This post has been updated: 7:20 p.m.
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.”
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.”
Busted, Williams responded:
“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.”
That’s a very nice admission, though “conflating” the experience of taking incoming fire with the experience of not taking incoming fire seems verily impossible.
A scan of Williams’ reporting from the invasion turns up two pieces on March 26, 2003. The first stems from the NBC Nightly News broadcast, which was anchored by Tom Brokaw. “For about 48 hours we did not see NBC’s Brian Williams, and that’s because he and NBC News analyst General Wayne Downing were hunkered down in the Iraqi desert during a US Army helicopter mission that suddenly turned dangerous,” said Brokaw. “Tonight, Brian and his crew, we’re happy to report, are safely back in Kuwait City after a harrowing ordeal.”
As Williams takes over the story, he reports that he and a crew had embedded with the Army on an “air mission.” He described the task: “Four giant Vietnam-era Chinook twin-rotor helicopters lifting giant sections of a steel bridge to be erected inside Iraq over the Euphrates River, a 17,000 pound chunk of steel dangling beneath us that made our small armada a low, lumbering and inviting target. … Our lead chopper pilot remembers seeing a pickup truck driver stop and wave while another man pulled back a tarp, stood up in the back of the truck and fired an RPG, a rocket-propelled grenade. Rifle fire came from yet another Iraqi.”
The transcript (included below) doesn’t explicitly designate where Williams was when the enemy fire commenced.
A subsequent piece on “Dateline” (transcript also included below) squares better with the story that Stars & Stripes detailed today. The beginning of the segment amps up the drama, as Williams narrates, “We took off and that is right about when things started to happen.” Then he says, “A jagged hole in the skin of a helicopter, a symbol for the unexpected challenges faced by US soldiers in a war that does not always go according to plan.”
The story then circles back to explain all that: Just before his helicopter was due to makes its drop of bridge material, it receives a radio warning that “this routine mission is running into trouble.” So the helicopter makes the drop and turns to the southwest, as Williams reports. “Suddenly, without knowing why, we learned we’ve been ordered to land in the desert. On the ground, we learn the Chinook ahead of us was almost blown out of the sky,” notes Williams. “That [jagged] hole was made by a rocket-propelled grenade, or RPG, fired from the ground. It punched cleanly through the skin of the ship, but amazingly it didn’t detonate. Though the chopper pilots are too shaken to let us interview them, we learned they were shot at by some of those waving civilians, one of whom emerged from under a tarp on a pick-up truck like this one and shot the grenade. We meet a unit from the 3rd Infantry called in, as it turns out, to protect us from the enemy which they say doesn’t look like the enemy.”
Bold text added to highlight a detail indicating that Williams was not, in fact, in the helicopter that sustained RPG fire. Though it’s difficult to extrapolate the visual effect of these two segments from the transcripts, it takes a careful reading to discern that Williams wasn’t in a helicopter under fire from the enemy. In between Brokaw’s talk about a “harrowing” experience and Williams’s TV-customized script, a muddle emerges as to just what happened to whom. Clearly that muddle stayed with Williams.
Listen to what Williams told David Letterman in this appearance on the “Late Show” upon the 10th anniversary of his helicopter troubles: “We were in some helicopters. What we didn’t know was, we were north of the invasion. We were the northernmost Americans in Iraq. We were going to drop some bridge portions across the Euphrates so the Third Infantry could cross on them. Two of the four helicopters were hit, by ground fire, including the one I was in, RPG and AK-47.”
What’s so remarkable about this appearance, in light of today’s revelations, is just how insistent Williams appears upon recounting this fictional event. “I brought a photo which arrived in my e-mail two mornings ago of where I was tonight a decade ago…this very day,” he told Letterman, kicking off the helicopter discussion.
“I have to treat you now with renewed respect,” summed up Letterman.
NBC News Transcripts
March 26, 2003 Wednesday
SHOW: NBC Nightly News (6:30 PM ET) – NBC
US Army helicopter missions turn dangerous
ANCHORS: TOM BROKAW
BYLINE: BRIAN WILLIAMS
LENGTH: 614 words
TOM BROKAW, anchor:
For about 48 hours we did not see NBC’s Brian Williams, and that’s because he and NBC News analyst General Wayne Downing were hunkered down in the Iraqi desert during a US Army helicopter mission that suddenly turned dangerous. Tonight, Brian and his crew, we’re happy to report, are safely back in Kuwait City after a harrowing ordeal. Brian:
BRIAN WILLIAMS reporting:
Tom, we asked the US Army to take us along on an air mission. They accepted. We discussed the danger. We were aware it was Iraqi airspace, after all. We weren’t cavalier about it. Then things just started to happen.
