THROUGH THEIR EYES
“Through Our Eyes: The Women Veterans Experience,” is an exhibit featuring portraits and stories of 16 veterans. The women interviewed for the exhibit were in the VA Sierra Nevada Health Care System. Since its creation, the exhibit has been displayed at the Nevada Legislature, the National Judicial College on the University of Nevada, Reno campus and other locations around the state.
“Through Our Eyes” debuted in 2018 as part of the Reno is Artown festival; it’s a collaboration with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs “My Life, My Story” program, in which VA staff and volunteers conduct interviews with veteran patients and write short narratives of their lives.
Editor’s note: Veterans Affairs VA dedicates the month of March to Women's History Month and honors thousands of women who served or are serving the U.S. military.
At a young age, Isabel Chavez Montoya’s family believed she could become a “very good” nurse.
Growing up, Montoya and the Chavez family — full-blooded Pueblo Indians — lived on the Cochiti Pueblo reservation in New Mexico where her father farmed and raised some cattle, and her mother worked in the health clinic at the day school. When both grandmothers were sick, Montoya remembered as a girl how she helped her mother take care of the elders. Her mother expressed to her daughter that she would be a good nurse.
“Maybe, maybe I will,” Montoya thought.
Years later, Montoya finished high school, but the thought of becoming a nurse strongly existed.
“My teacher was asking each one of us what we were going to do when we finished high school. I said, ‘My grandma said what a good little nurse I would make.’ So, that’s when my plan was made.”
Montoya had attended the Saint Catherine’s Indian School in Santa Fe, the state’s capital, during the Great Depression before working at two hospitals in Albuquerque that trained nurses. Within three years after her high school graduation, Montoya passed the state boards and became a registered nurse. She worked at a hospital in Gallup and then at the Navajo Agency Hospital on the Navajo reservation in northwestern New Mexico.
The attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and the declaration of war against Germany changed the lives of many people including those in Montoya’s family. Her two brothers enlisted in the Army. Montoya said an Army nurse who knew her brothers would tell her stories about the military. In 1942, Montoya also enlisted in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps.
“I went to Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, to the station hospital,” she said. “I was a second lieutenant. There were four wards. We worked hard, like no one’s business. Four wards full of those poor guys. I did everything, everything. I got the guys out of surgery and then, I did everything — IVs, bandaging, shots.”
Montoya and the other nurses at Ft. Bliss taught the young enlisted soldiers to become medics and take care of their wounded comrades in the field before the Army shipped them overseas, either to Europe or the Pacific theater. Montoya said the soldiers did a good job in their training and were very dependable.
Hollywood celebrities visited Fort Bliss to thank the soldiers and to keep the morale high. Many anti-aircraft artillery battalions trained at the sprawling Army base north of El Paso. Montoya distinctly remembers two of Hollywood’s biggest starts visiting Fort Bliss, Clark Gable and John Wayne. One day, Montoya and the other nurses were sitting, drinking their Cokes. Gable had lit up a cigarette.
“How come you haven’t asked us to smoke a little bit?” she asked. “So, he taught me to smoke.”
Montoya said she smoked for a while, but her parents were horrified. To them, smoking was a sin.
“He was a good teacher and a good dancer too. Oh, he was yummy,” Montoya said. “We danced with most of those movie stars. They would have parties for the troops, and we were all invited. That’s how we got to dance with the stars. We would get all excited and oh, look at the new dresses. We had to get nice dresses, but once in a while, we wore our uniforms. We were so proud to dance with all the guys.”
Montoya said John Wayne was very big and tall, but she still danced with him even though she was diminutive. She said Wayne was very nice to the nurses.
“It was exciting talking about dancing with the stars,” she recalled. “We were so proud. I didn’t have a favorite. They were all so nice; I couldn’t pick just one. I love to dance.”
Montoya spent all of her time at Fort Bliss except she had to take one trip to France to pick up casualties and bring the wounded soldiers back to the United States. Some flights, though, returned the soldiers to Fort Bliss for different levels of care.
The flights flew at night, and the nurses administered IVs, medications and bandages to the soldiers.
“It was hard to give the IVs and medications on the plane,” Montoya said. “Working on those poor guys, well, most of them were in bad shape.”
Sometimes, the pain the men endured would make the nurses cry. Montoya said they were in much pain and she did her share of hand holding.
“They were in so much pain. We tried hard to comfort them,” Montoya added. “People just don’t know what those guys went through. You’d have tears in your eyes seeing them suffer.”
In July 1943, Montoya married Ernest, a man she first met at the Navajo Agency Hospital. Now, he was a pharmacist in the Army. More than a year after their marriage, Montoya had to leave active duty because of pregnancy, and at the time, she was the only officer from her pueblo in New Mexico serving in the military. Ernest remained in the military, retiring from the Air Force in 1965. Because they had friends in Reno, they moved to the Truckee Meadows where they bought a house in Sparks.
Montoya worked at Saint Mary’s Hospital in Reno for three years in the surgery and orthopedic departments. She then left Saint Mary’s to become a stay-at-home mom with her children.
In 1985, Montoya became a lifetime member of the American Legion Dat So La Lee Post 12.
Age didn’t slow Montoya. When she was 75 years old, the Army veteran was on a pilgrimage with a church group to the Holy Land. On another trip, she visited a daughter who lived in Singapore, and she also traveled to Rome with her daughters, Nadine and Selene, to see Pope John Paul XXIII.
In 2018, she celebrated her 100th birthday on March 26. Friends, family and former Sen. Dean Heller attended the small party.
“I’m 100 years old. Isn’t that nice?” she said. “I surprised myself. I never realized I would be this old, really. I’m so proud. I’m still on foot, walking and dancing. I had my fun. I did mostly anything and everything. I try to be a positive person.
“My faith is very important to me. I pray all the time. When I’m not doing anything, I’ll sit there and pray. People sometimes wonder why I’m so quiet, why I don’t say anything — I’m praying.”
Montoya died June 20, 2020 and was interred at the Santa Fe National Cemetery. She was preceded in death by her husband and a son, Keith.