Luis Carlos Montalván returned from the Iraq war and launched a media career — he's attending Columbia's J-School — based on a battle tale that made him a poster boy for PTSD. Now an AP reporter thinks he's a fraud.
Montalván, a self-promoting Huffington Post blogger, first attracted headlines for Tuesday, the adorable golden retriever service dog he says he requires because of his war injuries. More recently he loudly announced he was suing McDonald's for $40 million because they allegedly wouldn't let him bring Tuesday inside their restaurants. When he launched his post-war career, Montalván started out as Arianna Huffington's dream character: A decorated war vet who turned against the war. He says he earned two Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart during two tours in Iraq. And he had a compelling, gripping war story to go with the medals.
Montalván has told numerous newspapers that he sustained his injuries near the Syrian border on December 21, 2003, when, as he put it in one interview last year, "some men attempted to assassinate me." Here's how the Wall Street Journal told the story:
Mr. Montalvan was walking in a compound on Iraq's border with Syria at around 9:30 p.m. when a man leaped out of the darkness and started slashing at him with a knife.
He pulled out his Beretta and shot the man, wounding him. Another soldier killed the attacker, according to Army records and several soldiers who served in the unit. Mr. Montalvan was thrown into a truck, fracturing three vertebrae.
That assassination attempt, Montalván has repeatedly claimed, was a reprisal from Iraqi gangs for his attempts to crack down on nefarious criminal activities, as reported in this American News Project profile. And it was the source of the crippling PTSD and traumatic brain injury that have plagued him since his time in Iraq and currently cause him to walk with a cane. His complaint against McDonald's claims as well that the men were armed with grenades:
When he came home, he began vocally criticizing the Bush Administration's treatment of veterans, citing his own PTSD. His post-military career has consisted of extensive advocacy for veterans' rights, including dozens of op-eds, television appearances, media interviews, and Huffington Post blog posts, all of which he assiduously catalogs on his web site. Last September he enrolled in the Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism's Masters program, but he is no novice when it comes to the press.
In 2007, he joined 11 other former Army captains in writing an influential Washington Post op-ed that famously called for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq. He recently enjoyed two rounds of publicity: In July, when he was profiled in a Page One Wall Street Journal story detailing his relationship with Tuesday, who keeps him "buffered from crowds or [to] deliver a calming nuzzle" when PTSD-driven anxiety strikes; and in October, when his $40 million lawsuit against McDonald's for allegedly trying to keep Tuesday out of one of its Brooklyn locations sparked a round of headlines and a CNN interview.
All the attention attracted the interest of Allen Breed, an Associated Press reporter who decided to look into Montalván's story.
But according to an e-mail that Breed wrote to Montalván last month—which Montalván himself posted on his Facebook page, along with an accusation that an "unscrupulous reporter" was attacking his character and a warning that "Tuesday and I will not stand idly by"—that story doesn't hold up. Breed told Montalván that he'd talked to other soldiers involved in the December 2003 attack, who told him that a single drunken truck driver attacked Montalván with a knife after being rousted from his vehicle. Moreover, Breed says they told him that there were no grenades involved, and that Montalván returned to duty several days later with "little apparent difficulty."
None of these former comrades recalls multiple attackers or hand grenades. And contrary to your statements about this being an "assassination" attempt for your anti-corruption work on the border, the investigation of the event seems to have concluded that this was a simple truck driver who, under the influence of drugs or alcohol, attacked when rousted from his vehicle. None of these people remembers you being "stabbed multiple times," as alleged in your lawsuit against McDonald's.
All agree that you injured your back in the incident, but that you returned to full duty within days, with little apparent difficulty. In fact, your Facebook page contains a photo, dated 2004, of you holding a young Iraqi child in your outstretched arms — a feat that would be difficult or impossible for someone who had recently fractured three vertebrae.
Montalván himself admits that he continued to serve out his tour in Iraq, and returned for another one in 2005, after the incident that he now says caused him crippling mental and physiological damage. The photo that Breed mentions of Montalván hoisting an Iraqi child in the air is here—he posted it to his Facebook page last month and captioned it, "Getting a hug from a local village boy in Al Walleed, Iraq (2004)." In the e-mail, Breed also contends that Montalván was capable of traveling internationally without Tuesday at his side, likely reference to these posts he filed for the Huffington Post from Cuba in July, eight months after he began living with Tuesday and five months before he would sue McDonald's for trying to force him to eat a meal without him.
We e-mailed Montalván for a response to Breed's e-mail, and he wrote back this:
We replied that we'd never heard of Breed before Montalván posted his e-mail, and have yet to hear back. On his Facebook page, Montalván disputed Breed's account, writing that there were two attackers, that he was knocked unconscious, that he had to take "4-6 advil every few hours to deal with the pain," and that Breed is an "asshole" for trying to "tarnish [his] name."
Breed declined to comment, referring us to an AP spokesman who said that the organization's investigation into Montalván's claims was part of a larger story, and not just a takedown of one man.
If Breed's claims are accurate, of course, it wouldn't be the first time a Huffington Post blogger used the site as a platform to perpetrate a fraud. Whatever the AP is looking into, it's clear that Montalván's account of his PTSD—and his beef against McDonald's—is nebulous at best. In his multiple media appearances, Montalván has variously referred to suffering from "social agoraphobia," "migraines," "pinched nerves," "a traumatic brain injury," and, at a recent rally in support of his suit, "other maladies that I won't speak of here." He told the Wall Street Journal that his "mind goes jumbled" and "everything gets cloudy." He has so far only raised the knife attack during which his back was injured as the cause of those maladies, though in an interview last month he cited "a number of experiences that are very difficult to speak of."
And his suit against McDonald's, which claims that he was discriminated against because of his disability after employees tried to keep Tuesday out of a Brooklyn location on two separate occasions, doesn't even accuse McDonald's of actually barring him from the restaurant. In both instances, employees initially asked him to leave but relented after he explained that Tuesday was a service dog. On the first occasion, he claims, employees "glared" at him as he was eating, causing a "panic attack which required medication and which adversely affected [his] final examination results at Columbia." On the second, a "severe migraine" caused by a manager's unsuccessful effort to get him to leave rendered him unable to finish his meal. The complaint also claims that when Montalván returned to the McDonald's to take photos of signs pointing out that service dogs were allowed in, two employees assaulted him with "fists and with garbage can lids," causing "a painful pinched nerve in his neck which required [him] to wear a neck brace for approximately eight weeks." For this, he is asking $40 million. According to the most recent court filing, Montalván and McDonald's are currently "conducting a private mediation of their dispute."
Montalván claims he was trangressed against by McDonald's, but it appears that he's been accused of transgressing in the past. In 1999, Maryland criminal court records list a "Luis Carlos Montalvan" as being charged with stalking and violating a protective order in Maryland.
Prosecutors ultimately dropped the charges.