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AMERICAN MORNING

James Brown Dead at 73; Celebrating Christmas Around the World; Subdued Christmas in Iraq

Aired December 25, 2006 - 07:59   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Breaking news. The "Godfather of Soul" silenced. James Brown dies overnight in Atlanta.
ALINA CHO, CNN ANCHOR: Christmas on the front lines. We're in Iraq with U.S. troops spending the holiday on edge in one of the world's most dangerous places.

M. O'BRIEN: And new clues in the search for two American climbers missing in China. An exclusive report on this Christmas edition of AMERICAN MORNING.

Good morning to you and Merry Christmas, Monday, December 25th.

I'm Miles O'Brien.

CHO: Merry Christmas to you.

Good morning, everyone. I'm Alina Cho, in for Soledad today.

Thanks for joining us.

M. O'BRIEN: We begin this morning with some sad news, the death of an entertainment legend. James Brown, the man known as the "Godfather of Soul", dead at the age of 73. Known as the hardest working man in show business, Brown pioneered many of the sounds of R&B, rap and funk. He died of pneumonia this morning at a hospital in Atlanta.

CNN's Rusty Dornin is there.

Rusty, good morning.

RUSTY DORNIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Miles, a lot of people were stunned by this news. In fact, on Friday, James Brown could be seen giving away toys to underprivileged children in Augusta, Georgia, which is where he grew up.

At some point during that day he made the journey, about a two-hour trip, here to Atlanta for a regularly scheduled dental appointment. It was at that time that they detected some kind of health problems, but he didn't get into the hospital until over the weekend.

Now, his agent, Super Frank (ph), did tell CNN last night he was not in intensive care but that they had canceled some concert dates for him in New Jersey and in Connecticut. But he was expected to recover.

He was expected to go on and do concerts next weekend. And, of course, New Year's Eve he was going to be on Anderson Cooper's show performing a song, as well as performing at BB King Theater in New York. Instead, he died from effects of severe pneumonia at 1:45 a.m. this morning here at Emory Crawford Long in downtown Atlanta.

Unsure of the funeral arrangements at this point. We know that he's been taken to a funeral home in Decatur which is next door here to Atlanta.

But as you said, he inspired so many people. He was the "Godfather of Soul". But he was also an inspiration for rock, for hip-hop, for rap. Looking at Mick Jagger dancing across the stage, he took a lot of inspiration, of course, from James Brown.

And Miles, I think something that I didn't realize was that he is number two -- or was number two behind Elvis Presley for record -- all-time hit records, number two worldwide. James Brown dead at the age of 73 -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Wow. I would not have guessed him at the number two slot. That's amazing.

All right. Thank you very much, Rusty Dornin, in Atlanta -- Alina.

CHO: We have more now on the "Godfather of Soul."

CNN's Sibila Vargas takes a look at the life of the legendary performer.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SIBILA VARGAS, CNN ENTERTAINMENT CORRESPONDENT (voice over): He was the "Godfather of Soul," "Mr. Dynamite," a performer who lit up the stage with his distinctive voice and endless supply of energy. All James Brown did was change the face of R&B, soul and funk music in the '60s and '70s, leaving behind those signature tunes that continue to influence today's generation of musicians.

Growing up poor in the depression era South, Brown said he shined shoes and danced for spare change. And despite a criminal record dating back to an armed robbery conviction in his teens, Brown managed to become a certified music icon.

He emerged as a standout talent in the R&B group the Famous Flames in the late '50s. And with the hit album Live at the Apollo released in 1963, James Brown shined in the national limelight. A year later, he and the Famous Flame performed together for the last time.

Soon after, Brown recorded two of the songs he would be known for the rest of his career, his hits, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" and "I Got You," in which he coined his catch phrase...

JAMES BROWN, SINGER (SINGING): I feel good.

VARGAS: ... topped both the R&B and pop charts in 1965. Brown's style of rhythm and blues with attitude gradually earned its own genre. By the '70s, his music was funk. He led a new group, the James Brown Review. And the performer was now a bona fide hit machine, with more than 50 top 10 R&B songs under his belt by the mid '70s.

But in the late '70s a new musical craze took over the country, and the 60s hit maker "Soul Brother Number One" struggled to connect with the disco generation. Cameo appearances in hit movies of the '80s like "The Blues Brothers" reintroduced Brown and his quirky performance style to younger audiences.

His "Living in America" became a top 10 hit in 1985 with both the song and singer appearing in "Rocky IV." That success was short-lived.

By 1988, Brown once again found himself tangling with the law. First came allegations of assault on then wife Adrienne Brown. And just a year later, after Brown allegedly threatened people with a handgun, he sent police on an interstate car chase, with police opening fire on Brown's pickup truck. He was sentenced to six years in prison, paroled after two and a half.

Brown had several more brushes with the law through the 1990s, arrested multiple times for drug possession and domestic abuse.

But that didn't change what Brown had done for music. The singer received a lifetime achievement Grammy Award and inductions to both the Rock and Roll and Songwriters Hall of Fame.