It was supposed to be a routine Army aviation mission and it turned out to be one of the most dangerous missions they’ve launched here so far. Four giant Vietnam-era Chinook twin-rotor helicopters lifting giant sections of a steel bridge to be erected inside Iraq over the Euphrates River, a 17,000 pound chunk of steel dangling beneath us that made our small armada a low, lumbering and inviting target. Down below, the villages of the Iraqi countryside. Some, but not all, had been visited by American troops headed north toward Baghdad. Our lead chopper pilot remembers seeing a pickup truck driver stop and wave while another man pulled back a tarp, stood up in the back of the truck and fired an RPG, a rocket-propelled grenade. Rifle fire came from yet another Iraqi.
Unidentified Man #1: We took fire on the way in.
WILLIAMS: All four choppers dropped their load and landed immediately. The grenade wound, clearly visible. In minutes, the weather closed in and a round-trip, one-day mission became a three-day stay. Of all the places to ditch four choppers in the moonlight desert of Iraq, this might have been the safest. The Armored Mechanized Platoon of Lieutenant Eric Nye quickly surrounded us with tanks and Bradleys. Infantrymen took up position protecting four vulnerable birds, parked shoulder to shoulder on a plot of land considered hot for the presence of armed Iraqis nearby. Lieutenant Nye told us this was not yet the war he had been briefed on prior to the invasion. He estimated he had killed 65 Iraqis just a couple of miles from here, but they were hardly soldiers.
How would you describe the quality of the Iraqi soldiers you’ve encountered?
Unidentified Man #2: Guys in–in pickup trucks with mounted machine guns and RPGs. Looks like they got together a group of civilians and said, you know, here, defend this field. With M-1s and this rolling against those guys, it really wasn’t a fight. It was more of a–a mop up.
WILLIAMS: Life in this patch of Iraqi desert without a name became all about survival inside a hollow, grounded Chinook helicopter as a colossal sandstorm arrived like an orange wall in the sky, forcing the crew inside for a card game. It lifted this morning, just long enough for us to get out. Brian Williams, NBC News.
Tom, we should at add one more note about the men doing the real work in the desert. One more note about them. There is no way to describe the comfort of having a mechanized armored platoon outside looking over you. And as if to underscore the need for them, using their thermal imaging, they found four more Iraqis, another rocket-propelled grenade launcher right outside our perimeter and took care of the threat. Tom:
BROKAW: Thanks very much. Brian Williams, back safely tonight in Kuwait City. Welcome back, Brian.
We’ll have more from Brian Williams on “Dateline” tonight.
NBC News Transcripts
March 26, 2003 Wednesday
SHOW: Dateline NBC (8:00 PM ET) – NBC
Helicopters come under fire from people who look like civilians
BYLINE: BRIAN WILLIAMS
LENGTH: 1106 words
Announcer: Operation Iraqi Freedom, a DATELINE Special, continues.
TOM BROKAW: My colleague Brian Williams is back in Kuwait City tonight after a close call in the skies over Iraq.
Brian, tell us about what you got yourself into.
BRIAN WILLIAMS reporting: Well, in the end, Tom, it did give us a glimpse of the war being fought as few have seen it. We asked the US Army to take us on an air mission with them. They accepted. We knew there was risk involved, we knew we would be flying over Iraq, we discussed it. We weren’t cavalier about it.
(Voiceover) We took off and that is right about when things started to happen.
WILLIAMS: (Voiceover) A jagged hole in the skin of a helicopter, a symbol for the unexpected challenges faced by US soldiers in a war that does not always go according to plan.
(Hole in helicopter; helicopter flying)
Unidentified Soldier #1: We took fire on the way in.
WILLIAMS: (Voiceover) It all started Monday morning, a round trip that’s supposed to take six hours. Routine, yes, but we’re all aware it’s over Iraqi air space. And in war, routine gets thrown out the window.
(Soldiers donning clothing; helicopter on ground; pilot in helicopter cockpit)
WILLIAMS: Do you regard your job as dangerous?
Sergeant CLAY SOWER: Oh, it’s got some danger to it.
WILLIAMS: (Voiceover) Sergeant Clay Sower of Washington state is with the Bravo 159th Army Aviation Regiment based in Germany, now deployed here in Kuwait. Their job is to move troops and supplies around the battlefield. Today that means dropping huge sections of a steel bridge near Najaf, some 100 miles south of Baghdad. We’re going along for the ride. We are one of four Chinook helicopters flying north this morning, third in line. As we head toward the drop point the Iraqi landscape looks quiet. We can see a convoy of American troop carriers and supply vehicles heading north.
