Under the Radar

Army Veteran Toby Montoya Helps Keep 'The Night Shift' On Track


The Night Shift is currently airing its fourth season on NBC on Thursdays at 10pm ET/PT. I visited the show's New Mexico set and spent some time with the cast and crew. Army veteran Toby Montoya is working as the show's military advisor and he's spent some time sharing his story.

To review: The Night Shift is set in the trauma unit of a San Antonio hospital, the hospital staff includes a surprisingly large number of veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The show's production crew in Albuquerque also includes a surprisingly large number of veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Actor and former Army Ranger Josh Kelly was filming a guest spot on the show when I visited.





The Night Shift- Season 4- Episode 1

When they launched the show back in 2014, creators Jeff Judah and Gabe Sachs spoke to us about the military and veteran transition themes they wanted to explore on the show. That wasn't just lip service. As The Night Shift has evolved over the last view years, veteran issues have become a key theme for the show.

Sgt. Toby Montoya was injured by a 400 lb. IED that exploded on June 1st, 2009 when he was serving in Afghanistan. He was medevaced to Bagram and then to Landstuhl. He's had 22 surgeries and now uses wheelchairs, including the awesome custom model that allows him to get around on set. He was awarded a Purple Heart, the Meritorious Service Medal and the Bronze Star.

Toby's a guy who's struggled both physically and emotionally since that injury. He's remarkably open about those struggles, as you'll read in his answers below. The cast and crew have an obvious respect for his insights on set and, with a strong knowledge of military history and tactics, he's bringing a perspective that's far more complex than the "patches-and-firearms" approach that dominates many film and TV sets. His own story is just as complex and he shared it with us.

What’s your military background?

I came from family in military.  My grandpa was World War II, Eighth Air Force, stationed in England.  My dad went into the Navy and served in Vietnam.  He was dropped off, ironically, in San Francisco during the Summer of Love.  He said that didn’t go off very well.  He didn’t want me to go to the military.  He was an educator, had his doctorate.  I only wanted to go to the military.  I didn’t know which branch yet, but I knew I was going in the military.

I did well enough in school to get to the military and then Desert Storm broke out and I tried to get my parents to sign so I could go.  Well, that flew like a lead balloon.

I joined in '92, my first MOS was air defense artillery. I was a Stinger gunner because my recruiter told me that was the coolest job on earth. He didn’t tell me the thing weighed 34.5 pounds.  I still remember that almost 20 years to the day, 34.5 pounds. Basically, once the missile was gone, you were infantry without the Blue Cord and the brotherhood. I did my time at Fort Polk, did about 15 rotations through JRTC as OP4. That’s where I started learning how to do these ambushes and started doing a lot of guerrilla warfare.

My grandpa had cancer, so I got out, just took care of my family. I got married and then my little brother passed away in '99.  I was lost.  9/11 happened.  I remember I was driving to my ex-wife's house and I got there and everybody looked at me and said, you're joining again. Three days later, I reenlisted.

I was involuntary cross-doubled to counter-intelligence agent and I went over to Iraq with 10th Mountain as a tactical human intelligence team.  In 2004, the war escalated to a point where we were needed everywhere and there weren’t enough of us, so we were split up and worked as individuals and parsed out to whoever needed us. A lot of what I did was -- the new word is tactical questioning, but back then it was battlefield interrogation.  We do a hit, interrogate on the spot, and we do another hit.  And I did probably over 300 of them.

We'd go, sometimes, 80 days without a day off.  I still remember the first day we took in the FP.  2004 was hell.  I learned I was mortal, quickly.  Baghdad had a way of grounding you because it was absolutely hell on earth.

I met amazing people there; don't get me wrong.  I had a kid save my butt. He stopped me before I got to the vehicle because they planted a little tripwire with a grenade.  A lot of the people I met were grateful we were there.  I wish more people would see how grateful they were.

We helped open a women's college in Baghdad.  I was out there for the first election.  I've seen people vote, where people struggle to vote here.

There’s one thing I remember: a man was in line to vote and we were watching the line. The man saw somebody walking up to stop the voting and he ran and tackled him.  The guy was running fast.  He sacrificed himself so everybody else can vote. To me, that man was a patriot.  I respect him.  I respect what he did.

