archway but had worn down over the years.
“Long story short, the log fell on my head,” Montes De Oca said, recalling that it took six Rangers just to lift the log. “Everybody else moved out of the way when it fell down, and I figured we were going to try and stop it. It smushed me, basically.”
The Ranger injured his ankles and suffered a concussion. Ranger School, which prepares Rangers already assigned to their units to assume leadership positions, was over for him before it even started.
The day he should have left for the school, he drove a friend across post instead, while the friend checked out at various facilities in preparation to leave the Army. He had brought a guitar to pass the time, and that’s where the light of a new dream began to shine through.
“This guy saw me playing and said, ‘Hey, you’re really good. You should go check out the 56th Army Band on North Fort and audition,’” Montes De Oca said, recalling his encounter with a soldier who had tried out for the band himself but couldn’t read music.
“I kind of took it as a sign that maybe that’s what I should be doing,” he said. He tried out and was accepted into the band under an on-the-job-training program in July 2010.
Now, music fills his days. He plays at events across the joint base and in other parts of the country.
He traveled with his band to Eureka, a coastal town in northern California, April 26-29, to participate in the town’s annual Rhododendron Parade and play for the community at its main high school.
Even after nearly two years of playing with the band, the admiration from appreciative audiences is still new to him.
“[As a Ranger,] we’d get back from a mission, and they’d be like, ‘Good job,’ and nobody else would know,” he said. “There’s not a crowd out there [saying], ‘Wow, that was a well-executed mission.’ You never got that. Maybe your squad or team leader would say, ‘Good job, you didn’t mess up tonight.’ And that was all you could hope for.”
Being a Ranger and being a musician are complete opposites, Montes De Oca said, noting he’s always felt welcome in the band.
“You meet your new unit [as a Ranger], and they usually treat you like crap because you’re the new guy,” he said. “But here, they’re like, ‘Hey, you’re the new guy; we’ve got to welcome you and make you feel good.’ They opened their arms to me.”
Everywhere he goes with the band, he said, people are thrilled to see him. Eureka was no exception.
But whether he’s a Ranger or a guitarist, Montes De Oca said, he’s a soldier first.
“There are some days when I really miss being an infantryman,” he said, sitting on a government bus after marching more than four miles in the 2012 Rhododendron Parade in downtown Eureka as the cymbalist for the group. “I definitely still believe in being mentally and physically prepared for war. I mean, we’re soldiers first in my eyes.”
“He brings a different side to what we do,” said Army Sgt. 1st Class Mark Islas, the bandleader for Montes De Oca’s group. “We’re not combat arms, and he brings that different side and perspective. He’s a little more hardcore than we are. But it’s good to have that other side, too.”
Islas said Montes De Oca is both a great soldier and a technically gifted guitar player. In September, the former Ranger will attend the U.S. Armed Forces School of Music at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story in Virginia Beach, Va. There, the Army will officially certify him as a musician.
And while he looks forward to that day, he said, one sentiment will stay with him wherever he goes.
“Whether it’s in the infantry, or in the band, or any other fields of endeavor -- Rangers lead the way.”