Over a Decade, a Reporter’s War Story Grew Ever More Dramatic

By Mark Joyella Comment

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On “NBC Nightly News” Wednesday, Brian Williams apologized for saying he was in a helicopter over Iraq in 2003 that was hit by RPG fire and forced to the ground. “I made a mistake in recalling the events of twelve years ago,” Williams said. “This was a bungled attempt by me to thank one special veteran.”

For Williams, it was a smooth, no doubt sincere apology for getting his facts wrong. And in fairness, back on March 26, 2003, when Williams first told the story, he never claimed to have been in the chopper that took ground fire. While anchor Tom Brokaw did set up the piece saying “Brian Williams is back in Kuwait City tonight after a close call in the skies over Iraq,” the story itself is very clear that Williams and crew were not directly involved in the “close call.”

In Williams’ original telling of the story, his helicopter lands without drama–or danger. “Suddenly, without knowing why, we learn we’ve been ordered to land in the desert,” Williams says. “On the ground, we learn the Chinook ahead of us was almost blown out of the sky.” The crew aboard that helicopter, Williams reported, were too shaken to talk about the incident on camera.

In 2008, Williams story had evolved. Writing on the NBC News blog, Williams described the entire convoy of four choppers taking fire from the ground–though only one was hit, he said, by an RPG:

We came under fire by what appeared to be Iraqi farmers with RPG’s and AK-47′s. The Chinook helicopter flying in front of ours (from the 101st Airborne) took an RPG to the rear rotor, as all four of our low-flying Chinooks took fire. We were forced down and stayed down — for the better (or worse) part of 3 days and 2 nights.

That version–that the helicopters were flying in tight formation when the ground fire began (instead of far apart, as soldiers insist and Williams himself conceded when he reported being ordered to land without knowing why)–was repeated in a bio of Williams when he spoke at Notre Dame’s 2010 commencement. Though this time, the chopper ahead of Williams was “shot down”. “Williams was traveling on a U.S. Army Chinook helicopter mission when the lead helicopter was shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade.”

Years later, Williams told an even more dramatic version of the story to David Letterman. “Two of our four helicopters were hit by ground fire, including the one that I was in,” Williams said. “RPG and AK-47.” Letterman asks Williams “what happens the minute everyone realizes you’ve been hit,” and Williams–whose grasp of detail despite a decade having passed includes the elevation and airspeed of the Chinook–describes a nervy emergency landing in the desert. “We landed very quickly, and hard…We got hit, we set down, everyone was okay. Our captain took a Purple Heart injury to his ear in the cockpit.”

Just weeks earlier, Williams had been interviewed by Alec Baldwin on the actor’s WNYC radio show, “Here’s the Thing.” In that interview, Williams again related the Iraq story–only this time, he described “rounds coming into the airframe” and admitted he thought he might die:

Brian Williams: Yeah, there’s this ‘I got this’ syndrome. I guess I do say to myself and to others, ‘I’ve got this.’

Alec Baldwin: Yes I can.

Brian Williams: And I don’t know where that unbridled confidence came from, and I’ve done some ridiculously stupid things under that banner, like being in a helicopter I had no business being in in Iraq, with rounds coming into the airframe, but I –

Alec Baldwin: Did you think you would die?

Brian Williams: I also—briefly. Sure. There have been probably more than –

Alec Baldwin: A handful of those?

Brian Williams: Yeah. But and –

Alec Baldwin: Do you tell yourself that’s the job?

Brian Williams: Oh absolutely.

It was these far more harrowing versions of the Iraq story that led some veterans to post comments to the “Nightly News” Facebook page, openly–and pointedly–questioning Williams. “Sorry dude, I don’t remember you being on my aircraft. I do remember you walking up about an hour after we had landed to ask me what had happened. Then I remember you guys taking back off in a different flight of Chinooks from another unit and heading to Kuwait to report your ‘war story’ to the Nightly News.”

How did being ordered to land–without knowing why–grow into a tale of gunfire, a hard landing, and a wounded pilot? How did something that in 2003 clearly happened to other people suddenly become a brush with death for Williams himself, with “rounds coming into the airframe” and a supposed fear he might not survive?

Williams has only said “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.”