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Saturday, December 3, 2016

I’m pretty sure I’ve never been on a helicopter that was slammed by a rocket-propelled grenade.

If it happens in the future, and I live to tell the story, I bet I’ll remember it for a long, long time. Like forever. You would, too.

Heck, I still remember getting punched on a Broward school bus in seventh grade. Bus number 134 is my recollection.

A frigging rocket hole in a helicopter fuselage? I’d remember every terrifying millisecond of that landing. When it comes to preserving memory, fear works better than even ginkgo pills.

Brian Williams is off the air at NBC News because he said he was on a Chinook helicopter that got struck by an RPG in Iraq. It wasn’t true.

According to the military newspaper Stars and Stripes, Williams was on a different chopper flying about an hour behind the one that was forced down. In other words, he was riding on a chopper that took off and landed uneventfully.

So Williams dramatically embroidered what happened back in 2003. Does he deserve the six-month suspension handed out last week by the network?

Absolutely. He’s lucky he wasn’t fired.

While there’s self-righteous gloating among some conservative pundits, this wasn’t a right-wing social-media assassination of the nation’s most popular and likable anchorman. This was a Ron Burgundy-style screwup by a very bright guy who knew better.

Everyone has told tall tales. The problem is that Williams told this one to millions of people more than once, and in the same staid tone with which he delivered the news every night.

He wasn’t sitting around a campfire with a few fishing buddies, lying about the size of a rainbow trout he caught. He wasn’t standing at the bar of his country club, lying about that birdie he didn’t really make on the 17th hole.

He was sitting in a chair next to David Letterman, for God’s sake, saying he got shot down in the Iraqi desert. This you can’t shrug off as a harmless macho yarn.

His account that night, and in other interviews, was much different from his reporting after the incident. When braced about it all these years later, Williams apologized and said he’d “conflated” the helicopter he was on with the chopper that was damaged by ground fire.

Conflate is a trendy word these days. It means to combine, meld or bring together. It does not mean “falsely altering the facts to aggrandize oneself.”

Americans are well aware of the show-business aspect of broadcast news, at all levels. During every hurricane, hordes of TV reporters get sent to the beach to stand dripping in the storm, telling us absolutely nothing we don’t already know. Gosh, look how windy it is!

For their anchors, networks have always sought (and heavily promoted) steady, recognizable news figures — Murrow, Cronkite, Brinkley, Brokaw, Sawyer, all household names in their prime and to this day.

Brian Williams is a household name, too. He was extremely good at his job, which he’d still have if he’d stuck to the news and kept himself out of it.

Journalists make mistakes, some careless and some hard to avoid. We’ve all gotten facts wrong, or been misled by sources. In this case, though, Williams was his own source, and the wrong fact enlarged his own role in the tale.

That he would repeat it is mystifying, for he surely knew that the crew of the shot-down helicopter might take notice. If it was a misfire of memory, as Williams has said, then it was epic — and disturbing, given his responsibilities.

NBC is investigating whether this was a pattern or an isolated instance. It will be difficult for Williams to recover.

Reporters aggressively go after politicians and other public figures who have fictionalized college degrees, service records or personal experiences. It happens fairly often.

Ronald Reagan once said he filmed Nazi concentration camps, though he never left California during World War II. Hillary Clinton once said she came under sniper fire in Bosnia, but the videotape tells a different story.

Seldom are we shocked speechless when a politician is caught exaggerating, or even making stuff up. However, Williams held a job with a mission, if not the promise, of accuracy.

Once a high-profile journalist starts telling war stories on Letterman, it becomes part of his or her professional résumé. The bottom line is that Williams now has a lie on his.

Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him at: 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132.

Photo: NBC News anchor Brian Williams speaks onstage at 2014 Stand Up For Heroes at Madison Square Garden at Madison Square Garden on November 5, 2014 in New York City (AFP/Andrew H. Walker)