In 2003, Brown was named a Kennedy Center honoree. He continued to work well into his 70s, touring internationally and performing for special events. James Brown, the self-described hardest working man in show business, lived up to his name.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CHO: And for more on the life and career of James Brown, head over to our Web site. That's CNN.com.

M. O'BRIEN: It is Christmas morning across America. Lots of kid waking up early, heading out to see what's under the tree, what Santa brought them. Lots of folks both here and around the world celebrating a day of peace. It's an especially holy day for the world's Christians.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

O'BRIEN (voice over): From the Vatican, the pope's message of peace beamed round the world. Benedict XVI celebrating midnight mass in the splendor of St. Peter's Basilica, issuing an appeal to help the children.

POPE BENEDICT XVI (through translator): The child of Bethlehem directs our gaze towards all children, particularly those who suffer and are abused in the world.

M. O'BRIEN: But in Bethlehem itself, the biblical birthplace of Jesus, hard times temper the celebration. Five thousand turned out in Manger Square, 2,000 packed the Church of the Nativity, including Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. The city itself on its knees from sanctions imposed against the Hamas-led government.

In Paris, the Eiffel Tower lit up like a Christmas tree, literally.

Brazil, the normally festive atmosphere taking on a more reverent tone as thousands turned out for the traditional holiday carnival.

And perhaps the oddest picture of them all from China, a-seven-year old Christmas tradition in the streets of Chongqing. A hundred thousand filling the streets carrying inflatable hammers and bats, apparently inspired by the New Year's Eve scene in Times Square.

And of course in Australia, where it's now summer, it has to be Christmas on the beach.

Here in the states, another tradition, last-minute shopping. They were jamming the aisles at Macy's in New York City well into the Christmas Eve night.

Los Angeles malls packed to capacity with last-minute bargain hunters and plain old procrastinators, Santa pulling overtime.

SANTA CLAUS: What would you like for Christmas, honey? What's that, honey?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: A Barbie.

CLAUS: A Barbie.

M. O'BRIEN: Talk about a world away, Christmas in Kabul. A handful of Christians gathering there to celebrate the birth of Jesus.

And in Iraq, Christians braved devastating violence in the streets to celebrate a day of peace.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

M. O'BRIEN: As we mentioned, a lonely, sad Christmas in Bethlehem today. Violence and division between Israelis and Palestinians and sanctions aimed at the Hamas-controlled Palestinian government keeping many away from the place where Jesus was born 2,006 years ago.

CNN's Elise Labott live from Bethlehem with more -- Elise.

ELISE LABOTT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Miles, you're right, it's a bit of a somber Christmas this year, but still 5,000 pilgrims flocked to Manger Square last night for a traditional midnight mass, 2,000 in the Church of Nativity. Of course, it's not as much as it's been in recent years, before the heightened conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. Tourism is down; pilgrims have to go through Israeli checkpoints.

Conflict with Israel has really intervened. And as a result, the birthplace of Christ has really fallen on hard times.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LABOTT (voice over): This Christmas, the Church of the Nativity stands empty. One lone pilgrim prays at the silver star marking the site where Jesus was born. Manger Square is bare. Most of the souvenir shops are shuttered.

For those like Naser Alawy, who remain open, sales are down.

NASER ALAWY, STORE MANAGER: We hope we'll get many people. (INAUDIBLE), we say in Arabic -- we hope so. And at the same time, hope that peace will come to this land.

LABOTT: Israel has promised to help us Christian pilgrims in through this checkpoint, but the scene is far from welcoming.

The famous Hotel Alexander is nearly empty. Manager Joseph Canawati says being broke doesn't encourage the Christmas spirit.

JOSEPH CANAWATI, HOTEL OWNER: The majority of people here in Bethlehem (INAUDIBLE) celebrate Christmas from the heart. It's just -- it's artificial Christmas this year.

LABOTT: Bethlehem's woes are not about Fatah versus Hamas or Christian versus Muslim, says mayor Victor Bartarseh. In fact, relations between Christians and Muslims are good. Instead, it's about money and separation. Thousands of residents have not been paid in months due to the international boycott of the Hamas-led government.

MAYOR VICTOR BARTARSEH, BETHLEHEM: Christmas is coming and I cannot pay the salaries of my employees.

LABOTT: And the little town of Bethlehem has been made even smaller by this concrete barrier. The Israelis built it to protect Jerusalem from suicide bombers, but it has also cut off many Bethlehem farmers from their land and their livelihood.

Forty-one-year-old Claire Anastas, a Christian, has lived in Bethlehem all her life. Now she sees only gray.

CLAIRE ANASTAS, BETHLEHEM RESIDENT: I feel that we're buried alive. We are not animals. We are human beings.

LABOTT: This Christmas, Claire will pray for her four children, who she says has no future growing up in a prison of concrete.

ANASTAS: We try to let our children be happy and to do as best as we can do. Even -- we lost everything. But we have to do some nice things on Christmastime.

