It’s June—Pride month—and Brig. Gen. Michele LaMontagne of the Air National Guard just became the second woman ever to obtain that rank in New Mexico earlier this year. At her promotion ceremony, the general emphasized the strengths of diversity among the ranks. She spoke with KUNM about changes in the military during her 26 years of service.
LAMONTAGNE: I ended up going to the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. And I knew nothing about the military—had no plans to go into the military—but I actually got recruited to play basketball there. My parents and my basketball coach kind of guided me in that direction, like: You need to go there. I didn’t know when I was 18, so I was like, “Yeah sure I’ll go.” And I ended up liking it. And so from there, when I graduated, I actually did active-duty Air Force. And that’s where I traveled and was deployed and lived at different bases for 8-and-a-half years, and then decided to get out and join the Guard. So I’ve been in the Guard ever since.
KUNM: You did some intense training in case you get captured, right?
LAMONTAGNE: Yeah, we went through this survival, escape, resistance, evasion training, where they simulated you were captured and you were in a prisoner of war camp. I didn’t really care for it that much, and I think maybe some of it is because you were sleep- and food-deprived during that time. But it was a good experience to go through for sure. Because we know each other from martial arts, I talk about this test we went through, and I’m like: Yeah, I’ve been through some tests before. So I felt like it’s helped me in life in general.
KUNM: What are some of the challenges that you faced as you were rising through the ranks in the military?
LAMONTAGNE: When I was in the military, I felt everyone was kind of the same, and you kind of needed to fit in with everyone, but I didn’t feel that way. So that was a big challenge for me, of wanting to be kind of an individual and kind of being different than everyone. Yet, I think the expectation was like I noticed that people acted a certain way, and they dressed a certain way. And it wasn’t that I didn’t like it, but I wanted more than that. And I think that was challenging for me. Some of our up-and-comers now are the millennials, and they have a different approach and way of looking at things, and I like that.
KUNM: What are the ways that you felt different?
LAMONTAGNE: You know, I’m married to a woman, so that was different. At that point, way back, it was Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. I felt like I was deceiving people. I didn’t feel comfortable with that. If you look at a majority of the population of the military, there’s the same religious belief, and mine was different. And I think that’s changing also. Being a woman, that was different also. And being a minority woman also was different. The population of Asians in the military is very low. So I’m hoping that now some of the things I can work on, being at this rank in the military, is letting people feel like it’s OK to be who they are, whatever that is, and be able to achieve certain things. That they don’t have to conform to a certain model, thinking that’s what it takes to get there. That there’s other ways to get there.
KUNM: And the military’s going through some pains right now, right, with the transgender ban and discussions that are about eliminating some of that diversity?
LAMONTAGNE: For me, I do feel a little bit biased, because I do have transgender friends, and I see their strengths and I see their contributions—they’re not in the military—but I see their contributions just in life and society, and I have a hard time with it, personally, because I believe everyone has something to contribute.
KUNM: Do you get an opportunity to push back on any of that as you obtain rank? Is there a way that within the military you can work to push those policies in a direction that you would like to see them go?
LAMONTAGNE: Not so much something like that at that level. I do know that I’m starting to get more involved in diversity and inclusion as it relates to the Guard, and trying to reach out to make our population more similar to the population in the state.
KUNM: What are some big misconceptions that you think people have about the military?
LAMONTAGNE: I think the big one is that every single person is conservative. Me being in the role that I’m in, focused on domestic operations and humanitarian-type stuff, I think that’s important and something necessary. Some people are like: If you’re in the military, you want to kill people. And it’s like, No, actually, I’m a Buddhist, and the most important thing to me is to trying to figure out a way to get to a place where we have peace in the world.