It was proof of the operating assumption that Iraq will find a way to get you until you are clear of Iraqi airspace and safely out of the country. After a final day of reporting, we chose to start making our way to New York by making a stop in Amman, Jordan, before ending the week in New York tomorrow night.
So there we were sitting on squishy, vaguely sticky sofas in the dated, cavernous, sparse and dark confines of the main terminal at Baghdad International Airport. I was chatting with Gen. Wayne Downing, while I scrolled through some photos of the trip that cameraman Jeff Riggins had taken and downloaded onto his laptop. Suddenly there were five straight concussions. We all knew what they were -- rockets or mortars -- and we all know there's always the chance that they were controlled explosions. They were not. Cameraman Craig White and Producer Subrata De went to the window and saw the puffs of smoke rising from a patch of grass just off the taxiway in front of us. Amazed at the staying power of the insurgents (after all, these attacks are so common on or near the airport grounds -- three rockets landed there yesterday and we've been at this for four years), Riggins theorized that our outgoing flight would be delayed for hours. Au contraire.
Considering there are well over 140,000 Americans here, I've had two stunners in the Small World department in the last 48 hours. Yesterday in Camp Victory, I ran into an Army Reservist who works in the store where I buy my eyeglasses. This is his second tour -- he's a computer technician, and it was wonderful to see him and to show off the fact that I had purchased both the sunglasses I was wearing, and the reading glasses in my pocket, from him. While we were in Ramadi a few days ago, a young captain left a lengthy note for me. I met him when I was paying one of my many visits to West Point a few years ago. He stayed in touch, and months later asked me to be his co-conspirator on an elaborate plan. He brought his longtime sweetheart in to our studio to be my guests for a broadcast of Nightly News. They sat in the control room for the broadcast, and I invited them both up to the set for photos afterward. That was where the conspiracy kicked in. I asked his girlfriend to sit in my chair and I backed away while the brave West Point cadet (there's battlefield bravery... and then there's THIS kind of bravery...) got down on one knee and proposed to her, and our cameras rolled videotape of the entire scene. Postscript: she smartly said yes, they now have a child, and he is here as part of an armored platoon on his second tour. He heard that I was coming to Ramadi, and while he was out on patrol and could not come to see me, he was nice to leave me a note and update me on life. And that... as Paul Harvey would say... is the rest of the story.
Same drill tonight, I'm afraid. We were out shooting for much of the day, and then the heart of the afternoon was taken up writing the piece you'll see on the broadcast tonight about our trip into Baghdad with the First Cavalry. As a result I will divide this in two and post a longer bit when I have time after the broadcast. This was another macro/micro day, perfectly illustrating the dichotomy of the conflict between big picture and small. We will begin the broadcast with the sad toll from today (and please remember the three stateside families being notified of the loss of a loved one), and then Richard Engel and I will both show you what we found on our respective outings. More later...
As Brian mentioned in his vlog, he'll take you to a Joint Security Station on tonight's broadcast. Yesterday, correspondent Richard Engel was at a another JSS in Western Baghdad called Bonsai II. By design, the conditions are very spartan. The U.S. and Iraqi forces who serve there no longer have access to phones or the Internet, and they say they're experiencing a hidden casualty of this war -- strained relationships with their families back at home.
Click here to watch Richard's conversation with Command Staff Sgt. Albert McCall of Sarasota, Fla.
Brian broadcasts again tonight from Iraq, where today he visited a Joint Security Station and recorded his daily vlog. Click here or on the image to see him explain the mission of U.S. and Iraqi forces who work together at the station.
Alawi is a skinny 13-year-old Shiite boy who lives near our bureau. He has weak eyes and wears thick spectacles, and often shouts a greeting in English when he catches us going through the compound gates.
He lives with his parents and five younger siblings. His father is out of work so Alawi feeds the family by selling black market gasoline and delivering cooking gas cannisters. He makes a few dollars a day, and sometimes a little extra by holding a place for a neighbor in a long line of people waiting at the local gas station.
He was there last week waiting to refill a gas cannister. Iraqi guards were on duty to protect the crowd from bombers who frequently target gas stations, bus terminals and gatherings of day laborers looking for work. Sometimes they'll even attack funerals to inflict as many casualties as possible.
VIDEO: Watch NBC News footage of Alawi before the bombing and after (1:00 of video).
One of the guards asked Alawi to hop across the street and fetch him a sandwich. He left his empty gas cannister in the care of a friend, took the guard's money and ducked through a police convoy passing by.
That's when the bomb exploded.
What an odd feeling in Saddam's old palace tonight, where we met with 4-star Gen. David Petraeus, the man in charge of the show here. The phrase "all that glitters..." comes to mind -- when you notice the construction is all about facade -- hollow walls, a chandelier that is made with plastic parts, cheap un-matched squares of marble, flaking gold plating on the fixtures... and Saddam's initials and inspirational slogans everywhere. Eerie, but not quite as creepy as the palace that I entered in downtown Baghdad just 48-hours after the initial invasion -- where I watched Special Forces soldiers remove what were believed to be the personal possessions of the dictator for DNA testing, and where a line of Third Infantry soldiers quickly formed to use the bathroom -- their first actual bathroom in days of driving and fighting -- which just happened to be Saddam's bathroom.
We're dealing with the common effects of working eight time zones away from New York. We're often expected to work, in effect, two days for every one at home. While our day (and often our only time to shoot and report) is New York's night, New York then comes alive when we are dead on our feet. Patrols happen when they happen, generals are available when they're available, and we can't change the fact that the first live feed of Nightly News is at 2:30 in the morning. We gain some solace knowing the men and women asleep in the tents that surround us are in many cases running on less fuel than we are -- while people's lives often depend on their work during the day.
Time and computer problems have conspired against me today. I just got access to a working computer two hours before airtime, and am working in the back of a hollow truck -- sitting at a laptop with a Coleman lantern and a cup of coffee that Richard Engel just delivered, out of nowhere. As we are now an hour from air, I must switch my time and attention over to the broadcast -- and as soon as I am able (sometime in the next three hours) I will post a more detailed reading of our day. It has turned significantly colder tonight, but the wind has died down. We are still operating out of a complex of tents, feeding videotape and broadcast signals from our live van and trying not to wake the sleeping soldiers who surround us. More later...
That's what we're calling them, for lack of a better word -- Web-extras. These are extended cuts from the story Brian will report on tonight's broadcast -- life at Camp Victory in Baghdad. He'll have more details for you in his regular afternoon post a little later. For now, here are the three videos. You can find all our Web-extras from the trip on this page.
VIDEO: Brian talks with Lt. Quammie Semper at Camp Victory in Baghdad about going 'outside the wire' on patrol.
VIDEO: Brian talks with Buffalo, N.Y., native Sgt. Tina Neal at Camp Victory in Baghdad about her third tour in Iraq.
VIDEO: Brian talks with Longview, Wash., native Staff Sgt. Korbie Boughton at Camp Victory in Baghdad about support of the mission.
NBC's Paul Stimpson snapped this photo of the Baghdad bureau's whiteboard documenting today's violence in Iraq.