Williams Said Chopper Hit By RPG Was ‘Ahead of Us’ on Same Mission, Veterans Insist It Was on Separate Mission and Not Nearby

AFP Photo / Robyn Beck
AFP Photo / Robyn Beck

Recently suspended NBC anchor Brian Williams has claimed since his initial report in 2003 that the helicopter hit by RPG fire and the helicopter on which he was riding were both part of the same four-helicopter convoy mission.

When Williams reported “the Chinook ahead of us” was hit by RPG fire to Tom Brokaw on NBC’s Dateline on March 26, 2003, it gave viewers the impression he was in very close proximity to the attacked chopper. The effect was to portray Williams in a courageous light.

But the veterans who were there appear to be in unanimous agreement that there were two separate missions, and the chopper hit by the RPG was on a different mission and wasn’t near the chopper on which Williams was riding.

Whether there were two separate missions or a single mission matters, because “the chopper ahead of us” on the same mission suggests much greater proximity than “the chopper ahead of us” on a separate mission.

As soon as he returned to Kuwait, Williams went further to create the impression he had been on a dangerous mission. “Only since I’ve been back and able to laugh about it did a friend of mine remind me, this was Black Hawk Down meets Saving Private Ryan,” Williams told Lester Holt on MSNBC in his second live report, filed on March 26, 2003.

Justin Balding, the NBC producer who accompanied Williams on that 2003 helicopter ride, has apparently recounted a markedly different description of the level of danger he and Williams faced in the desert.

Someone close to Balding has heard his account and offered this to Breitbart News:

Justin always described this as a bad camping trip. He never felt they were in any danger. He never felt threatened. It wasn’t a dynamic situation.

A second source says Balding offered the same account in 2003 when they met at a restaurant shortly after Balding’s return from Iraq.

“He said it was a bad camping trip in the desert. Not more dangerous than that,” the source told Breitbart News.

It was Williams’s claim that the chopper hit by an RPG had been on the same dangerous mission as he that motivated the captain of that chopper—Don Helus, Jr—to send an email complaining to MSNBC that Williams’s report was inaccurate shortly after he saw it 2003.

Helus, who says MSNBC never responded to his complaint, and the other veterans who were there insist there were two separate missions that day.

The first was a three-helicopter convoy whose mission was to transport Apache Helicopter repair parts to a location just south of Najaf, Iraq called Objective Rams, undertaken by Company F of the 159th Airborne Regiment, which is based on Germany and nicknamed “Big Windy.”

The second was a two-helicopter convoy whose mission was to transport bridge spans to a nearby but separate location in the Objective Rams region, undertaken by Company B of the 159th Airborne Regiment, which is based in Savannah, Georgia and nicknamed “Hercules.”

Helus’s chopper was part of the Big Windy mission, they say, and Williams’s chopper was part of the Hercules mission.

Last week Helus told CNN, the Omaha World Herald, and the Dothan Eagle there were two separate missions.

Chris Simeone, the pilot of the chopper on which Williams rode, told the New York Post last week it was two missions.

I was the pilot in command of the flight that carried Brian Williams into Iraq in March 2003. . .

We were a flight of two, and I was the rear aircraft. Our flight to Objective Rams was uneventful, with the exception of a desert dust storm that caused deteriorating conditions not suitable for flight. . .

Brian Williams and crew recorded footage of this parked aircraft. The “Big Windy” aircraft was not part of our unit. It was not part of our flight. We were not flying “behind” them. Our missions were completely separate.

Brian Williams began to tell the story, from 2003, that the lead aircraft in our flight had received this ground fire.

This was not true.

Friday, the Stars and Stripes reporter who broke the story, Travis Tritten, told Megyn Kelly on Fox News that all the veterans who were there that he interviewed told him it was two separate missions, and that Williams’s chopper wasn’t “following” Helus’s chopper.

Yeah, in no way was he following this Chinook that had come under fire. Again, he was in a separate formation and a separate company traveling in the opposite direction. So, I don’t see in any way where you could ever accurately portray that as following the aircraft that was hit.

In his February 4 interview with Stars and Stripes, released on Monday, Williams stuck to his “one mission, chopper ahead of us was hit by an RPG” story:

Tritten: I was told by one of the crew members who was actually on your Chinook was that you guys were an hour behind this grouping of three Chinooks that were out in the front, and those three Chinooks out in the front came under fire and the middle one was hit.

Williams: And that’s the first I’ve heard of that. I did not think we were in trail by that far

He made the same claim in his Wednesday apology on NBC News:

I said I was traveling in an aircraft that was hit by RPG fire. I was instead in a following aircraft.

