By Peter Sessum
The Pope’s visit to America heralded the return of Brian Williams to news. While vets will long remember his statements and liken them to stolen valor, civilians will soon forget. As a vet, I do not take offense to his claims and I am going to cut him some slack. Mainly because I have seen vets do the same thing.
Embellishing a story is nothing new and I don’t think it is going to stop anytime soon. Military stories often evolve over time, especially for those who love the attention. The story also changes depending on what message the story is supposed to convey. Often a minor detail is changed to make the story sound better.
“I was in Berlin when the wall came down” is true for Brian Williams. Worded like that makes you think that he was present when the wall was coming down. But he and Tom Brokaw visited the wall the next day. Unfortunately, for Williams, the story later evolved to being at the wall when it came down. A minor change that doesn’t change the significance of that moment in history but it sounds better than missing it by a day. After all, he was in the city at the time and it sounds cooler than the truth.
The same goes for the story of the helicopter in Iraq. A chalk of helicopters comes under ground fire and they are forced to land because one is damaged by an RPG. Williams shows up in the following chalk and they end up staying overnight. The truth would be that he stayed overnight out in the middle of the desert and that would be a good story for most civilians. The fact that he wasn’t in the helicopter is a minor detail. Placing himself there would add to the tension which would be important for a storyteller.
For vets it seems too close to stolen valor but to Williams it might just be making the story better. It is also possible that as time has passed, the exact details fail him. It seems that each time he has publicly told the story the details have changed. If his story has changed that much when a camera has been on him I can’t imagine how much the story has been muddled in the countless times he has told it to friends and family.
I am going to cut the guy some slack because I have seen military members do the same thing. Not necessarily claiming to be something they are not but embellishing a story to make it sound cooler. Here is the evolution of a story that was told by a PSYOP soldier about a situation in Afghanistan.
The convoy was at a halt and he was in the TC seat of a Humvee when two Taliban fighters fired at the unit from a ridge-line. A squad of Infantry was sent up the hill but the pair had already disappeared over the crest and were gone.
The convoy was at a halt and he was ground guiding his vehicle into a better position. Two Taliban fighters fired at the unit and a squad of Infantry was sent off after them. The bad guys got away.
The convoy was at a halt, he was ground guiding the vehicles and HE came under fire. Not just the unit but they were aiming at him and his vehicle. Again, squad of Infantry sent out to chase after the bad guys.
And my personal favorite, he was outside the vehicle during a convoy halt. They were ambushed by the Taliban and he led the Infantry squad up the hill after the bad guys.
That was the evolution of the story that happened while we were still in Afghanistan. At least Williams has the excuse of a 10 year span of time. This troop changed his story with each telling over the course of a couple of months. One of his soldiers would shake his head when he would talk about the situation. The soldier later said that the NCO was asleep in the vehicle when someone popped off a couple AK shots and fled but that is not a sexy story to tell people that have been through more. He is also one of the guys that never worked with SF but wears the SF group combat patch since PSYOP was under special operations. Legal but misleading.
It takes some diligence to not embellish a story or wording a story to not be misleading to the audience. Seeing soldiers embellish their stories and seeing how they evolve over time leads to me to cut Williams some slack over his stories. I think it was harmless and now that he has been busted he will be better about that kind of thing now. Either his ego or his pocketbook (he lost a job that was rumored to pay $10 million a year) will keep him in line. Everyone knows a troop or vet that embellishes a story here and there and it seems unfair to hold a civilian to a higher standard.