LABOTT: The mayor of Bethlehem says if Israeli occupation ends and peace returns, so will the people.

BARTARSEH: As long as we believe in Jesus, who was born in this city, then we have the hope that it will survive.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

LABOTT: Miles, despite the economic hard times, the conflict with Israel, and now infighting between Palestinians themselves, this day is very special for the residents of Bethlehem, the day Christ was born, in the city he was born. The resilience of the people here is really amazing, and on this Christmas Day they went to the Church of Nativity to pray for a better day for themselves and for peace between Israelis and Palestinians -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Elise Labott in Bethlehem.

Thank you -- Alina.

CHO: The first family is spending Christmas at Camp David today with Iraq issues weighing heavily on President Bush.

CNN's Suzanne Malveaux doing duty for us at the White House this morning.

Suzanne, good morning.

So, what does the president have planned for today?

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Good morning.

Well, as you mentioned, of course, he is a at Camp David with the family, the retreat there, with his parents, the first lady, his mother-in-law, the twins, Barbara and Jenna. It was just yesterday President Bush also putting in some calls to American troops, about 10 service members, we are told, primarily in Afghanistan and Iraq, essentially telling them how proud he is of their service, trying to boost their morale.

And Alina, you know this comes at a critical time for the president. Really a lot of pressure to prove that this U.S. mission in Iraq is worth it to those soldiers.

It was yesterday that he held a high-level meeting at Camp David with his new secretary of defense, Bob Gates. Gates had just returned from a three-day trip to Baghdad. Gates briefing him on the kind of conversations he had with top commanders from the ground, as well as the troops.

Many different options, the benefits, the risks of each one of those military options. And the one that there's been a lot of discussion, a lot of debate over, is this idea of a temporary surge of American troops. Tens of thousands going into Baghdad on a short-term basis to try to quell the violence, at the same time while the Iraqis and the government tries to get its political house in order.

Senior administration officials say, look, these two things have to happen in concert. They are very much dependent on one another. But again, Alina, no decisions yet have been made.

CHO: All right. We look forward to more in the new year.

Suzanne Malveaux, I hope you get home in time for the turkey today.

Suzanne, thank you.

MALVEAUX: Happy holidays.

M. O'BRIEN: Coming up on AMERICAN MORNING...

RYAN CHILCOTE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I'm Ryan Chilcote, embedded with the U.S. Army 431 Infantry in Iraq's Sunni Triangle. Coming up, a look at how troops are spending Christmas on the front lines.

M. O'BRIEN: And a possible break in the hunt for two American climbers missing in China. A clue that may tell searchers where to look.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

M. O'BRIEN: Sixteen minutes and 20 seconds past the hour. If you're heading out the door, why would you be heading out the door? You're opening presents now.

Stay where you are, will you? Enjoy the kids, have fun. No, you might be heading out the door to see somebody open presents. Whatever.

It doesn't matter. You want to know what the weather is like eventually, right?

(WEATHER REPORT)

CHO: Violence in Iraq is making Christmas there an exercise in caution. Six American soldiers were killed over the weekend in a series of bombings. The U.S. military death toll in Iraq is now approaching 3,000.

CNN's Ryan Chilcote reporting from Yusufiya, inside the very dangerous Sunni Triangle.

No time off for the troops this morning at all -- Ryan.

CHILCOTE: That's right. The U.S. Army's 431 Infantry is in charge of a part of Iraq just south of Baghdad that is infamously known as the Triangle of Death. That makes for a very subdued Christmas.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CHILCOTE (voice over): In Iraq's Triangle of Death there is no such thing as holidays. The 3rd Platoon is on the hunt for insurgents.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: For the most part, it's just another day. And it's too bad, but we know what we're doing and we know why we do it.

CHILCOTE: Patrolling in the heart of a Sunni stronghold, Christmas feels as far away as they are from home. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No snow, no winter wonderland, nothing like that.

CHILCOTE: In the four months they've been in Iraq, the platoon has seen five roadside bombs go off. They've been shot at 10 times.

Today is their first day policing this neighborhood. The only contact they're making is with kids. They've learned to take pleasure in small things.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's not as bad as where we're coming from. It's a little better. So kind of nice. You know? Christmas gift right here, come to a better place.

CHILCOTE: The standard Christmas wish?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hopefully get more than four hours' sleep. That will be a good Christmas present to me.

CHILCOTE: Night falls on Christmas Eve, but the mortar team is keeping everyone up. In the platoon's tent, the light comes and goes. But it becomes apparent there is something different about today.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: One of my packages actually got blown up.

CHILCOTE: Each one of these men has a story to tell of sacrifice. This lieutenant was shot by a sniper but has been hiding it from his family so they wouldn't worry.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: "P.S., you are my hero."

CHILCOTE: The sergeant got called back into the service for his third tour since 9/11, two weeks after he got married.

