It was a big honor last year when New Mexico’s governor assigned Brig. Gen. Michele LaMontagne the job of overseeing a planned 248-bed field hospital to handle a crush of COVID-19 cases.
It would have been her most important assignment as assistant adjutant general for the New Mexico Air National Guard. The plans, though, were later canceled.
“I was completely OK with that, but that was one of the main tasks that I was preparing for,” LaMontagne says. “It didn’t happen, and that’s a good thing because, if I had done it, it would have meant things had gotten really bad.”
LaMontagne, the second woman to reach the rank of brigadier general in the New Mexico National Guard, has a leadership style that differs from the rigid structure she learned about at the Air Force Academy.
“My style of leading is that people know what their jobs are, and they know what they need to do,” she says. “Mostly what I do is ask the right questions: ‘Have we thought about that? What happens when this happens?’ but I’m not in there directing. That’s not my style.”
After more than eight years in the Air Force, LaMontagne left active duty to become a part-time member of the Air National Guard. She has won a Legion of Merit award for her service.
Now, she not only advises the governor and the Air Guard’s brigadier general on state and federal emergencies, but also she works at Sandia National Laboratories, is co-founder of an executive coaching business and is an active Buddhist, who has worked to reconcile her military career with her religious teachings.
“I think one of the things that was helpful to me is that, in my (Buddhist) organization, there’s a nationwide military group, so we have meetings and conferences,” LaMontagne says. “We share how we feel, and I do feel like there’s a lot of stuff we do (in the Guard) — I think even helping in the pandemic — that contributes to good in society and toward world peace.”
What were you like as a kid?
“I went through this thing where I wanted to be a dentist. I think because I like working with my hands with intricate stuff. Like Legos. And then I realized not everyone has nice teeth. And then I was like, OK, no. I was very good at going to school, coming home, doing my homework and then, in the evenings, most of the time I would meet my friends at the park and we would play pickup basketball games. Like all the time.”
How did you get interested in the Air Force Academy and the military?
“By chance. I played basketball and ended up getting recruited by a bunch of schools. I had narrowed it down to the Air Force Academy or Cornell, but honestly, I wasn’t sure which one to pick. I went on a recruiting trip and, at Cornell, they were like, ‘Go show her a good time.’ And so they did — we had a good time. At the Air Force Academy, it was showing me the rigors of the military and the academics. I recognized at that time that maybe I wasn’t self-disciplined, or maybe that I could be influenced to start partying and doing stuff like that. So, I think part of it was I chose the Air Force Academy because … it wouldn’t allow me to do some things that I know a lot of college kids end up doing, and then it’s to their detriment.”
Are there any particularly difficult experiences you’ve had in the military?
“I’ll tell you two of them. One that was really hard for me was the constant moving. As an officer, you’re moving every year or two. How do you establish relationships? How do you keep them going when you’re constantly moving? So, that was one reason. The other was when I was in Korea, there was this realization that I think I like women. And so it was very difficult, because I’m a rule-follower. That was not allowed. I knew, OK this is something potentially I’m going to have to basically lie about my whole life if I’m going to stay in. That’s before they were talking about any of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (policies). And I was like, no, I can’t do it. I cannot live hiding or lying, so that’s why I left.”
Is there anything you’re particularly proud of?
“The New Mexico National Guard has had only two women who ever made (brigadier) general. OK, so maybe there’s no one eligible, but why is there no one eligible? So, I really have been focused with my tenure on development. I took it upon myself … I’m going to start mentoring, if they want it. Anyone. One of the things that recently came out — I got this award (Legion of Merit), but the thing I like best out of it is that it mentioned that 70% of the leadership positions were filled by minorities or women. Before, you would never, never see that.”
What do you do in your free time?
“I was skiing in the winter, but then COVID hit. And I don’t know how I’m feeling about the cold as I get older. But I will say, cycling. I do martial arts. It’s called Kajukenbo. It’s karate, judo, jiu jitsu, kenpo and Chinese boxing all mixed into one. I always have to mention this — the instructor is a sixth-degree black belt. She’s not even 5 foot tall, and she’s 84. She does pushups on her knuckles. Also, my Buddhist organization. It’s very active, and I have a leadership position in that and, also, I like bass fishing.”
Tell me more about being a Buddhist in the military.
So I was only a Buddhist for 10 years and, before that, for as many years, I was a Catholic. It was the same thing. Does anyone really want war? Does anyone want to really kill people? I don’t believe that. So what is our part that we can play in that to try and bring peace over a longer period of time? I think if there are enough people in positions of leadership — military or just in society — I think if everyone wants to work toward the same thing, we can get there. I feel like I am (doing my part) especially at this tail end of my career, focusing on building leaders who have that philosophy of, ‘Yes, we need to do the mission, but we need to take care of people.’ You want people to be happy. When people are happy, they bring more peace to the world, and that’s what I am keeping in my mind to stay focused on.”
Is there any advice you have to offer?
“If I could give a plea to people … a lot of times, we have jobs or roles or things we need to do in life, whether it’s in your family or work, and I think it’s fine to focus energy and attention on your responsibilities. But, at the same time, what can you do to help make things better for the future? I use this term ‘raising capable people.’ Mentoring people, helping people, coaching them, whatever you want to call it, because … we’re putting the future in their hands. And knowing that they have it within them, because, a lot of times, people don’t have confidence in themselves. If we’re not doing that and we’re only focused on ourselves, I don’t know if the future looks as bright.”