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Iraq veteran's book about war experiences is questioned by former comrades
NEW YORK (AP) ' For the past four years, Luis Carlos Montalvan has been advocating for injured Iraq war veterans.
Since serving two tours of duty, for which he received two Bronze Stars and the Purple Heart, the former Army captain has become a strong critic of the war and a promoter of better care of those who served. His writings have been published in The New York Times, the Huffington Post and other outlets, his commentary aired on CNN, NPR and elsewhere.
He now has a popular book about the injuries he sustained in a 2003 attack and the psychiatric service dog, Tuesday, trained to help him cope with post-traumatic stress disorder. The story of Montalvan and his faithful companion inspired freshman U.S. Sen. Al Franken's first piece of legislation ' a program designed to give service dogs to wounded veterans.
But several men who served with Montalvan allege that he has exaggerated or fabricated details of key events in "Until Tuesday: A Wounded Warrior and the Golden Retriever Who Saved Him." Documents obtained by The Associated Press contradict Montlavan's claims about the extent and severity of his injuries.
The book, co-written by Louisville, Ky.-based author Bret Witter and published by Hyperion, includes a blurb from Franken. It was released in early May and has climbed as high as No. 18 on The New York Times list of best-sellers for hardcover nonfiction. And Montalvan continues to attract attention, most recently appearing with Tuesday on David Letterman's "Late Night."
"Literally every combat experience he's had in that book that I'm familiar with is based on a modicum of truth interspersed with incredible embellishments on his part," former Staff Sgt. Len Dannhaus, who treated Montalvan in the attack's immediate aftermath, told the AP in an email.
"He's doing a disservice to other veterans; he could use his truthful experiences to help. Instead his lies will ultimately result in bringing a negative light on others who are trying to advocate for those in the same boat (like myself) without all the public scrutiny."
Capt. Todd Hertling said he responded to the scene in the immediate aftermath as leader of the team that secured the area of the 2003 attack described by Montalvan and strongly disagreed with Montalvan's account. "Montalvan's embellished story is detrimental and offensive to honest veterans who have sought help for the unseen wounds of war," Hertling said.
Montalvan issued a statement through his lawyer, Jack Duran. He said his book "is a reflection of my experiences in the United States Army (and after) during one of the most controversial military actions since the Vietnam War. Some of the events described in 'Until Tuesday' resulted in wounds to myself ' both visible and invisible." He said his injuries were confirmed by the Department of Veterans Affairs and others.
"With respect to the incidents described in my book, whatever comments have been made by others are exactly that ' their comments and recollections, not mine. Ironically, the right of others to their own perspectives, positive or negative, is one of the rights I fought to protect during two tours of duty in Iraq," Montalvan said.
Hyperion declined repeated interview requests and instead issued a brief statement: "The book speaks for itself. Luis is a war veteran decorated by the U.S. Army and his book, 'Until Tuesday,' is a comfort to many service members."
Reached at his home, co-author Witter said he did not ask Montalvan for medical records or attempt to speak with any of his comrades. Witter also co-wrote the best-selling "Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World."
"I work for Luis; that's who my contract is with," he said. "I am, you know, 1,000 percent on Luis' side."
The AP first heard of Montalvan's case in late 2009 while researching a story on people who misrepresent their service to obtain PTSD disability benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Before hanging up on Allen Breed, the AP reporter assigned to the story, Montalvan said it was "not anybody's place" to question him "besides me, my therapist and those who were there." Montalvan criticizes Breed and the AP in the book:
"In my years of advocacy, I have been called many derogatory names. ... But a faker? That I didn't understand. Why would an AP reporter make such wildly unfounded accusations? Had we really, as a culture, sunk so low?"
In response, AP Director of Media Relations Paul Colford said, "Allen Breed's reporting on this story was aggressive, thorough and fair ' and it's a gross mischaracterization to say otherwise."
The AP revisited Montalvan's case when his book came out.
In interviews and writings, the 38-year-old New York author has described a Dec. 21, 2003, attack at the checkpoint his unit ' Grim Troop, Second Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment ' was manning in the Iraqi town of Al-Waleed, near the Syrian and Jordanian borders. Truckers had been using the crossing as a rest stop, and the Army considered it a potential security threat to soldiers quartered at nearby Forward Operating Base Latham. So each night, members of Grim Troop rousted drivers from the area.
On the night in question, then-2nd Lt. Montalvan ordered former Pfc. David Page to help him clear the area.
In the book, Montalvan writes that one truck driver refused to move and pointed toward his trailer hitch. When Montalvan bent over to inspect the coupling, he writes, "the man pushed me from behind, slamming me into the metal hitch and wiring." He writes that he saw another man running toward him with a "long knife" raised above his head. "His momentum carried him into me ... and ... he stabbed downward toward my neck," the book says.