They are on the receiving end of presents and letters from strangers.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sometimes we feel like a lot of people forget about us over here or whatever. But you get stuff like this, it helps out a lot.

CHILCOTE: For the lieutenant, it's a gift from his 13-year-old cousin.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When it's a holiday and something happens to make you realize it's a holiday, like getting a present from your little cousin, it means a lot. You know, whether it's late or not. It's Christmas.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CHILCOTE: The intermittent electricity is not the only problem that the troops have to deal with at this base. The conditions here are very spartan. Still, the troops will be treated to a turkey dinner. It's set to begin in just a couple of hours.

Meanwhile, back in Baghdad, at one of the more built-up bases, Kid Rock will be performing for the troops -- Alina. CHO: A little turkey and hopefully a little more sleep.

CNN's Ryan Chilcote in Iraq for us this morning.

Ryan, thank you.

M. O'BRIEN: Also in Iraq this morning, another budding rift between the Bush White House and the government of Iraq. "The New York Times" is reporting U.S. forces are detaining four Iranian military leaders who were invited to Iraq by Iraq's president, Jalal Talabani.

CNN's Barbara Starr live in Washington with more.

Hello, Barbara.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Good morning to you, Miles.

Well, this Iranian connection comes at a very sensitive time. The Iraqi government has been reaching out to Iran. Iraqi president Jalal Talabani was in Tehran recently. All of this has been an effort to get Iran to stop trying to influence the Shia militias inside Iraq.

So this new incident is very delicate, because the U.S. military now of course has publicly accused Iran's paramilitary forces of financing those Shia militias inside Iraq. And top U.S. military officials say Iran is also providing training, weapons and financing for Muqtada al- Sadr's Mehdi militia.

So this incident would be another link yet between Shia efforts in Iraq and Tehran. And of course it comes at a time when the U.S. is considering that surge in sending U.S. forces to Iraq -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Barbara Starr in Washington.

Thank you -- Alina.

CHO: Stay with us. Here's some of what's coming up this morning.

A breakthrough in the search for those American climbers missing in China.

Then Dr. Sanjay Gupta goes inside autism. What doctors are starting to understand about this complex disorder.

And our top story today, the man known as the "Godfather of Soul" has died. But his music lives on.

We'll have much more on this AMERICAN MORNING.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

M. O'BRIEN: In China, the search is narrowing for two missing American climbers. The two climbers disappeared after hiking into a snowy mountain in the Sichuan province. Christine Boskoff and Charlie Fowler, both very accomplished climbers, were due back in the U.S. on December 4th. Three hundred searchers are now looking for them, but the hope for a rescue is running out.

CNN's John Vause with an exclusive report.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JOHN VAUSE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Ted Callahan is leading what seems an almost hopeless expedition. He and 13 other experienced mountain climbers have fanned out across hundreds of square miles of rugged southwest China looking for two friends, Americans Christine Boskoff and Charlie Fowler.

TED CALLAHAN, SEARCH LEADER: We still have hope, but it's diminishing.

VAUSE: With the help of dozens of Chinese volunteers, some knocking door to door in villages, Callahan slowly pieced together where Christine and Charlie may have traveled.

CALLAHAN: We had people west of here, east of here and south of here. And they really tracked down every lead.

VAUSE: Everything has led the search teams here to the Genyan (ph) area. It's a half-day drive east of a small frontier town called Litang, where there was the last confirmed sighting of the two missing climbers. This past weekend came a possible breakthrough.

(on camera): Litang police now claim to have found luggage belonging to both Christine and Charlie. It was allegedly being held by a local man who works as a driver for tourists. Searchers are now assuming the bags were left unclaimed because the missing pair never made it back from the mountains.

(voice over): The focus for rescuers is now on Yenda, a small village where the driver claims to have dropped the climbers off November 10th to be collected two weeks later. But they never returned.

No one knows how long they've been in trouble; at least a month, maybe more. Local mountain guide Pn Xiao Long says it would be almost impossible for anyone to survive. "There is a lot of reason for concern," he told me, "because the time has been so long."

Still, this against-the-odds search will continue for the next few days at least in one of the most remote and isolated places on earth.

John Vause, CNN, Sichuan Province, China.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CHO: Stay with us on this Christmas Day.

Some of the stories we're following this morning, a white Christmas for U.S. troops in Afghanistan. We'll check in to see how they're coping so far away from home today. And his music made us feel good, enough to get on up and get down. We'll look back at the legacy of James Brown, who died on this Christmas Day.

Stay with us. You're watching AMERICAN MORNING.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

M. O'BRIEN: Breaking news. Legendary singer James Brown is dead. The Godfather of Soul passing away early this morning in Atlanta.

CHO: Inside autism. A staggering number of children are developing the condition every year. Dr. Sanjay Gupta takes a closer look at why that might be happening.

M. O'BRIEN: And Christmas in the war zones. U.S. troops doing their best to embrace the holiday spirit in Iraq and Afghanistan. We'll talk to one of their commanders on this Christmas edition of AMERICAN MORNING.