I love my country and I'd fight for her any day of the week.  If I could go back, I would.  I love being a soldier, I loved being part of a team, I loved the camaraderie, I loved being part of something big, I loved the adrenaline.  When a firefight went right, it's hard to explain, but you see better, you smell better, you hear better.  Everything is just heightened to the highest level.

Then I get sent home and I wasn’t taught how to come home.  I literally went from patrol in Baghdad, back to my wife, and she didn’t know who I was, I didn’t know who I was.  That ended in divorce.



When did you come back?

In 2005, I guess we came home and  didn’t adjust well then.  I was angry, I was frustrated, I felt like I didn’t belong. A lot of us have this idea that we can’t know how to relate to civilians who have never been through what we've been through  How do you talk to somebody who hasn’t been in the fray?  My hands are sweating. Then you hang out or only talk to others that have served.  Even then there's a difference between those who have been in the fray and those that haven't.  And you don't talk to those that haven't because they don’t even understand it within our own culture.

So now your group gets even smaller and then it shrinks even more because it goes to those who were with you in the fray.  And now you're down to these couple people that you can try to talk to, but they're going through the same thing you are and they're just as messed up.

It took Afghanistan in 2008 and my injury to bring me home.  Mind you, it was in a violent way. It was an IED attack in the Kapisa Province, RC-East. I still feel guilty for leaving my men on that battlefield.  But the best thing that ever happened to me, and to my sanity, was my injury.  It grounded me.  It took years to get to that place.I got there through sports, through my family and my support system and through my mom saying, “I’ll take care of him”  It going through more therapy, to where I finally felt like the wheelchair is no longer a detriment.  It's actually a means for me to get around. Then sports became a way for me to be competitive again, like I was in the military, because it's a very alpha-dominated society.  We were competing for everything: who was the strongest, who is the fastest, who is the biggest.  Sports, gaming, is an outlet for my anger and my frustration.

I needed to get out of the house, so I started doing background work on television and movie sets. I've been on The Night Shift since the first season. I hear a lot of people complain about the waiting around, but this is easy. I know how to do this.  This is hurry up and wait.  I know. And then I just watched people and saw all the different departments working together for a common goal. That’s kind of like us in the military.

I started meeting a lot of people who worked here who were in the military. They also thought that this is kind of like the military because there's a hierarchy.  There's manual labor, long hours, something we're all used to.

I speak publicly across the nation and I tell my story about resilience, life after injury.  Because injury isn't the end, whether it's just suffering from PTSD or you’ve lost limbs.  I have many friends who are amputees and they compete in Alpine skiing and other sports.  We call that the new normal. My new normal is beautiful.  I was just talking to one of my best friends, Brendan, one of the actors, who has a heart of gold. We connected during Season 2 because he was in uniform and he was wearing a 10th Mountain Patch.  There was a connection because I saw that patch, I wore that patch.  I wore that patch in the field of battle in Baghdad.

Season 3 comes around and I still do public speaking.  I finally started to go to school.  So I'd start college, I'd drop, because I wasn’t in the right space.  Now I'm doing full 12 credit hours.  My last semester's grade point average is 4.08.  The one before that was 4.25.  And that’s with the traumatic brain injury, with the minor dyslexia and poor memory.  It just takes me a little longer to get there, but I can still accomplish things.  And that’s one of the things I learned along the way: as I fall, I can rise again.

There's this speech, I can't remember who it was, but it was a Toastmasters International. He says, it's not about the knockdown, but the get up.  So as long as I land on my back, I can see where I need to go.  And I've had a lot of falls.

We talked for a long time before we turned on the recorder and you’re a scholar of military history. It's impressive how much detail you have and how much perspective you have on your service.

War has a tendency to turn you into a philosopher, a warrior poet.  The perspective it gives you is something that only those that have looked in the eyes of death. It always looked back and doesn’t blink.  It's an omnipresent feeling that’s always out there.  You never could shake it.  You have to learn how to accept it.  I tell my men, combat is a marathon, not a sprint.  You take it in pieces because, if you don’t, you're gonna burn out and then you're gonna blow your brains out because you're not gonna make it.

It's a mental marathon because you're 10,000 miles away from home, you're surrounded by people who want to kill you.  It is an abstract concept:  no matter how much you train, when you get in your first firefight, you finally realize that people really want to kill you. That’s both scary and angry and you find something in yourself that you didn’t know existed.  You tap into that warrior, you tap into that ethos, and you find out your moral compass because some love the experience too much.  Some of us understand it's what we do and we detach ourselves somewhat from it afterwards: he was trying to kill me, so the better one won.

