AL ASAD, Iraq -- The tap of the drum sounds as the different platoons move into position. Muskets loaded, the platoon commander orders his men forward, they move in step without hesitation; the drummer sets the pace.
The responsibilities of military bands have changed over the years, but their combat mission is still required today. Most Americans see military bands as they step onto the parade deck; the rhythmic beat pounds as they follow the non verbal commands of the drum major leading from the front. He raises his mace, turns to face the band, the tap of the drum suddenly ends.
In 1988 when Michael R. Montoya was finishing high school he had plans to join the military. His father passed away five years earlier and he wanted to help his mother with the possible financial hardship of sending him and his three brothers to college.
The young Montoya entered the Marine Corps as a trombone player, and attended the Armed Forces School of Music, in Little Creek, Va., after boot camp. Often seen at special events and parades, this Marine, and others like him, epitomize the analogy ‘Every Marine is a Rifleman’. They prove this every day.
The Tactical Air Command Center is the nucleus for air operations throughout the Al Anbar province. The TACC, as it is commonly referred, is where air combat operations originate and are executed by squadron’s of the forward deployed 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing.
A small team of Marines provides constant security for the TACC. They secure all entry control points and provide constant surveillance to prevent any unauthorized visitors into this vital area that maintains a pulse on the enemy activity in this western region of Iraq.
During times of conflict and when commanders deploy, the bandsmen rally together, put down their instruments, and act as the security element for their headquarters; in this case, for the forward deployed 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing.
Growing up in Virginia Beach, Va., Montoya graduated from Green Run High School and for the past 17 years he’s marched on many parade fields and played hundreds of concerts. Now a gunnery sergeant, he’s left his role as drum major and claims the responsibilities of the TACC security guard commander.
“Very few civilians as well as Marines know that [Marine bands] are formed as rifle platoons,” said Montoya. “[Even stateside] we have machine guns attached to us, and everyone is a rifleman. The switch from our garrison role to our combat role was like preparing for a different type of performance.”
According to the gunny, he knew the time would arrive when he would be afforded the opportunity and privilege to serve his country off the marching field.
“When I was a lance corporal in 1990, I literally begged to deploy to Desert Storm,” he said. “Unfortunately it wasn’t in the cards. I wasn’t going to let this one go by so I jumped at the opportunity to serve here.”
Rising to the billet of drum major isn’t an easy task for band Marines. Hard work, tenacity, and discipline are what drives this Marine to success. Similar to performance preparations back home, which, according to Montoya, require training, rehearsal and execution, this “gig” has been no easy feat, but he and his Marines have met the challenge and transitioned to their role as a security platoon.
“In the band, the drum major is customarily the most military of all the command billets,” said Montoya. “He is the one who maintains discipline and is responsible for the security of the band facility and is considered the guard commander for the band. The job of TACC security guard commander requires a Marine with similar attributes.”
Montoya said he started preparing for drum major billets at the rank of corporal when he was assigned to the 4th Marine Aircraft Wing Band, in New Orleans. But, he recalls, the bulk of his apprenticeship and development came in 1995 when he was assigned to the Marine Corps Logistics Base Band, Albany, Ga. Since then he’s maintained the momentum, and his leadership ability took notice.
In 2001 Montoya was about to graduate advanced training at the School of Music when he was approached by the staff. His performance during the course earned him a spot as an instructor; he was selected to remain at the school as the Drum Major Instructor and the Field Drill Instructor.
“In these positions I taught future drum majors, both Marine and Navy, how to lead a band,” said Montoya. “I also taught individual musicians drill movements and instrument handling. I also served as the platoon sergeant for 120 plus Marines.”
The Tactical Air Command Center serves as a vital element in the success of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The Aviation Combat Element reacts to the decisions made here and the security element is crucial to the mission. It provides the Marine air wing commander and his staff, the ability to take the fight to the insurgents daily.
Montoya starts his day around 4:30 a.m. and remains on duty until early evening. However, he remains on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Almost six months into this deployment he shows no sign of fatigue. He makes rounds to each post daily and is constantly reviewing reports to remain vigilant against any possible threats.
“It is a privilege to serve actively in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and be a part, albeit a small one, of the fight,” he said.
“Gunnery Sergeant Montoya is a role model for all Marines,” said Sgt. Kristine A. Streng, sergeant of the guard, and Powhatan, Va., native. “He accepts nothing but the best from those in his charge, either in the rear during drill or here in Al Asad for TACC security. He is able to balance mission accomplishment and troop welfare, maintaining morale despite our rigorous work schedule.”
Although his ability to lead on the parade deck has contributed to his knack to guide Marines here, the Virginia Beach native said that it isn’t his talents as a drum major that prepared him for this assignment.
“It is the leadership skills learned through the years of being a Marine that prepared me,” he said. “It is the leadership toolbox that all [Marine leaders] possess. I just used the basic toolbox that the Marine Corps has given me to keep the machine running. I use the same toolbox as the drum major and as the guard commander. I just pick and choose which tools to use.”
Montoya has made the transition from drum major to security guard commander with relative ease, trading his mace for a weapon, he leads his guard force and ensures disciplined security. The guard commander and his Marines understand the role they play here, and serve as the commander’s security force of choice as the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward) continues their stride to forge a brighter future for the people of Iraq.