Good morning to you. Merry Christmas. It is Monday, December 25th. I'm Miles O'Brien.

CHO: Good morning. And good morning to you. I'm Alina Cho in for Soledad today. Thanks for joining us.

Some sad news this morning - the death of a music legend. James Brown, the man known as the Godfather of Soul, dead at the age of 73.

Known as the hardest-working man in show business, Brown pioneered many of the sounds of R&B, rap and funk. He died in an Atlanta hospital, and CNN's Rusty Dornin was there for us this morning.

Rusty, good morning.

RUSTY DORNIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT, ATLANTA: Well, Alina, he was the hardest-working man in show business, right up until the end. He had a number of concerts scheduled on the East Coast through this next week. He was going to be on Anderson Cooper's show on New Year's Eve and had a show planned at the B.B. King Theater.

And on this last Friday, he was giving away toys to underprivileged children in Augusta, Georgia. That afternoon, he came to Atlanta for a regularly scheduled appointment with the dentist. And at that time, apparently some health problems were detected.

But he did not enter the hospital for pneumonia until sometime on Saturday, here at Emory Crawford Long in downtown Atlanta.

Super Frank, his agent, told CNN last night that he was not in intensive care. He was expected to recover. And although they had cancelled some concerts in New Jersey and Connecticut, he was expected to make those New Year's Eve shows next weekend.

So, it was a big surprise when he died at 1:45 a.m. this morning, from pneumonia.

Of course, Brown known for his - as you said, called the Godfather of Soul. He's said to be the godfather of funk, of rap, of disco, of jazz.

He'd had a number of health problems. In 2004, he did have prostate cancer, but he did - was successfully treated for that. And, of course, many of his other health problems were self-destructive. They'd involved drugs and alcohol.

He had repeated run-ins with the law. He was even in prison for awhile on aggravated assault charges.

And, of course, Brown was a self-promoter. Many of these monikers - the Godfather of Soul, and these sorts of things - he gave himself.

And he even told the Associated Press in an interview a few years ago, that his song in 1968, with "Say It Out Loud - I'm Black, I'm Proud," he sort of credited himself for changing African-Americans calling themselves black instead of colored or negro. And Brown said that was his doing, that his song was the one that made that happen.

So, of course, gave himself a lot of credit. But, of course, he deserves a lot of credit, as well.

James Brown dead at the age of 73 - Alina.

CHO: And we all are remembering him today. CNN's Rusty Dornin live for us in Atlanta. Rusty, thank you.

M. O'BRIEN: Let's take a look at Christmas all around the word.

At the Vatican, Pope Benedict urged an end to wars. He repeated it in several languages to a crowd of thousands at St. Peter's Square - a crowd of millions on television, of course. He also called on followers to overcome prejudices that divide them.

In Bethlehem, hundreds of worshippers at midnight mass near the birthplace of Jesus. Most of the crowd, which included Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, consisted of locals and Christian Arabs from Israel. The foreign tourist business hit hard by the Israeli- Palestinian conflict.

In Baghdad, American troops celebrate with a traditional Christmas dinner, trying the best they can to bring some feeling of home to the battle zone. Tonight, the troops will be treated to a concert from Kid Rock.

A white Christmas in Afghanistan. U.S. troops get into the holiday spirit, as the bloodiest year since the fall of the Taliban five years ago draws to a close. Coalition troops held services and had a special Christmas meal.

And a white Christmas in Australia, if you count the white sandy beach, that is. People in Sydney spending Christmas day in the sun and surf, sporting bikinis and swim trunks along with their Santa hats. Some of them brought trees to plant in the sand. Fire up the bar-b, I guess - Alina.

CHO: Not a bad way to spend Christmas.

Not to be forgotten, thousands of American servicemen and women are spending this Christmas far away from home on the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Joining us now from Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan, Army Major Eric Bollinger. Thank you for joining us, sir. Merry Christmas.

I do want to talk about how the troops will be spending Christmas, but before I do, there has been some big news over the weekend. As you know, U.S. military officials announced that a top Taliban member had been killed in a U.S. air strike in southern Afghanistan, Taliban denying it.

I'm wondering if you have anything to add to that, sir.

MAJOR ERIC BOLLINGER, U.S. ARMY, AFGHANISTAN: I do not. I read the same reports that everyone in the States have, and I personally have not heard anything else besides that.

CHO: All right. Fair enough.

Let's get to the Christmas holiday. As you well know, no day off for the troops. But how are you going to be spending the holiday today?

BOLLINGER: Well, since it's in the evening here, I've spent Christmas Day here, mostly with the people in my unit.

We've had Christmas movies. We've had Christmas candy from the States. And we've had a just outstanding Christmas meal. They've just taken good care of us over here, all of us.

CHO: Oh, that's good. Turkey and the trimmings, right, and a little - and some gifts, as well. That's good news.

Let's talk a little bit about morale there. As you well know, the headlines every day are out of Iraq. We hear about Iraq all the time.

