Greater Love Hath No Man
BY CINDY ARORA
The Orange County Register
Saturday, January 22, 2005
Once a magnet for trouble, Scott Montoya found brotherhood, honor in the Marines.
BY CINDY ARORA
The Orange County Register
It seemed like a normal enough day. Iraqis bought vegetables at a market on the outskirts of Baghdad. Mothers bought meat at the store, while fathers replaced tires at an auto-repair shop.
But Sgt. Scott Montoya felt a creepy stillness in the air. The kind you feel when someone has been in your house. A reminder that he was in the middle of war.
Gunshots echoed through the marketplace, and the hairs on the back of his neck rose. Montoya halted in his tracks just long enough to see if they were aimed at him.
Montoya, who had been in battle for three days, longed for a hot shower, a homemade sandwich and, most of all, a drink of water without having to look over his shoulder.
But that wasn't going to happen this day.
He heard over the walkie-talkie that the radio operator on his team had been killed. Rapid gunfire exploded around him. Montoya ducked behind a wall, dropped to the floor and raised his rifle for the hundredth time that week.
An Iraqi vehicle crashed through the marketplace, hitting a telephone pole. Montoya sprang into action, racing to shoot the driver in the head. He feared he had bombs.
After he shot the driver, he noticed one of his Marines was down. Metal shards had struck his leg. The Marine, who didn't even know where he'd been hit, sat up in shock.
Montoya ran toward him. And, although he didn't know it at the time, the Orange County Sheriff's deputy was running toward his destiny.
Karate and law
Growing up without a father, Montoya, the middle son of five siblings, tried hard to be the best and to be heard.
The boy who was prone to scrapes and cuts because of his thirst for adventure kept his mother, Charlene Thais, on her toes and in emergency rooms.
"He didn't have any teeth when he was 4 because he used to jump from bunk bed to bunk bed until finally he fell," Thais says.
At 13, Thais dragged Montoya to karate class after she found him brawling on the front lawn with neighborhood kids. It was there that he found his passion for the fight - and a father figure.
"He was a rough guy, tough guy, that was headed for big-time trouble," says Paul Dye, karate instructor and friend of 20 years. "But he was one of those rare individuals that could fight adult males in black belt and hold his own.
"I had never dealt with a student like him. I really thought he'd be in state prison by the time he was 19. But my wife and I decided to guide him and show him the right side of the fence."
The young Montoya had a quick temper that erupted into fights in school and in the streets.
Through karate, he tempered his fighting and found hope and accomplishments. He finished high school, enrolled in a trade school and began working for Xerox at 18. On the side, he taught karate to children.
And then the rough, tough guy who had long rebelled against authority decided to become authority.
Band of brotherhood
Montoya joined the Orange County Sheriff's Department 10 years ago, working in the county jail.
Immediately, he noticed the unique camaraderie among a handful of his co-workers.
Men who had never met would say "Devil Dog," and instantly there were handshakes, slaps on the back and knowing nods. They were Marines. Montoya didn't understand the bond.
But he knew he wanted to be a part of it.
At 25, he left the department, paid off the mortgage and joined the Marines at Camp Pendleton.
He was called "Grandpa" by Marines not much older than 19, but he found his age had given him an edge that the others didn't have.
The former defiant teenager who squeaked by in high school excelled as a Marine.
He earned high honors in academics, shooting and physical performance.
After four years, he re-enlisted in the Marines' scout sniper school.
His training included what to do if he were a prisoner of war.
He was beaten and tortured during the exercises, and still flinches when he thinks of what he went through to earn the elite title of sniper.
For eight years, Montoya trained for combat.
April 8, 2003
It's the day that changed his destiny.
He didn't have to be a Marine in his 30s crouched in the middle of a firefight in Iraq. He had completed eight years of active duty and was a reservist.
But his "weird patriotism" had taken him away from home for 18 months straight.
As he ran toward the fallen Marine in a hail of gunfire, all he could think about was a passage from the New Testament.
"Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends."
The brotherhood he had envied for years had him dodging gunfire while he tried to lift the wounded Marine.
But he was too heavy. As Montoya scanned his surroundings, he struggled to remove the Marine's helmet, ammunition and machine gun to make him lighter.
After what seemed like hours, Montoya, wearing 80 pounds of his own war gear, carried his fellow Marine 500 yards to safety.
That was just the beginning.
Returning to the battle, he spotted another Marine down in the fire-swept street and carried him to safety.
And then he saved another dazed and wounded Marine. And then another who was unconscious. And then another wounded by an explosion.
The Navy Cross
It's been almost two years since that day in 2003. He's back home, living in Montclair and is a deputy in training at the Stanton sheriff's station.
He still appreciates a cold soda, a warm shower and a good piece of steak.
War made him stronger and kinder, he says.
It also made him a hero.
For his heroism he will be awarded the Navy Cross - the second-highest honor a Marine can receive in combat, after the Medal of Honor. He will receive the award Sunday at the Marine Reserve office in Encino.
"There's something special about being awarded this by your peers, because it means they believe in you," Montoya says. "But what I did was an action of love. This award is for all the Marines that came before me and those that will come after me."
Since he returned in August 2003, he continues to adjust to civilian life while the memories of war haunt him. He suffers from sleepless nights and nightmares.
Even the Los Angeles County Fair, with its exploding fireworks, had him dripping sweat.
But he goes on, grateful for the experience that has made him whole.
"I just knew I was going to do something great," Montoya, said. "I knew I had a destiny."
Semper Fi Sgt Montoya. Charles CWO-3 USMC (ret).
Military awards are received, not won.
It should be 'Navy Cross Recipient'.
Thanks for your post. I wish we heard more about our heroes.