As first reported at PressThink, Balding, Williams’s producer in Iraq, appeared to back up the “one-mission” description in a 2003 book published by NBC Enterprises, Operation Iraqi Freedom: The Inside Story. But his producer was less definitive than Williams about its relative location. Balding did not use Williams’s description that it was “the chopper ahead of us,” but instead said it was “one of the chopper crews ahead of us.”

On page 70, the authors, employees of NBC, wrote:

Producer Justin Balding recalls, “One of the chopper crews ahead of us spotted a pickup truck. As the Iraqis waved, a man suddenly ripped off the tarpaulin to reveal another man armed with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. He took aim and fired.”

Williams has yet to offer a credible explanation for the disagreement with the veterans on whether it was one mission or two, and how close the helicopter he was riding was to the chopper that was hit by an RPG at the time of the attack.

The source close to Balding told Breitbart News that Balding “never thought it was two missions until the criticisms from the veterans started coming after the January 30th broadcast” in which Williams falsely claimed he was riding on the chopper was hit by an RPG.

For more than eleven years—from the time the original report was filed in March 2013 until that January 30th broadcast, the source told Breitbart News, “Justin believed they were on one mission.”

“Justin said there were a lot of missions being flown out of Kuwait City. Williams and the NBC crew weren’t sure until the day it started what the mission was going to be. They were told by the Army that it was going to be a four chopper convoy of helicopters taking pontoon bridge sections to a point near the Euphrates,” the source said.

Contacted for comment, a Defense Department official told Breitbart News, “I cannot confirm whether or not the Army told Williams if this was one or two missions.”

At the time, the Army was reluctant to let the enemy know that the Apache helicopters used in the first days of the invasion were vulnerable to attack and had extensive maintenance problems.

Both Breitbart News and Huffington Post have reported that Balding himself never claimed the chopper on which he and Williams were riding was hit by an RPG.

The source also noted that, “Justin said that embeds [embedded journalists] were a pretty new phenomenon,” and that retired General Wayne Downing, who served as a consultant to NBC News and played a key role in arranging for Williams and the crew to go along for the ride, also was on board.

“This trip happened in two legs, Justin told me,” the source told Breitbart News. “They left the airbase in Kuwait City. It was four choppers. Then they landed at an operating base in northern Kuwait, where they stayed on the ground for a while, maybe an hour.”

“Then the same four choppers took off again. Brian Williams, General Downing, and Balding were in one chopper, the NBC cameraman and NBC soundman were in another chopper. Four choppers flew north into Iraq,” the source said.

By the veterans’ telling, there were a total of five choppers on the two separate missions.

By Balding’s recollection, presumably, the Big Windy and Hercules choppers were part of the same mission, and, instead of five choppers in total, there were four.

The source said Balding described the choppers inside as “noisy, dusty, and full of crap,” and that while in the air, it was difficult to see what the other nearby choppers were doing, or where they were.

During this time, the source said, Balding estimated the distance between the chopper he and Williams were on and any of the other three choppers as “somewhere between 200 yards and 15 miles.”

“When that chopper was hit by an RPG, Justin had no idea how close or far away it was other than it was probably within that 200 yard to 15 mile range,” the source told Breitbart News.

After dropping off their pontoon bridges, the two Hercules choppers on which Williams, Balding, General Downing, and the two other NBC crew members were riding turned south to head back to Kuwait, but were quickly told to land.

When they landed, they saw the downed Big Windy chopper, which had landed just outside of the perimeter of Objective Rams.

The NBC crew’s misunderstanding that it was one mission, rather than two, might have been cleared up, the source told Breitbart News, if Balding and Williams had been able to interview Helus and his crew then.

But Helus and his crew were busy dealing with an injured crew member “someone in the cockpit who was shot through the earlobe or cheek, Justin said,” the source told Breitbart News.

The source told Breitbart News that Balding did not receive emails from Helus or any other of the veterans who were there at the time. This was not surprising, the source said, because such an email could have gone to someone in another part of NBC.

“Justin always had great praise for the chopper crews and the guys on the ground,” the source told Breitbart News, “and that they knew what they were doing and would know exactly what their missions were.”

As for the complaints of veterans that audio from the dangerous Big Windy mission to complement video shot from the quiet Hercules mission was used on the NBC reports filed by Williams, the source says Balding said the NBC sound man on the second Hercules chopper was monitoring and recording the nearby radio traffic.

The source confirmed with Balding that audio originating from the Big Windy choppers was used in the reports filed by Williams.

At the time, the source says, Balding thought it was fair and accurate reporting to include that sound in the NBC reports because he believed the Big Windy choppers to be part of the same mission.

The creation of the reports for NBC was further complicated by the limited editing capabilities in Kuwait. “They had the capabilities to handle that in New York,” the source says Balding relayed, “so a lot of the final editing for those reports—in terms of which supporting audio and the video were used—was done there.”