NBC News anchor Brian Williams said on the evening broadcast Wednesday that he made a mistake when he said on air last week that he had been in a military helicopter that was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade in the early days of the American invasion of Iraq 12 years ago.
On Friday, Williams had told a story on air about a veteran he met in Iraq. They stayed in touch over the years and Williams invited the soldier to a hockey game. At the game, they were surprised that the game announcer told the crowd about the chance encounter after Williams’ chopper was shot down.
Williams said on the air:
“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 armor mechanized platoon from the U.S. Army 3rd Infantry.”
The story was repeated by the announcer at the hockey game.
After the story aired, soldiers who served in Iraq began complaining.
Stars and Stripes Capital Hill reporter Travis Tritten first reported Wednesday that he noticed the chatter on Facebook and began “pulling threads.” Tritten told me, “Your gut tells you there is something there you have to look into.”
Tritten spoke with several officers and soldiers who were on the ground in Iraq and had first-hand knowledge of the RPG incident, he said.
Tritten became convinced that Williams was on a helicopter that was behind the one that was hit. “It appears they were far behind, in a different formation of aircraft,” he said. Some of those who posted on Facebook said the NBC crew was up to an hour behind the chopper that was hit.
“A lot of these crew members have been pissed off about this since 2003. One guy says every time he sees Brian Williams he starts to shake, he is so angry,” Tritten said.
This NBC Dateline video from March 26, 2003 — soon after the attack – has Williams reporting that one of the choppers ahead of him had taken a direct hit from an RPG. The video does not show the attack and it is not clear how close the attack was to Williams’ ride.
Go to 2:12 on this video to hear about the attack on the helicopter convoy.
Contrary to what the soldiers who complained on Facebook claimed, the 2003 story appears to be reporting that the chopper hit by the RPG was in the same formation as Williams was flying in. In fact, Williams reported in 2003, the incident was so fresh when the helicopters landed that the crew from the helicopter that was hit by the RPG was too shaken to talk on camera.
NBC Publicity pointed me to a note that Williams posted on Facebook saying he “felt terrible” about making the mistake and he had “no desire to fictionalize the incident.” He 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.”
This was not the first time he told the story of the incident.
In May 2008, Williams wrote on NBC News’ blog that it was not the chopper he was riding in, but one in front of him that was hit by an RPG.
I was with my friend and NBC News Military Analyst Wayne Downing, a retired 4-Star Army General. Wayne and I were riding along as part of an Army mission to deliver bridge components to the Euphrates River, so that the invading forces of the 3rd Infantry could cross the river on their way to Baghdad. 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.
In early 2010, when Williams spoke at a commencement at Notre Dame, the school’s website included a bio that mentioned the RPG hitting a chopper, but that version of the story was different. The bio didn’t say the RPG hit the chopper Williams was in:
While covering the war in Iraq, Williams became the first NBC News correspondent to reach Baghdad after the U.S. military invasion of the city. Just days into the war, Williams was traveling on a U.S. Army Chinook helicopter mission when the lead helicopter was shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade. Williams spent three days and two nights in the Iraqi desert south of Najaf, with a mechanized armored tank platoon of the Army’s Third Infantry Division providing protection. During the war, Williams traveled to seven nations throughout the Middle East during his seven-week overseas deployment.
On March 23, 2013, 10 years to the day after the helicopter incident, Brian Williams appeared on the David Letterman Show and told the story of being shot at.
Go to 2:58 in the video to hear him tell the story.
Williams said, “two of our four helicopters were hit by ground-fire, including the one I was in, RPG and AK 47.”
He told Letterman, “We figure out how to land safely and we did. We landed very quickly and hard and we put down and we were stuck, four birds in the middle of the desert and we were north out ahead of the other Americans.”
Williams mentioned the controversy Wednesday evening on NBC Nightly News:
“On this broadcast last week, in an effort to honor a veteran who protected me and so many others, after a ground-fire incident in the desert in the Iraq War invasion I made a mistake in recalling the events of 12 years ago. It did not take long to hear from some brave men and women in the air crews who were also in that desert. I want to apologize.
I said I was traveling in an aircraft that was hit by RPG fire. I was instead in a following aircraft. We landed after the ground fire incident and spent two harrowing nights in a sandstorm in the Iraq desert.
This was a bungled attempt by me to thank one special veteran and by extension our brave military men and women, veterans everywhere, those who have served everywhere while I did not. I hope they know they have my greatest respect and also now, my apology.”