Earlier this afternoon, National Review’s Eliana Johnson dug up the full transcript of embattled NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams recounting his helicopter story to Tim Russert in 2005, and she zeroed in on Williams’s specific claim that the pilot — “our captain” — was shot “right through the earlobe,” a claim disputed by the two pilots on that Chinook.
Johnson noted: “The captain of Williams’s helicopter Chris Simeone, has stepped forward with an article in the New York Post to say that he was neither struck by enemy fire nor received a Purple Heart. ‘I do not have a Purple Heart, and my ears are just fine,’ Simeone said. Allan Kelly, an Army pilot also aboard Williams’s helicopter, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune the same thing: that their chopper did not come under enemy fire.
Williams also made the “wounded captain” claim in an interview with CBS’s David Letterman in 2013, but the exchange with Russert was just two years after the incident, when his memory would presumably have been much fresher. Johnson’s post on NRO prompted me to go back and dig up the video of that March 26, 2005 CNBC exchange, which I don’t think anyone else has published this week. Here's the relevant excerpt followed by the transcript:
Host TIM RUSSERT: In March 2003, American troops in Baghdad. I believe you were the first American television journalist to reach Baghdad. Tell us about that experience and one also involving a helicopter that made you think about your life for several days at an end.
BRIAN WILLIAMS: Yeah. Well, prior to reaching Baghdad, we went on what we were told--I was not embedded. I was called unilateral. On my press tag it said ‘Unilateral,’ meaning, if you can attach yourself to a unit and use them as a ride, see whatever chunk, whatever slice of the war you can, have at it. So we did. We went with a US Army air wing, Chinook helicopters, the big twin-rotor type, four of them. What we couldn’t say on the air was that our mission was to drop bridge sections, big steel bridge sections, over the Euphrates because the 3rd ID was going to use that bridge to cross and go north. They said, ‘We’ll be back -- up and back in a day. We’ll be at 100 feet altitude, low and slow.’
RUSSERT: Was this from where to where?
WILLIAMS: Oh, this was from Kuwait to near Najaf. ‘Low and slow,’ remember those words. Because I was traveling with retired four-star General Wayne Downing, who was our military adviser. There is a bubble window in the wall of a Chinook helicopter made of Plexiglas, really so you can stick your head out and look below the helicopter and yet still be in an enclosed environment. General Downing, who knows a thing or two about this, looked out that window and said, ‘This is hot,’ meaning, it was full of enemy. It was full of unpoliced Iraqis. He might have used one or two other choice words there, but I’ll leave it at hot, Tim. It was no more than 120 seconds later that the helicopter in front of us was hit. A pickup truck stopped on the road, pulled a tarp back; a guy got up, fired an RPG, rocket-propelled grenade. These were farmers, or so they seemed. And it beautifully pierced the tail rotor of the Chinook in front of us.
I believe it was our captain who took a small arms--an AK-47 round right through the earlobe, Purple Heart. We set down quickly. We dropped our loads. The helicopter goes up when it releases that much tonnage, but then we sat down on the deck hard and fast, from low and slow to hard and fast. We were assessing the damage on the ground, realizing we had landed in a hot zone. There were Iraqis in the neighborhood, wondering what we were going to do when we heard a distinctive sound. Once you’ve heard a Bradley, there’s a kind of mechanical metal-on-sand whining and grinding, and out from the hatch popped the head of this fairly new West Point cadet turned first lieutenant named Eric Nye, who, recognizing we were in trouble, dispatched his armored mechanized platoon, and they surrounded us for three days.
Oh, and then the famous sandstorm moved in. The air turned orange. We were grounded. We watched the war play out over our heads. We watched those multiple rocket launchers in the night sky. We watched the military supply line in the distance. It was an amazing seat to have for the war, but for the following problem. My network and my family had no idea where I was. We didn’t bring a satellite phone that day. We had no communications. We couldn’t break radio silence because we were in Iraqi-held territory. But, again, [grinning] when you live to tell about it, you can someday do the Tim Russert show on CNBC.