Montalvan writes that the knife hit the body armor on his left shoulder, tore through his uniform and left arm. "I pushed off and, in the second of space that followed, pulled the pistol from my thigh holster and fired one shot center of mass into the first attacker, who was charging from my right ... and then I was twisting and falling, the man with the knife on top of me, driving me downward. I fired two more shots before my spine hit the concrete, my head snapped backward, and the world, like the desert around me, went totally black."
He writes in the book and has said elsewhere that he fractured three vertebrae in the attack. But Montalvan's version of events has changed over the years.
In an October 2009 federal discrimination lawsuit, in which he was seeking $40 million from the McDonald's Corp., it is stated that Montalvan was "wounded by attackers wielding knives and hand grenades. During this attack, he was stabbed multiple times and suffered spinal cord damages, multiple lacerations, post-traumatic stress disorder and a severe concussion which caused traumatic brain injury."
Montalvan alleged that he was refused service because his dog was with him and that he was assaulted by two McDonald's employees outside when he returned to shoot video at the restaurant. The suit, not mentioned in the book, was settled out of court in June 2010; details of the agreement were not disclosed.
In another description of the attack, noted in a July 2007 memorandum supporting his diagnosis of PTSD, Maj. Jay B. Baker said Montalvan claimed to have "killed one and wounded several others at close range with his pistol, narrowly escaping with his life."
That was news to Page. "I know I shot him (the attacker) in the heart, in the chest," Page told the AP in a telephone interview. "There were no holes in the guy when I got there. ... I didn't hear no gunshots."
In the book, Montalvan says he shot the attacker, but that Page actually killed him.
"There were only three shots fired, and they all came from Page," said Staff Sgt. Carl Bishop, who was on patrol that night and about 50 to 100 yards from Montalvan and Page.
Bishop, Dannhaus and Page all said Montalvan's gun was still in his holster. Bishop found the trucker on his back, one of his legs draped over Montalvan. When the trucker was pulled off, Bishop saw three bullet holes in him. He said Montalvan had a cut in his sleeve but he does not recall seeing any blood on him.
Page, who said he ran to Montalvan's aid after hearing a "scuffle," said Montalvan called him before "Until Tuesday" came out and apologized for having previously given inaccurate accounts of the incident. "Hey, people make mistakes," Page recalled telling him. "The truth should have been told." Page said he also thanked Montalvan for acknowledging his role in the shooting.
Dannhaus said he and another medic at the scene cut the lieutenant's uniform off to examine him and there was no evidence of even a single stab wound. "It was more an abrasion, a scratch," Dannhaus said. Page recalled Montalvan complaining that his back hurt him, but said he didn't see any cuts.
Staff Sgt. Mark Elsey Jr. helped carry Montalvan to the medevac helicopter right after the attack. He said in an interview that Montalvan had no blood on him and that medics "weren't assessing him for a head injury of any type.
"And he was back in a couple of days, and it was business as usual. ... He was out there doing what he was supposed to do. ... It didn't seem to bother him. He was his usual go-getting self," said Elsey, now stationed at Fort Benning, Ga. "He made a mountain out of a molehill in how he's dealing with this. He was attacked; there's no denying it. ... I don't know what's wrong with him now, but the extent of his injuries when he was attacked are not as severe as he's making it out now."
Montalvan's comrades also object to his claims that he was "the target of an assassination" because of his "aggressive approach to combatting corruption" along the border. The attacker worked for a Syrian cement company and "was apparently under the influence of either drugs or alcohol," according to a journal entry written by Capt. Hertling, leader of the unit's quick reaction force that night. The other drivers denied knowing the man or his reasons for attacking Montalvan.
Bishop said he laughed when he read Montalvan's characterization of the truck incident as an assassination attempt.
"There were no assassination attempts on a platoon leader," he said. "That just didn't happen."
No one besides Montalvan has referred to hand grenades or multiple attackers. First Sgt. John Kaczor said he picked up the knife, which he and others described as a small switchblade.
"I checked the blade," he said. "It wasn't even that sharp."
He "made a recovery and returned to duty 3 days later," the Grim Troop memo noted.
For saving Montalvan's life, Page received a commemorative coin from then-Lt. Col. Christopher Hickey, the squadron commander. Montalvan got the Purple Heart, a highly prestigious honor that also carries enormous weight with the Department of Veterans Affairs, entitling a recipient with certain "presumptions" when applying for disability benefits.
The medal is generally made when an injury occurs in combat with an enemy force; some have questioned whether Montalvan deserved it.
When Montalvan's Purple Heart recommendation came to his desk for screening, Command Sgt. Maj. John Kurak declined to recommend its approval. Kurak said he felt it did not meet the requirements set out in Army regulations, because the attacker "did not constitute a recognized enemy combatant of the United States," he said.
"This guy was a truck driver out of Syria," Kurak told the AP. Kurak and former Command Sgt. Maj. Larry Teel, who was also involved in processing the award, recalled that the case lacked key pieces of required documentation.