I bring a lot of that into how I live now.  Being alive and waking up every day is a win for me, so I approach life that way. And I smile as much as I can.  I come in every morning, I go to every department, and I tell them, good morning, just because I'm literally happy to be alive. Some say, “I haven't had coffee yet.”  That’s okay.  You don’t have to tell me back. I'm not looking for any reciprocity.

I will go by just because I'm just so happy to be alive and just say good morning because you never know who is going through something.

Someone might have had a bad night and just having somebody pop in and say good morning and not expect anything in return, that can help. I truly believe in selfless service. It’s part of my core belief, it's a part of who I am. We're the quiet professionals.

What’s it like working now as The Night Shift’s military advisor?

I love what they're doing. One, they're adding those little touches of reality to TV, to the Hollywood part. Two, they're bringing up topics that I know that need to be brought up. Because some of the topics are hard, PTSD and new catchphrases of moral injuries or just the experiences of veterans who are struggling.

I would love to see an episode on military suicide because it shouldn’t be a taboo subject. It takes more strength to ask for help.  I know because, when I didn’t ask for help, my life was hell. When I asked for help, which was one of the hardest things I ever did, my life got better. I found out I wasn’t the only one going through this. The topics they are bringing up are shedding light on a lot of issues that we need to confront.

I bring a real-world experience that they can tap into when we're in our meetings.  And even on some of the non-military stuff. There’s a plot involving one of the characters, something happens. No, I'm not gonna give anything away, I'm not giving anything away. It's the military. OPSEC.

But anyway, they asked me how I felt when I was going through that. So I don’t just bring the military aspect, I have injuries. If something is going on and it’s similar to my experience, I can tell the writers how I felt. I've taken calls at 8:00, 9:00 at night. Hey Toby, how do you think this helped? How do you think this went? How do you feel? I don’t mind telling them because if it's gonna help them portray the situation and reach the people who watch the show and get it out there, that’s okay.

I don’t just bring the military expertise, I bring a sense of why we did what we did, the brotherhood or sisterhood, the camaraderie, the love of more than self. That’s one of those intangible things, trying to explain to people, is that we don’t do this for the paycheck because you can't pay somebody enough to go do what a lot of us did. We do it for love, for those next to us and for those behind us.  We do it for not letting anybody down. It's this selfless service and I come back to that because I truly believe that it's in my court. I've been like that since I was young.

It was the military that brought out the leader in me. Working on this crew, I feel relevant again. It's something that I've missed, having people come up to me and ask me for my advice, being able to spot correct things, train people when we go out on location, planned missions that fit with the script, and working with multiple departments.

My work in counterintelligence, the liaison skills I learned, really comes in handy here. I don’t just bring tactics. I have to know how to work with different departments. I have to know how to liaison, to know how to convert military jargon into plain English and then transfer it to the screen and not make it so military-heavy that it goes over their heads.  You want to get that military sense, but not kill it with all our acronyms. You still want to have sense that we're people that everyone can relate to and we're going through something.



Some military advisors see it as their jobs just to make sure the patches are right and that the actors don’t embarrass themselves when they're holding the weapons. What you're doing is a lot deeper than that.

It is. I am very lucky because of who I work with. I do get time to work with them before they shoot to go through the tactical stuff so they're not flagging each other with the muzzle of their weapons.  Even though some of them are fake, it's a safety issue.  And two, being the NCO, that rubs me the wrong way. I do know that the military who watch the show are going to be looking for certain stuff.  The costume department knows and they check that the patches are correct. But there's more to us than our patches being correct, there's more to us than our shoelaces being tucked in or our Scorpions are bloused. There's that unseen aspect of who we are and why we do it, which I think is just as important or even more so to come across on the screen so people can relate to and follow what we're going through and learn.  Because the other stuff is just dressing. In combat were my boots always bloused? No. I was too busy keeping my head down and returning fire.

How I was feeling in that moment is what I want people to feel. I want them to feel that tension, I want them to feel those questions we ask ourselves when we're out there.  So it's not just the tactical part, which a lot of people can do. I'm not just telling my story, but I'm honoring those footsteps that I've walked in.  And I'm honoring those that never came home.  It's my bugle call for charge. Where I'm at now, this is my Mona Lisa.

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