According to Stars and Stripes, NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams has admitted to telling a false story about his coverage of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The anchor had claimed that he was aboard a helicopter that sustained fire from an rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) and was forced to the ground, according to the publication. In fact, Williams wasn’t in that Chinook or two others that also took on incoming fire; he arrived in another helicopter an hour later.
“I would not have chosen to make this mistake,” Williams told Stars & Stripes. “I don’t know what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft with another.”
Look, I've never been in an aircraft that had sustained damage due to a hostile party firing upon it. However, I'm quite confident that I could make the distinction between that and an aircraft that rolled in about 30-60 minutes after one that had actually been under siege.
Though more than a decade old, this incident flashed onto the media screen last Friday. In a broadcast of “NBC Nightly News,” Williams told viewers of a heartwarming scene from the night before, at a Rangers-Canadiens game at Madison Square Garden. Williams had invited Command Sgt. Maj. Tim Terpak to the game as a way of thanking him for protecting Williams and his crew as they embedded with the troops for the Iraq invasion. And the crowd in the Garden heard all about it: “Ladies and gentlemen, during the Iraq invasion U.S. Army Command Sergeant Major Tim Terpak was responsible for the safety of Brian Williams and his NBC News team after their Chinook helicopter was hit and crippled by enemy fire. Command Sergeant Major Terpak was awarded three Bronze Stars for combat valor in Iraq, and recently retired after twenty-three years in the U.S. Army. Both men, both Rangers fans have been reunited for the first time in 12 years for tonight`s game. Please welcome Command Sergeant Major Tim Terpak and Brian Williams.”
In his broadcast, Williams repeated those claims: “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, Our traveling NBC News team was rescued, surrounded and kept alive by an armored mechanized platoon from the U.S. Army 3rd Infantry.”
“NBC Nightly News” posted the clip of the Williams-Terpak hockey moment on its Facebook page, and the debunkers emerged. Lance Reynolds had this to say: “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. The whole time we were still stuck in Iraq trying to repair the aircraft and pulling our own Security.”
It was at that moment that a 12-year old anecdote started to crumble. Williams was left with no choice but to come clean.
“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.”
One has to be over-the-top arrogant to perpetually push a false narrative while at the same time clinging to the notion that those who were actually part of the incident wouldn't call him on it. Is Williams that pathological? I honestly have no clue. But what gives me pause in accusing Williams of knowingly fabricating his being in an aircraft that took fire was his initial March 2003 news report after said incident. He mentioned in the on-air story that he and his NBC cohorts "learned the Chinook ahead of us was almost blown out of the sky." That's a clear difference from what was conveyed on Friday's news broadcast when Williams referred to "the helicopter we were traveling in was forced down after being hit by an RPG."
In an appearance on David Letterman's program in March 2013 (the 10th anniversary of the incident in question), Williams very clearly states that his helicopter was indeed one of the two which was hit by an RPG and AK-47 (about 2:50 in).
From everything I've gathered, Williams offered up pretty flimsy theories (i.e. the excerpt in his apology statement, saying "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...") as to what possibly caused his recounting of this incident to evolve over the past decade. Perhaps he can consult with Mrs. Clinton on how to weather such a storm. After all, she's likely to make a bid for President in 2016 without a whiff of her lie about enduring sniper fire in Bosnia ever being held over her head.