While he was home on leave, Kurak said he received a call from Montalvan, wanting to know why his Purple Heart had not been approved. "He argued the point with me for some time until finally I told him I would not discuss the matter with him any further," Kurak recalled. "He made some comment to the effect that this was not a dead issue."
When word reached the unit that Montalvan had received the medal, Kurak said, it caused "a lot of consternation." The AP was unable to obtain copies of supporting documents for the award, despite multiple Freedom of Information requests.
Even admirers of Montalvan are skeptical. Tyson Carter, 26, served with Montalvan and in the book is praised for his steady fire with an M240 machine gun during a cross-border shooting incident. In a recent interview with the AP, Carter called Montalvan a "standup man," a "Grade A soldier" and "a positive role model."
"He was an awesome lieutenant," said Carter, who was about 100 yards away when the attack happened. He didn't witness the actual attack but could see Montalvan on the ground and the others working on him.
Carter said he was surprised that Montalvan had received a Purple Heart, and he called Montalvan's version of events "pretty aggressive."
"He didn't take the man's life; Page did. And that was the deal. I mean, I guess you could injure your back from getting tackled down on the ground like that or whatever. But it was pretty mild ' pretty mild-mannered for the Purple Heart," Carter said.
In a November 2009 VA response to Montalvan's request for an increase in his disability rating, the agency cited X-rays that revealed only "mild degenerative disc disease" and "degenerative disc joint disease" ' no fractures. Montalvan's disability rating for those conditions was increased from 10 percent to 20 percent ' not the 40 percent he was seeking. As of late 2009, Montalvan has a combined disability rating of 80 percent ' 70 percent for PTSD, and the remainder for his back.
Montalvan writes in his book and repeatedly says (most recently on the Letterman show on July 20) that he suffered a traumatic brain injury during the attack at Al-Waleed. But in its 2009 response, the VA ruled there was no evidence of traumatic brain disease, and continued his rating for that claim at zero, according to VA documents obtained by the AP.
A 2007 memo written by Maj. Baker, which the AP obtained separately, also makes no mention of a broken back.
"I knew CPT Montalvan well, saw him for multiple medical conditions, and gave him counseling at various times on issues related to anger and interpersonal relationships," Baker, then 3rd Cavalry's regimental surgeon, wrote in the three-page memo. Baker told the AP in an email that Montalvan never mentioned having fractured vertebrae, "otherwise that would have been included in my memo."
Comrades have questioned how a man with the physical injuries Montalvan claimed could return to duty so soon, come back for a second tour and then apply for the elite Ranger course at Fort Benning. In his book, Montalvan said he would "self-medicate" with alcohol and "Ranger Candy" ' ibuprofen.
Brian Wallace served with Montalvan during the captain's second Iraq tour, and saw no evidence of disability.
A captain at the time, Wallace supervised Montalvan for six or seven months as they trained Iraqi security forces from the relative safety of regimental headquarters. He said Montalvan was constantly in the gym, bragging how he could bench press and dead lift hundreds of pounds.
"He can talk a very good game," Wallace said.
Capt. Shad Lloyd, who also served with Montalvan during that period, agreed.
"He was in tiptop physical shape; had the body that guys work out to have," said Lloyd, who noted that Montalvan was often in full body armor. "Just a workout warrior kind of guy."
Another incident in the book ' involving a car bombing during Montalvan's second tour in 2005 ' has been questioned by several high-ranking officers, including Montalvan's old boss from Iraq. The bombing occurred near an Iraqi Army checkpoint outside the town of Sinjar, northwest of Baghdad. Montalvan describes arriving on the scene to find pieces of Iraqi soldiers and the bomber among the still-smoldering remains.
But Col. Gregory Reilly, who was in command at Sinjar during that period, told the AP that Montalvan's description matches none of the several car bombings that occurred in his sector during the period.
"I would think if there was a bunch of dead people on the ground in my area, and he was there, and it was a mess, I would remember it," Reilly said in a telephone interview.
Montalvan writes that he traveled to the bombing site with his former commander, then-Col. H.R. McMaster, who has praised Montalvan as "a man of proven quality" and "a natural leader." But McMaster, now a brigadier general stationed in Afghanistan, said the incident most closely resembling the one in the book did not go down as described by his former adjutant.
"The story is not accurate," McMaster, who could not recall whether Montalvan was with him that day, wrote in an email to the AP. "Only the suicide bomber died. There were body parts on the ground, but only his."
Capt. Matthew Hodges, McMaster's personal aide and the head of his personal security detail in 2005, said he remembers the bombing "like it was yesterday." He took photos at the scene and said it was not as Montalvan describes. Hodges also said he never saw evidence that Montalvan was physically impaired during that tour. "No doubt he has some issues from Iraq," said Hodges, who is currently serving in Afghanistan. "He probably has convinced himself of a lot of this."
"He's a bit of an exaggerator and he does have that sort of all-about-me attitude," said Sgt. Bishop, now stationed at Fort Gordon, Ga. "But down to the core, he's a really good guy."
AP National Writer Allen G. Breed contributed to this report