Ranger turned bandsman is still a Soldier first
April 30, 2012
EUREKA, Calif. -- 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.
"As far back as I can remember, I wanted to be a Ranger," said Montes De Oca, a San Pedro Sula, Honduras, native 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, fully certain what to do with his own.
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 had set out to follow in the footsteps of his father, who served in the 2nd Ranger Battalion, headquartered at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash.
But sometimes, even the dreams you make every effort in life to see come true end up turning 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.
He spent his time as a Ranger, deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan with the same battalion 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 sites, an injury stunted his hopes of going any further with his endeavors.
Montes De Oca and his fellow Rangers were tasked with standing up three massive logs outside the battalion's headquarters 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," he said, remembering 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 gonna 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 Waller Hall on JBLM 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 tried out and was accepted into the band under an on-the-job-training program in July 2010.
Now, music fills his days. Not physical fitness or training. He plays at events across JBLM and in other parts of the country.
He most recently travelled 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.
There, in the auditorium of the school April 27, he and his fellow band mates welcomed a roaring audience's applaud for their musical talents.
And even after nearly two years of playing with the band, the admiration 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," said Montes De Oca, who picked up guitar at the age of 5 after watching the movie Back to the Future. "There's not a crowd out there like, '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."
He contrasts Ranger and musician as complete opposites.
"It's like night and day," he said. "Being a Ranger, you wake up at five in the morning, you stay at work until five at night, and that's an easy day. It's not nearly as physical as being a Ranger."
In his Ranger unit, he had to prove himself. But in the band, he's always felt at home.
"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 gotta 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.
"Everywhere I've gone, they've been like, 'hey, you're in the band, that's awesome,' he said. "(In Eureka) Everybody was like, 'wow, that was really incredible. I didn't know the Army could do that.'"
But he doesn't let the praise go to his head. To Montes De Oca, Ranger or guitarist, 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 4.2 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 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, his future still uncertain to him, one sentiment will always 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."