In some ways, I think, that a lot of people think Afghanistan is the forgotten war. So, how do you as a commander keep morale up there, when you don't hear about it in the news so much?

BOLLINGER: Well, most of it is just daily contact with all of our people. We spend a lot of time out on the road, going out and visiting the different sites that are around the country.

And we do talk to at least every unit every day, somebody in our headquarters battalion does. And are just mostly, just trying to keep a thumbprint on everybody and how they're feeling. Right now, three of our staff are out and about around the countryside, spending Christmas with the people out there. And that's basically what we do a lot every day, not just Christmas.

CHO: Well, I don't think you have a morale problem. I mean, this is your third tour, I understand.

How - you know, I think a lot of people would say, one tour, I've done my duty for my country. What keeps you going? Three tours of duty?

BOLLINGER: Three tours. And would you believe, I'm probably on the low end of the scale, especially in the last five years. I was just with a team (ph), in some training with some people that came over with me in October. And this is their fourth and fifth tour, just in the last six years.

So, I'm low on the scale on time over here.

CHO: All right.

BOLLINGER: So, this is just something that I felt that was needed to do. My family was behind it.

CHO: Any idea, sir, when you're heading home? And I know you're retiring and going back home to your wife and five children? Did I hear that correctly?

BOLLINGER: Yes, you did. In April 2007 is when I'm hoping to be home.

CHO: All right. We look forward to seeing you back home. Thank you so much for joining us on this Christmas Day, Major Eric Bollinger.

BOLLINGER: Thank you, Alina.

CHO: Merry Christmas, stay safe and thank you for joining us.

M. O'BRIEN: Coming up, a diagnosis of autism gives a parent a name for their child's problem, but no easy answers for treatment. A special report on a growing epidemic.

And a 12-year-old boy as brave as a grown firefighter. He saved his whole family from a burning apartment this morning. We'll tell you that story. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

M. O'BRIEN: There's an epidemic of autism in this country. One in every 166 children diagnosed with the disorder, but the diagnosis is just the beginning. The symptoms vary widely and so do the treatments.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta with more.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL REPORTER: Eight-year-old Jordan and his seven-year-old sister, Gina Grace, have both been diagnosed with autism. And when you meet them, it's hard to believe they have the same disorder.

For sure, autism is complex, hard to define and a bit of a mystery. And there's still no way to test for it.

There are many types of autism.

TOMMY BATES, FATHER OF TWO CHILDREN WITH AUTISM: She's moderate in some areas, she's severe in others. So, it's so complex. But her official diagnosis is moderately autistic. Our son is PDD-NOS, which is the original diagnosis. And that has now changed to Asperger's.

GUPTA: Autism has been broken down into five disorders that make up what's called pervasive developmental disorders, or PDD.

They are autistic disorder, pervasive disorder not otherwise specified, or PDD-NOS, the less common Rett syndrome, and childhood disintegrative disorder and Asperger's syndrome, which is on the low end of the autism spectrum.

Doctors believe most autism is genetic. But beyond that, it's difficult to define what exactly autism is.

DR. FRED VOLKMAR, CHILD PSYCHIATRIST, YALE UNIVERSITY: For a child to have autism, they have to have significant problems in social interaction. That's where the word autism comes from, living in your own world.

GUPTA: Regardless of the type, one thing has become more clear. The number of children living with autism is rising, and is now higher than ever before. Today, as many as one out of every 166 children will be born autistic. Boys outnumber girls four to one. But it is girls who often have more severe autism.

We know this, because doctors are tracking and diagnosing autism more than ever before.

WENDY STONE, AUTISM RESEARCHER, VANDERBILT UNIVERSITY: It's really the absence of behaviors. It's not the presence of unusual behaviors.

GUPTA: Jessica and Tommy Bates don't concern themselves too much with definitions. They have not one, but two autistic children. And every day, they simply try to figure out how to help them.

JESSICA BATES, MOTHER OF TWO CHILDREN WITH AUTISM: That's the million-dollar question. It's not like with a cancer patient. You can say, OK, let's try chemo or radiation. You just have to bide your time, and start one thing and see if it works and, if not, move on to something else.

GUPTA: As the Bates now know, every child can be different. Siblings of children with autism are at higher risk for also having the disorder. But so far, the other children in the Bates family - two-year-old Chloe and one-year-old Gabrielle (ph) seem fine.

Little Gina seems to be affected the most. But in many ways, she teaches her family lessons every single day.

TOMMY BATES: Our daughter is a blessing. Both of our children - all four of our children - but especially Gina. Every day, she's helped me grow so much.

GUPTA: Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN, reporting.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CHO: A 12-year-old Gresham, Oregon, boy is a hero this morning. His quick action averted what could have been a Christmas tragedy.

Alana Adams of our affiliate KOIN has the story.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TYLER LELM, SAVED FAMILY FROM FIRE, GRESHAM, OREGON: When I woke up, the lady that I baby-sit for was screaming, "Get my kids. There's a fire." And I stood up. And I opened my eyes, and like, my eyes started burning.