(Clay Sower; Sower and other soldiers; soldier manning gun in helicopter as it takes off; bridge section suspended beneath helicopter; soldiers in helicopter; aerial view of convoy)
Offscreen Voice #1: Man, look at all the tanks. That’s our guys, right?
WILLIAMS: (Voiceover) Down below some civilians, seemingly happy to see us.
Voice #1: See those people at 9:00 down on the ground? They’re not doing anything.
WILLIAMS: (Voiceover) But these soldiers have heard reports of Iraqis in civilian clothes firing on American troops.
(Soldier sitting in helicopter)
Voice #1: What’s the weapon status?
Offscreen Voice #2: Right now it should still be locked and loaded on safe.
WILLIAMS: (Voiceover) Indeed, just before we’re able to make our drop, radio traffic makes clear this routine mission is running into trouble.
(Aerial view of countryside; bridge section beneath helicopter)
Offscreen Voice #3: We took fire on the way in. We currently are not under fire–I say again, not under fire–but we look for some type of security, over.
WILLIAMS: (Voiceover) We quickly make our drop and then turn southwest. Suddenly, without knowing why, we learned we’ve been ordered to land in the desert. On the ground, we learn the Chinook ahead of us was almost blown out of the sky. That hole was made by a rocket-propelled grenade, or RPG, fired from the ground. It punched cleanly through the skin of the ship, but amazingly it didn’t detonate. Though the chopper pilots are too shaken to let us interview them, we learned they were shot at by some of those waving civilians, one of whom emerged from under a tarp on a pick-up truck like this one and shot the grenade. We meet a unit from the 3rd Infantry called in, as it turns out, to protect us from the enemy which they say doesn’t look like the enemy.
(Bridge section being dropped; aerial view of countryside; helicopter and soldiers on ground; hole in helicopter; helicopter with hole in it; helicopter and tanks; truck with gun mounted on back; tank and soldiers)
WILLIAMS: How would you describe the quality of the Iraqi soldiers you’ve encountered?
Unidentified Soldier #2: Guys in–in pick-up trucks with mounted machine guns and RPGs. With the M-1s and this rolling into against those guys, it really wasn’t a fight, it was more of a mop-up.
WILLIAMS: Would you call this American-held territory?
Soldier #2: Yeah, they don’t like us very much here. We all expected them to not fight but, you know, throw a couple rounds down range and then put their hands up. But that was not the case at all.
WILLIAMS: (Voiceover) The soldiers from the 3rd Infantry tell us they killed about six Iraqis the day before. And while they say they’re surprised to keep encountering these irregulars, they certainly haven’t lost their confidence. Sergeant Hernandez is with the 315, Charlie Company, out of Fort Stewart, Georgia.
Sergeant HERNANDEZ: They’re brave. You know, they see a big tank and they want to come at us, or a Bradley. They don’t have a chance.
Offscreen Voice #4: They sky just got totally yellow.
WILLIAMS: (Voiceover) A massive sand storm grounds us for two nights. The infantrymen stand guard the whole time. This morning, the skies finally cleared and we prepared to move out.
(Helicopters in sand storm; soldiers in sand storm; helicopter, tank and soldier; soldiers cleaning windshield of helicopter)
Unidentified Soldier #3: We’ll kick and burn and get the heck out of here.
Unidentified Soldier #4: Yeah, man.
Unidentified Soldier #5: Have a safe trip back.
Unidentified Soldier #6: Yeah.
WILLIAMS: (Voiceover) We thank our protectors who prepare to push on toward Baghdad, and we head back to base. Our routine six-hour mission had turned into 50 hours that were anything but.
(Soldiers shaking hands; soldiers preparing helicopter; aerial view)
WILLIAMS: We should, of course, add one more note about the men doing the real work just a few feet from us. There is no way to overstate the comfort having an armored platoon look over your platoon in four helicopters, shoulder to shoulder there in the desert. And as if to underscore that, we heard a short burst of machine gun fire on the way to morning our first night there, and learned a few hours later that, using thermal imaging cameras, they had seen four more Iraqis with another rocket-propelled grenade approaching our perimeter. They surmise they saw the cutout figure of the four choppers and saw what they thought was an easy target with all of us, by the way, sleeping inside the bodies of the helicopters. Tom:
BROKAW: Thanks very much, Brian, and welcome back. Good to have you back.
Correction: The original version of this post identified Stars & Stripes as a magazine; it is a newspaper.