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Brian Williams recants Iraq War helicopter story and apologizes

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Virginia Sherwood/NBC

NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams recanted and apologized for claiming that a helicopter he was flying in while embedded with American troops in Iraq in 2003 was forced to land after taking incoming fire that included a rocket-propelled grenade.

Williams had resurrected his version of the harrowing story on air last week during a segment to honor retiring Army officer Command Sgt. Maj. Tim Terpak, who had provided security for the NBC news crew after a hard landing.

“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. “Our traveling NBC News team was rescued, surrounded, and kept alive by an armored mechanized platoon from the U.S. Army 3rd Infantry.”

When NBC News posted the video on its Facebook page, the story quickly came under fire. “Sorry dude, I don’t remember you being on my aircraft,” wrote Lance Reynolds. “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.”

“Such a liar!” wrote Chris Simeone. “I was the Pilot in Command of the CH-47 flying Brian Williams into Iraq during the invasion. He was on my aircraft and we were NOT shot down. That was a sister ship and a friend of mine. Brian Williams has been knowingly lying since that mission to boost his credentials. As far as the soldier, he deserved to be recognized! They were a help to us. As far as Brian Williams, he’s a fake.”

The military newspaper Stars & Stripes investigated and reported that Williams had not been in the damaged Chinook helicopter, nor in the other accompanying helicopters that witnessed the incident; crew members told the paper that Williams arrived at the scene an hour after the emergency landing.

UPDATE: Rich Krell, who also identified himself as one of the pilots of the Chinooks that flew Williams, told CNN, “Some of the things [Williams] said are not true. But some of the things they’re saying against him are not true either.” Krell said his team was flying in formation with the helicopter that suffered major damage from an RPG and that all three birds encountered small-arms fire from the ground. Krell’s copter dropped off the bridge plates they were hauling and returned to the crippled Chinook about 45 minutes later. “Yeah, he messed up some things and said some things he shouldn’t have,” Krell said. “After a while, with combat stories, you just go ‘Whatever.'”

UPDATE II (2/6/15): CNN has retracted its story after Krell told them he “is questioning his own memories” of the event and isn’t completely sure if he was the pilot of the helicopter Williams was riding in. “Bottom line: this pilot is revising his story—and, because of that, I’m revising mine,” wrote Brian Stelter. “What initially looked like an account that supported some of Brian Williams’ war story—that he came “under fire” that day—no longer appears to be true.”

“I don’t know what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft with another,” Williams told Stars & Stripes, and the newsman subsequently issued a lengthy apology:

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.”

Williams also addressed the matter on Wednesday night’s news broadcast:

In the original 2003 report that aired on NBC’s Nightly News, then hosted by Tom Brokaw, Williams never claimed he was a passenger in the damaged Chinook—though a certain proximity to the danger was implied: “We asked the U.S. 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.” In a subsequent Dateline piece, Williams was more clear about what happened and to whom: “On the ground, we learn the Chinook ahead of us was almost blown out of the sky.”

But over the years, Williams has told a different version of events. On David Letterman’s show in 2013, he put himself in the center of the story, saying, “We were going to drop some bridge portions across the Euphrates so the Third Infantry could cross on them. Two of our four helicopters were hit, by ground fire, including the one I was in, RPG and AK-47.” (Emphasis added.)

One issue still remains unclear, judging from Williams’ updated account and the testimony of soldiers who’ve challenged it: whether he spent two nights in one of the downed copters before making it to safety or whether he left the scene sooner and flew straight to Kuwait.  

NBC News did not immediately respond to EW‘s request for comment.