ALANA ADAMS, REPORTER, KOIN-TV, GRESHAM, OREGON: Twelve-year-old Tyler Lelm immediately started to help the 26-year-old mother of three gather all of the young children.

LELM: There was too much smoke. So I go back over to the window and I kick it out. And then I punched the glass on the bottom of the tray out.

CHIEF ERIC LOFGREN, GRESHAM, OREGON FIRE DEPARTMENT: He got out first. Then mom handed him two kids, and then she got out. He said, he went back in and got the other child and was able to call his name and have him come to him. And he was able to hand him out and then get out himself. So, he did an outstanding job.

ADAMS: The Gresham fire department tells us that the fire started at the family Christmas tree in the living room. The chief said that it was fortunate anyone was able to escape.

LOFGREN: It's bittersweet, obviously. The family's been burned out of their home, but a child was able to save a whole family's life plus himself. So, it turned out for the best.

ADAMS: And, this isn't the first time Lelm saved a life. In August of 2003, he saved a five-year-old child from drowning when he fell into Yaquina Bay in Newport, into 52-degree water without a lifejacket.

Now a modest 12-year-old, Lelm tells us anyone else would do the same.

LELM: It was just mostly reaction. It's just - you know, fire and there's kids. Grab them and get out.

ADAMS: It was quick thinking, according to the fire department, that allowed an entire family to celebrate Christmas together.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CHO: That was Alana Adams of our affiliate, KOIN. Well-trained kid.

M. O'BRIEN: Talk about an "atta boy."

CHO: And humble. That's right.

M. O'BRIEN: Absolutely. Give him ...

CHO: And on Christmas, no less.

M. O'BRIEN: Give him some extra whatever

CHO: That's right.

M. O'BRIEN: ... Christmas cheer.

Coming up, one very happy mom. We reunited a U.S. soldier with his mom - not in the U.S., but in Baghdad. Here's her inspiration to serve her country. That's ahead on AMERICAN MORNING.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Joanne Gibbs is one of about 100,000 civilians who work in Iraq. How she got there, though, is a little bit unusual. She went when her son, a sergeant in the Army, faced his second deployment to the Middle East.

So, Joanne decided she'd go, too. She got a job with the Army Corps of Engineers in Baghdad. And here's the thing. Her son ended up being deployed to Kuwait.

Well, now, as the holidays approach, the family that was apart is still apart.

Joanne Gibbs joins us this morning. She is in Baghdad. Nice to see you, Joanne. Thanks for talking with us.

Explain to me. I mean, literally, you moved to Baghdad in order to be close to your son during his second deployment. Is that right?

JOANNE GIBBS, U.S. ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS, BAGHDAD: After my son was first deployed in Baghdad, back in 2004, he came home, got back in school, and I saw the growth in him that the experience and being in Baghdad had with him.

And at that time, I decided that I really wanted to do something in support of the soldiers here in Baghdad. SOLEDAD M. O'BRIEN: So, your son is in ...

JOANNE GIBBS: He's in Kuwait.

SOLEDAD M. O'BRIEN: ... is in Kuwait. How disappointed were you when you realized, oh, my gosh, I'm going to Baghdad to be with him, and he's going to Kuwait?

JOANNE GIBBS: Well, actually, I found out several months before I was deployed to Baghdad that he was going to Kuwait. And even though he was going to Kuwait, I still wanted to come over so I could something in support of the soldiers here in Baghdad.

SOLEDAD M. O'BRIEN: Do you feel that you've really fulfilled what you set out to do, that you're really helping out and supporting the U.S. troops who are there, and our nation, as well, from where you are?

JOANNE GIBBS: Oh, yes, indeed. It's so fulfilling and it's so rewarding. I feel as though that I have really did a lot in this effort and support of the soldiers. So, yes, it has really been a rewarding and a fulfilling experience.

SOLEDAD M. O'BRIEN: I'm so glad to hear that.

Now, I know at the same time it's the holidays. You've got a 19- year-old daughter, too. Your son Darren, who is ...

JOANNE GIBBS: I sure do.

SOLEDAD M. O'BRIEN: ... in Kuwait is just 22 years old.

JOANNE GIBBS: Yes.

SOLEDAD M. O'BRIEN: You know, do you have sort of a holiday wish, something you wish for not just your family, but for everybody?

JOANNE GIBBS: I wish that all families could be together this holiday, and I know that's not possible. So, I'm just praying that peace will come, and that through modern technology at least families can stay in touch with each other during the holiday season.

SOLEDAD M. O'BRIEN: Well, that's a nice wish, and you're right.

You know what, though? How about this? Let's reveal our surprise.

JOANNE GIBBS: This is why he wouldn't answer my e-mail! I e- mailed him - I e-mailed him yesterday.

SOLEDAD M. O'BRIEN: And what did you e-mail him? What did you say?

JOANNE GIBBS: And it was wonderful why he didn't answer.

