WASHINGTON — Apologies by NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams for a false claim of being on a helicopter forced down by Iraqi rocket fire in 2003 satisfied some soldiers who were there but left a few insisting that details were still misrepresented.
Williams admitted on air Wednesday that he was not aboard a Chinook struck by hostile fire on a flight from Kuwait in March 2003, saying instead he was aboard a “following aircraft.”
In a Facebook apology to the soldiers, Williams said, “I was indeed on the Chinook behind the bird that took the RPG.” He blamed the discrepancy on poor memory almost 12 years after the fact.
Since the 2003 incident, Williams has said on different occasions that he “came under fire” and that his helicopter was forced down due to the attack. Former and active-duty soldiers who were on the same mission had said the anchor’s aircraft landed in the Karbala area because of a blinding sandstorm and not hostile fire.
Williams’ admission and his insistence that he had made an innocent mistake drew sharp criticism on social media, which subjected the veteran newsman to enormous ridicule, including posts depicting him in other historical events.
Among those who were part of the mission, reaction was less intense.
“I have a feeling that he didn’t have a choice [but to apologize],” said David Luke, a former soldier and flight engineer with the 159th Aviation Regiment who was aboard a helicopter flying along with the one carrying Williams and his NBC crew.
Luke said he thought the apology came only because soldiers challenged Williams’ version and otherwise, “he would have told that war story until he was on his dying bed.”
Mike O’Keeffe, who was a door gunner on the Chinook hit by RPGs, said he was generally satisfied with the apology and no longer wanted to press the issue by making public comments.
“I understand your interest and very much appreciate you getting the truth out there, but from my perspective, Mr. Williams has been outed and has enough to deal with,” O’Keeffe wrote in an email to Stars and Stripes. “Guess I just don’t want to kick the guy when he is down. Though he wordsmithed his apology to downplay what he did, he did recant and I am satisfied.”
Williams’ admission was an embarrassment for the veteran journalist who has been the face of NBC News since he became anchor for its main news show in 2004. NBC has not said whether he will face discipline for perpetuating a false story.
Despite Williams’ effort to contain the damage, some former soldiers thought there were still discrepancies between his account and their own memory of the events.
Luke said it was “misleading” for Williams to say his aircraft was following the stricken Chinook. Luke told Stars and Stripes that Williams’ Chinook was headed south, back toward Kuwait, when it passed another formation from a separate aviation company flying north.
After the two formations passed each other, Luke’s crew heard on the radio that a northbound aircraft had been hit by RPG and small-arms fire, presumably from gunmen in a white pickup truck they had seen minutes earlier. Soon after the attack, Luke said his helicopter and the one carrying Williams were forced to change course because of the sandstorm and land near a makeshift supply camp — Objective Rams — where the stricken helicopter had also put down.
Stars and Stripes compiled its account of what happened to the two helicopter companies that day — one based in Germany and the other in Savannah, Ga. — through interviews with five soldiers who were there, including a mission commander, retired Army officer Jerry Pearman of California who was a lieutenant colonel at the time.
Their account, however, was disputed by another former Chinook pilot, Rich Krell, who told CNN that he was flying Williams’ aircraft during the mission. Krell told CNN that Williams’ plane did suffer minor damage from small-arms fire but did not say the damage was enough to force him to land.
"Yeah, he messed up some things and said some things he shouldn't have,” Krell told CNN, referring to Williams.
Krell’s version was at odds with the recollections of both Luke and Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Miller, who was the flight engineer on the aircraft carrying Williams and his crew. Miller and Luke insisted separately that aircraft in their formation did not take ground fire that day and landed in Iraq only because of the sandstorm, which paralyzed coalition operations for days.
“No, we never came under direct enemy fire to the aircraft,” Miller told Stars and Stripes on Wednesday.
Miller said the NBC crew affixed microphones to a helicopter headset and recorded air traffic from the Chinook that had been hit.
Krell has since started to back off his assertions, according to CNN.
“[A]t this point I am questioning my memories,” he wrote to the network’s Brian Stelter, who posted a story on CNNMoney about how he came to talk to Krell.
Luke said that after the formation carrying the NBC crew landed at Objective Rams, Williams and the soldiers approached the stricken helicopter to ask the crew what had happened.
They all ended up spending two or three days stranded at Objective Rams until the sandstorm passed and helicopter flights could resume.