Since visiting Iraq in 2003, NBC and its star news anchor, Brian Williams, have maintained that Williams was aboard a Chinook helicopter when it was hit and grounded by enemy fire over Baghdad. But after repeating the claim last week, Williams was forced by contrary reports from the helo's crew to completely recant his story today.
Stars & Stripes, the military-focused newspaper which first interviewed the CH-47 Chinook's crew members, got Williams to reverse himself, though he was unable to account for his divergence from the truth:
Williams himself repeated the claim Friday during NBC's coverage of a public tribute at a New York Rangers hockey game for a retired soldier that had provided ground security for the grounded helicopters. In an interview with Stars and Stripes, he said he had misremembered the events and was sorry.
The admission came after crew members on the 159th Aviation Regiment's Chinook that was hit by two rockets and small arms fire told Stars and Stripes that the NBC anchor was nowhere near that aircraft or two other Chinooks flying in the formation that took fire. Williams arrived in the area about an hour later on another helicopter after the other three had made an emergency landing, the crew members said.
"I would not have chosen to make this mistake," Williams said. "I don't know what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft with another."
Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Miller, a flight engineer on the helo that carried Williams in Iraq that day, says they never came under enemy fire. Nevertheless, Williams repeated the claim that he'd withstood the attack at last Friday's hockey game:
"The story actually started with a terrible moment a dozen years back during the invasion of Iraq when the helicopter we were traveling in was forced down after being hit by an RPG," Williams said on the broadcast. "Our traveling NBC News team was rescued, surrounded and kept alive by an armor mechanized platoon from the U.S. Army 3rd Infantry."
After Stripes induced Williams' sudden total recall of the events, he penned an apology to the crew of the aircraft that had gone down that day. Here it is in its entirety:
To Joseph, Lance, Jonathan, Pate, Michael and all those who have posted: You are absolutely right and I was wrong.
In fact, I spent much of the weekend thinking I'd gone crazy. I feel terrible about making this mistake, especially since I found my OWN WRITING about the incident from back in '08, and I was indeed on the Chinook behind the bird that took the RPG in the tail housing just above the ramp.
Because I have no desire to fictionalize my experience (we all saw it happened the first time) and no need to dramatize events as they actually happened, I think the constant viewing of the video showing us inspecting the impact area — and the fog of memory over 12 years — made me conflate the two, and I apologize.
I certainly remember the armored mech platoon, meeting Capt. Eric Nye and of course Tim Terpak. Shortly after they arrived, so did the Orange Crush sandstorm, making virtually all outdoor functions impossible. I honestly don't remember which of the three choppers Gen. Downing and I slept in, but we spent two nights on the stowable web bench seats in one of the three birds.
Later in the invasion when Gen. Downing and I reached Baghdad, I remember searching the parade grounds for Tim's Bradley to no avail. My attempt to pay tribute to CSM Terpak was to honor his 23+ years in service to our nation, and it had been 12 years since I saw him.
The ultimate irony is: In writing up the synopsis of the 2 nights and 3 days I spent with him in the desert, I managed to switch aircraft. Nobody's trying to steal anyone's valor. Quite the contrary: I was and remain a civilian journalist covering the stories of those who volunteered for duty. This was simply an attempt to thank Tim, our military and Veterans everywhere — those who have served while I did not.
Update: Serious questions have been raised about the account Williams tells in his apology—supposedly gleaned from his 2008 notes—as well. Above, he tells the soldiers of the 159th that "I was indeed on the Chinook behind the bird that took the RPG in the tail housing just above the ramp." That actually accords with the abundance of vivid details he provided in this 2005 interview with Tim Russert, via Lexis-Nexis:
General Downing, who knows a thing or two about this, looked out that window and said, `This is hot,' meaning it was full of enemy. It was full of unpoliced Iraqis. He might have used one or two other choice words there but I'll leave it at hot, Tim. It was no more than 120 seconds later that the helicopter in front of us was hit. A pickup truck stopped on the road, pulled a tarp back; a guy got up, fired an RPG, rocket-propelled grenade. These were farmers or so they seemed. And it beautifully pierced the tail rotor of the Chinook in front of us.
This raises two serious questions:
First, at what point exactly did Williams begin to misremember being in the afflicted helicopter, since a decade ago he was telling the same story he is now, of actually being in a nearby aircraft?
Second, how reliable is the 2005/2008/2015 account, given that the soldiers present told Stripes that Williams was "nowhere near" the entire formation surrounding the struck aircraft, and that his unscathed helo followed the others an hour later?