Exactly how long has Brian Williams’ account of being under fire in Iraq in 2003 been going on and how wide does the story go at NBC News? A 2004 book by a military mom indicates that the version of events perpetuated by Williams up until yesterday started soon after the alleged RPG attack on a chopper he was riding in 12 years ago.
“Justin told us that the helicopter that he was in with anchorman Brian Williams and General Wayne Downing (retired) was shot at by Iraqis,” says Mary Ward in Letters Home: From 9/11 To Operation Iraqi Freedom: A Military Mom Shares Her Family’s Story Of Patriotism, Courage And Love of a conversation she had with then MSNBC producer Justin Balding in 2003. “It was an unforeseen and frightening event. The Chinook they were flying in took a rocket propelled grenade (RPG) and AK-47 in the cockpit requiring them to land unexpectedly,” she adds Balding told her.
On January 30, 2015 on the NBC News, Williams very specifically said, “the helicopter we were traveling in was forced down after being hit by an RPG.” In his apology on February 3, the anchor said he “bungled” things and “made a mistake in recalling the incidents.”
With multiple Emmy nominations notched on his belt, Justin Balding is a producer at NBC News today. Last September, Balding was one of the producers on the Emmy-winning Outstanding Coverage Of A Breaking News Story In A Regularly Scheduled Newscast for NBC Nightly News‘ “Devastation in Oklahoma”segment.
Today, NBC News confirmed that Balding still works there and was with Williams in Iraq in 2003 but had no comment on the remarks recollected in Letters Home. In an interview on CNN today that further confuses the tale, the pilot of the chopper that Williams, Downing and Balding were in said that the helicopter did take some small arms fire but not RPG as Mary Ward in her book says Balding said and more recently Williams has claimed.
That conversation between Balding and the Letters Home author occurred on August 6, 2003 at a homecoming at Fort Stewart, Georgia as Mrs. Ward was waiting for her son Sean to return from the Middle East, according to the book. Sean Ward was in the 3rd Infantry Division and was in the area around where the choppers were in Iraq that March 2003 day. Published by Marehaven Productions, Letters Home came out in late 2004.
Interestingly, Mrs. Ward’s understanding at the time was that Balding, Williams and others in their chopper were shot at. That may just be her impression from the news reports, however Balding’s words do appear to confirm that impression. Over the years, Williams words have more and more conveyed that impression.
In his March 26, 2003 report on NBC on the incident, Williams himself didn’t actually refer to being shot at, though then anchor Tom Brokaw does refer to the journalist being back in Kuwait City “after a close call in the skies over Iraq” in his intro. “On the ground, we learn the Chinook ahead of us was almost blown out of the sky,” Williams says in the report with no mention of being under fire himself or knowing that other choppers were until he had landed.
From 2003 to 2007, Williams’ version of what happened stays pretty consistent. However, it does seem that every year he gets a bit closer to the actual RPG attack. In a September 2007 blog post, Williams wrote “some men on the ground fired an RPG through the tail rotor of the chopper flying in front of ours.” That blog post praising recently deceased retired U.S. Army Gen. Wayne Downing, who was with Williams and his NBC News crew in 2003, also noted the presence of Balding during those days in Iraq.
That same September 8 years ago Williams moves the action even closer to himself. “At the start of the war, when I was flying in a Chinook with General Downing, that helicopter was shot at by a farmer,” he said in an interview with General David Petraeus, who was in charge of U.S. military forces at the time.
The next year, Williams has himself right in the thick of things. “We came under fire by what appeared to be Iraqi farmers with RPG’s and AK-47’s,” he writes in a May 12, 2008 blog post. “The Chinook helicopter flying in front of ours (from the 101st Airborne) took an RPG to the rear rotor, as all four of our low-flying Chinooks took fire. We were forced down and stayed down — for the better (or worse) part of 3 days and 2 nights.” Five years later, on the 10th anniversary of the incident, Williams told David Letterman on-air on March 26, 2013 that “two of our four helicopters were hit, by ground fire, including the one I was in.” Letterman told Williams that night that “I have to treat you now with renewed respect now, that’s a tremendous story.” The same month in 2013, Williams tells Alec Baldwin on his Here’s The Thing podcast about being on “a helicopter…in Iraq with rounds coming into the airframe.” The NBC Nightly News anchor tells Baldwin that “briefly, sure” he thought he could die.