On Memorial Day, as Americans honored the nation’s war dead, Angelo Otchy bowed his head to accept a medal from officials in Verona for his sacrifice and service.
The 35-year-old Army veteran told a reporter that day about his three tours of duty in Iraq. Voice dropping to a near-hush, he spoke, too, about the buried bomb that ripped through his Humvee, injuring him and claiming the lives of three friends, one of them a soldier from Paterson.
“I’m haunted by that day every day of my life,” Otchy told The Star-Ledger.
But Otchy wasn’t in that Humvee. He was at home in New Jersey when the soldiers died. And he didn’t serve three tours of duty in Iraq. He served half of one tour before he was sent back to the States for extended rest.
A Star-Ledger examination of Otchy’s claims — including a review of Army records and interviews with military officials, members of his battalion and the blasted Humvee’s lone survivor — show the Verona man fabricated his story.
Otchy’s uncle, a retired Army colonel who now works as a surgeon in Fairfax, Va., alerted The Star-Ledger two weeks ago to the discrepancies in his nephew’s background. Daniel Otchy called his nephew a troubled man who has been in and out of the military all of his adult life and has a need to seek affirmation.
“I have always tried to support my nephew,” he said, “but what he’s done here is just not right.”
Angelo Otchy said he was granted a 100 percent disability benefit based on a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, a potentially disabling anxiety disorder that has affected hundreds of thousands of troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Otchy’s diagnosis could not be independently verified. An Army spokesman, Philip Jones, said such records are not public.
To many members of the armed forces, and particularly to friends of the men killed in the bomb attack, Otchy’s lie is a personal insult and an affront to the service at a time when so many troops are dying overseas.
“To go out and make claims such as he’s doing, it’s very hurtful, and it just tarnishes exactly what we’re over there fighting for and what we’ve risked and what some of us have given our lives for,” said retired Army Sgt. Tanner Archibald, 27, of Columbus, Ind., the Humvee’s driver that night. “It’s infuriating.”
Doubt also has been cast on claims Otchy made Sept. 11, 2001, when he was interviewed by reporters near a triage station along the West Side Highway in Lower Manhattan.
Dressed in camouflage fatigues, he said he was a New Jersey Army National Guard soldier who had been conducting search-and-rescue operations atop the ruins of the collapsed Twin Towers.
“I must have come across body parts by the thousands,” Otchy said. His comments, captured by television cameras and picked up in an Associated Press report, were carried in newspapers around the world, translated into German, Japanese and Afrikaans.
A slightly longer account would later be published in the book “America’s Heroes,” about the response of rescue workers on 9/11.
Records show Otchy wasn’t in the National Guard in 2001. In addition, Otchy’s uncle said his nephew told him he didn’t work on the pile at Ground Zero.
“He admitted it to me,” Daniel Otchy said. “He said he never got close enough to see anything.”
Confronted with The Star-Ledger’s findings, Otchy at first denied he had lied, then acknowledged he did not serve three tours of duty and was not in the Humvee when it hit an improvised explosive device outside Kirkuk June 14, 2007.
The explosion and fire that followed killed Spc. Farid Elazzouzi, 26, of Paterson, Spc. Val John Borm, 21, of Sidney, Neb., and Sgt. Derek T. Roberts, 24, of Gold River, Calif.
“I was feeling down and out, and I guess I wanted someone to appreciate what I did for this country, because I sure as hell don’t feel appreciated,” Otchy said. “I’ve been home two years, and maybe two people said ‘Thank you for your service.’ ” Later, in a separate interview, Otchy said he was “deeply sorry.”
“I made a mistake by saying it, but in my crazy head, I was trying to honor their lives,” he said.
He also blamed the heat of the day — it was in the mid-80s on Memorial Day — and the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. An expert on PTSD said, however, an urge to lie has never been associated with post-traumatic stress.
While those with PTSD sometimes suffer flashbacks, “I’ve never heard of anyone fabricating,” said John A. Renner Jr., associate chief of psychiatry at the Veterans Affairs’ Boston Healthcare System and a military psychiatrist since the Vietnam War. “That’s not a recognized symptom of PTSD.”
Otchy said he was telling the truth about looking for survivors at Ground Zero. He said he helped a gasping police officer walk to an aid station and directed other rescue workers to four people trapped in the rubble.
Asked if anyone could corroborate his efforts, he said no. He said he snapped numerous photos that day on a disposable camera but that a local pharmacy “screwed up the whole roll of film.”
The award given to Otchy on Memorial Day — the Verona Distinguished Service Medal — is open to any veteran who lives in the Essex County town or resided there while in the military. Verona Town Manager Joseph Martin said municipal officials will not seek to rescind the honor.
Otchy, a Maplewood native who recently moved to Verona, nominated himself for the award, filling out an application and showing his honorable-discharge papers as proof of his service, Martin said.
“I’m an old soldier,” said Martin, a Vietnam veteran. “I find it very sad.”
Otchy said he has a deep love of his country and always wanted to be in the military. But Otchy and the military have not always been a good fit.
Records show he joined the Army in December 1993, only to be discharged four months later. In May 1996, he enlisted in the Marine Corps but washed out of basic training. Otchy said he failed to qualify in weapons proficiency.
Just three months later, he joined the Navy. Again it didn’t stick. Otchy lasted less than a year before he was discharged.
“I didn’t want to do it anymore,” he said. “Some guys played a prank on me, locked me in a hold in a minesweeper. I said, ‘(Expletive) this. I want out.’”
The military does not disclose why service members are discharged unless a dismissal is related to a criminal charge.
Otchy’s uncle called his nephew’s aborted stints in the armed forces “mutual separations.”
In September 2005, Otchy tried again, joining the New Jersey Army National Guard. By July of the next year, the regular Army took him back, assigning him to the 25th Infantry Division’s 3rd Brigade Infantry Combat Team, based at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii.
Otchy, a member of 2nd Battalion in the combat team’s 35th Infantry Regiment, left for Iraq in December 2006, records show. At Forward Operating Base Warrior in Kirkuk, he served as a driver for a support company.
Otchy said he quickly had trouble coping with mortar attacks, the fear of driving roads studded with IEDs and pulling guard duty at remote communications towers.
“I broke down mentally,” he said.
Both Otchy and his uncle said the Army sent him home for extended rest. He arrived in New Jersey June 13. One day later, Archibald and other members of Bravo company set out on a night patrol that took them along a dirt road just outside Kirkuk.
The IED went off beneath the gas tank, flipping the Humvee and igniting a fireball that retired Sgt. Adam Whitney called “the brightest darkness you could ever see.”
“All the flames were inside the black smoke,” said Whitney, 29, of Hebron, Ky., who was in the second Humvee in the three-vehicle convoy.
Archibald, blood-covered and temporarily blinded in his right eye, managed to kick open a door and escape seconds before the fire erupted. Elazzouzi, Borm and Roberts died almost instantly. They were among 27 soldiers from 3rd Brigade killed during that 15-month tour, Whitney said.
It is the horror of the incident and the memory of fallen friends that makes Whitney and other members of the company angry about Otchy’s lie.
The Star-Ledger spoke with five members of Bravo company and exchanged e-mails with two more now in Iraq.
“That incident was probably the most catastrophic thing that happened to us when we were over there, and for someone to take that and find some kind of glory in it, that’s beyond disgraceful,” Whitney said. “I don’t even have words for that.”
Otchy said he now worries about his benefits, his standing in the community and his reputation among fellow veterans.
“I was wrong,” he said, “and I have to live with this humiliation forever.”
Read the story at NJ.com (Aug. 1, 2010)