NBC News anchor Brian Williams conceded on Wednesday that a story he had told repeatedly about being under fire while covering the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was false.
Williams said he was not aboard a helicopter that was hit by enemy fire and forced down more than a decade ago — a story he retold as recently as last week during a televised tribute to a retired soldier during a New York Rangers hockey game.
Instead, Williams told the military newspaper Stars & Stripes in a story published Wednesday that he "misremembered" the story and was sorry for repeating it.
Williams's admission came after Stars & Stripes contacted crew members of the Chinook helicopter that the anchorman had said he was in when it was hit by two rockets and small-arms fire. They said that Williams was not aboard the aircraft during the incident at the start of the war. They said Williams arrived on another, undamaged helicopter an hour after the crippled Chinook had landed.
"I would not have chosen to make this mistake," Williams told the newspaper. "I don't know what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft with another."
During the hockey broadcast Friday, Stars & Stripes said Williams told viewers, "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."
Williams's claim of surviving an air attack bothered several soldiers familiar with air operations at the time, including Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Miller, who was the flight engineer on the helicopter that carried the NBC News crew. "No, we never came under direct enemy fire to the aircraft," he told the newspaper.
The soldier's complaints prompted Williams to apologize.
"I spent much of the weekend thinking I'd gone crazy," Williams wrote in an apology to the soldiers that was posted on the NBC Nightly News Facebook page. "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."
He added, "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."
He continued, "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."
"It was something personal for us that was kind of life-changing for me. I've (known) how lucky I was to survive it," said Lance Reynolds, who was the flight engineer on the Chinook that was hit. "It felt like a personal experience that someone else wanted to participate in and didn't deserve to participate in."
Reynolds said Williams and the NBC cameramen arrived in a helicopter 30 to 60 minutes after his damaged Chinook made a rolling landing at an Iraqi airfield and skidded off the runway into the desert.
He said Williams approached and took photos of the damage, but Reynolds brushed them off because the crew was assessing damage and he was worried his wife, who was alone in Germany, might see the news report.
"I wanted to tell her myself everything was all right before she got news of this happening," Reynolds said.
The newspaper interviewed several soldiers who said they recalled NBC reporting that Williams was aboard the aircraft that was attacked. Stars & Stripes found an NBC News story from March 26, 2003, with the headline "Target Iraq: Helicopter NBC's Brian Williams Was Riding In Comes Under Fire."
An NBC News spokesman had no immediate comment Wednesday.