Well, I always e-mail him to say, hello, my one and only son. How are you doing this morning?

So, every day I send him an e-mail, and that's how I started off.

SOLEDAD M. O'BRIEN: And he just didn't answer at all, did he?

JOANNE GIBBS: So, now ...

SOLEDAD M. O'BRIEN: Now, are you totally surprised?

JOANNE GIBBS: He did not answer at all.

(CROSSTALK)

SOLEDAD M. O'BRIEN: Are you totally surprised? You look so calm. Are you totally shocked?

JOANNE GIBBS: Well, I'm calm, because I'm on TV.

SOLEDAD M. O'BRIEN: Was it weird to have your mom want to move to Baghdad to be near you? I mean, you're 22 years old. It's not like you're 10.

SGT. DARRIN GIBBS, SURPRISING HIS MOM IN IRAQ: Yes, I was quite surprised when she mentioned it to me that she was interested in volunteering to work in Iraq, because I know the present danger that exists here.

SOLEDAD M. O'BRIEN: She has not stopped giggling.

JOANNE GIBBS: Yes, yes.

SOLEDAD M. O'BRIEN: What a nice, wonderful surprise. Joanne Gibbs and Darrin Gibbs, Sergeant Darrin Gibbs, with the U.S. Army. You know what? I'm done. So, you guys can go hang out and spend a little time with your mom ...

JOANNE GIBBS: Why, thank you. Thank you so much.

SOLEDAD M. O'BRIEN: ... for the holidays. My pleasure.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CHO: What a great holiday surprise.

Stay with us. A very special Christmas moment when we return.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

M. O'BRIEN: Hi.

CHO: Hi.

M. O'BRIEN: It's Christmas.

CHO: It is. Merry Christmas.

M. O'BRIEN: I'm so excited.

CHO: You know, for ...

M. O'BRIEN: You know, the kids are waiting at home.

CHO: That's right.

M. O'BRIEN: They're like ...

CHO: But first ...

M. O'BRIEN: But first ...

CHO: You know, for all of the people who watch CNN on a regular basis, and for those people who watch AMERICAN MORNING, they know that Miles O'Brien is not just the anchor of the show, he is also our space correspondent.

M. O'BRIEN: Spacey you said? Oh, space.

CHO: Space.

M. O'BRIEN: Yes, right.

CHO: And self-described geek. And so, I started thinking about - I knew I'd be ...

M. O'BRIEN: Nothing wrong with that.

CHO: Nothing wrong with that. You know, I started thinking about what to give you on Christmas. I knew I'd be here. And I'm not really a planner, but I had to do a little bit of planning.

M. O'BRIEN: You're not a planner?

CHO: Not really. Well, sometimes.

M. O'BRIEN: Yes.

CHO: All right. Sometimes I am.

So, anyway, I know you struggled between being a journalist and a would-be astronaut. So, I thought the perfect gift for you this holiday season would be ...

M. O'BRIEN: Oh, my gosh!

CHO: ... a Miles O'Brien bobble-head.

M. O'BRIEN: Wow. I've got a bobble-head.

CHO: That's right. And because I know you struggle between the two, we've got you with the microphone and with the (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

M. O'BRIEN: There I am on the moon, reporting from the shuttle.

CHO: That's right.

M. O'BRIEN: Oh, my gosh. Look at that. It looks ...

CHO: Isn't that great?

M. O'BRIEN: It kind of looks like George Bush. No, that really does look like me.

CHO: It does look like you, doesn't it?

M. O'BRIEN: Where did you - where did you get that?

CHO: Well, I contacted the bobble-head people.

M. O'BRIEN: The bobble-head - thank you so much.

CHO: You're welcome. And with the help of your lovely wife, Sandy, who sent over a few pictures.

M. O'BRIEN: Of course. I know she had something - I do have something for you. Open this up.

Now, while she opens this up, I've got to explain a little back story for you.

Alina loves to go to the beach. Not just any beach. She likes to go to ...

CHO: Oh, you know what? The (UNINTELLIGIBLE) over there.

M. O'BRIEN: And she's been rusting all these years. A house in the Hamptons. And so, I have created for her a house in the Hamptons.

Here, let's come on in on one.

All right. Now, look down in here. There's her little house in the Hamptons.

CHO: What's that? Is that the White House superimposed in that picture?

M. O'BRIEN: And then we've got the banner tower up here. See what it says? Can you zoom in on that?

CHO: Visit Cho manor.

M. O'BRIEN: Cho manor, Southampton's party house.

CHO: You know what? Cho's shack is all I can afford.

M. O'BRIEN: I like the bobble-head.

CHO: That's great.

M. O'BRIEN: All right.

CHO: Merry Christmas.

M. O'BRIEN: Well, Merry Christmas to you.

CHO: I'll see you back here tomorrow.

M. O'BRIEN: Thank you. All right. We'll see you tomorrow.

That's all for this edition of AMERICAN MORNING.

TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.voxant.com

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