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Christmas in Baghdad/Blizzard Conditions in the Midwest/Next Steps on Health Care/Funny Man, Serious Cause/Tsunami Survivor Looks Back; Pope Unhurt in Christmas Eve Attack; Avoiding Heart Attacks

Aired December 25, 2009 - 11:00   ET


TONY HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: Merry Christmas, Fred, to you. Big John, Little John, the entire Whitfield family. Merry Christmas.

It is Friday, December 25th. That's Christmas Day 2009. And here are the top stories for you in the CNN NEWSROOM. A white Christmas is giving folks the blues and making travel treacherous, parts of the Midwest under blizzard warnings from a major winter storm.

The day the ocean swallowed entire towns and villages -- five years after the tsunami, we hear from a survivor and update the recovery effort.

And celebrities putting their money where their hearts are, Madonna on a mission to help orphans in Malawi.

Good morning, everyone. Good Christian Day to you. I'm Tony Harris, and you are in the CNN NEWSROOM.

And let's do this. Let's start with a Christmas message from the White House. Before heading off on vacation, President Obama recorded a holiday wish for U.S. troops.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: All our men and women in uniform spending holidays far away from home, whether it's at a base here in the States, a mess hall in Iraq or a remote outpost in Afghanistan, know that you are in our thoughts and in our prayers. And this holiday season and every holiday season know that we are doing everything in our power to make sure you can succeed in your missions and come home safe to your families.


HARRIS: It is already 7:00 in the evening in Iraq. Let see how this Christmas Day has turned out for some of the American troops in Baghdad. Our Diana Magnay is there. Diana, great to see you. Merry Christmas to you. And here's my question. Did the soldiers get that...


HARRIS: Thank you -- that traditional big Christmas Day dinner? MAGNAY: They certainly did, Tony. At 8:00 AM this morning, the three chefs here put on their Santa's hats and started cooking up a feast, eight turkeys, four hams, corn on the cob, a whole (INAUDIBLE) pecan pie to finish off. And I thought (INAUDIBLE) in fact, you can see the chefs back there with their Santa's hats on.

Guys, did you have good food, good Christmas dinner?




MAGNAY: OK, I think that's pretty much the thumbs-up, Tony, on the food. And I've got a guest with us, Sergeant Derek Garland. This is your second tour in Iraq, your third Christmas in Iraq. How was today for you?

SGT. DEREK GARLAND, U.S. ARMY: It was great, definitely better than the past two. You can tell the unit's morale was definitely lifted this tour over the past three years.

MAGNAY: You guys are nearly out. I mean, you won't be here for the first phase of the drawdown in August, will you. You'll be (INAUDIBLE)

GARLAND: No, we'll be gone, yes.

MAGNAY: So you have been -- this is your last Christmas?

GARLAND: Oh, yes. Definitely hoping my last holiday period.

MAGNAY: And have you been in touch with your family today?

GARLAND: Yes, ma'am.

MAGNAY: How? How did you?

GARLAND: Got a little bit of a chance to use the phones, get on the computers a little bit today.

MAGNAY: Did you see them?

GARLAND: No, not today.

MAGNAY: OK. No Skyping, no Web (INAUDIBLE)


MAGNAY: You got a message for people back home in the States?

GARLAND: Just say I love my fiancee, can't wait to be back, and I love my family. And I'm ready to get home and see everybody.

MAGNAY: Thank you very much. So you there go, Tony, a lot of people today talking about family, of course. There's an Internet room here, a lot of people busy on those webcams, looking at loved ones back home with a full stomach after a pretty good Christmas dinner.

HARRIS: Yes, it sounds terrific. And Diana, if you would, give our best to the men and women serving there at your location. Diana Magnay for us in Iraq.

And checking the wire now, the day's other big stories. We expect an update next hour on an absolutely shocking crime and a tragic story out of Arkansas. Listen to this. A Salvation Army major shot dead in front of his three children on Christmas Eve. Authorities say Major Phillip Wise (ph) was found lying by the back entrance of the Salvation Army facility in north Little Rock. They say two men approached Wise and his children, ages 4, 6 and 8. The men demanded money before shooting Wise.


GARLAND CAMPER, PULASKI COUNTY, ARKANSAS, CORONER: My heart goes out for the family losing their dad. And I guess to have to witness it during this time of the year, it's definitely going to be hard on the kids.


HARRIS: Boy, and at the Vatican, a bizarre start to a Christmas Eve mass. A woman in a red sweatshirt hopped a barrier, grabbed Pope Benedict as he passed by. You see the shadow here right there in the center. The pope was not hurt as he was pulled to the floor. He went on to deliver his annual Christmas message a few hours later. The woman was arrested. The Vatican says she has psychiatric problems and tried to get to the pope last year but failed.

Boy, this is pretty disturbing. A cardinal broke his leg in last night's incident.

Man, traveling in Oklahoma, not OK today. Boy, as you can see, a blizzard has pretty much shut down the state from one end to the other. IReporter Glen Neal sent this video of the storm as it howled through his back yard in Sayre, Oklahoma. He said it's the first white Christmas the town has seen in 40 years.

Snow, as you know, is rarely lost on the young. Across the state line there, Wichita Falls, Texas, Robert Stewart III sent these images of his two boys playing outside. William (ph) and Michael (ph) don't get to see snow very often, so they absolutely, as you can see here, made the most of it.

Let's check in now with Bonnie Schneider. Bonnie, what a mess in Oklahoma!

BONNIE SCHNEIDER, CNN METEOROLOGIST: That's right, Tony. It is unusual to see that much snow. Oklahoma City was under a blizzard warning, 14 inches of snow. That's the biggest snowfall they ever had in one day.

Now, I want to show you what it looks like right now because the sun is shining, but it's misleading. The temperature's only 24 degrees and the wind chill factor is 8 degrees. It is cold in Oklahoma City as folks head out to maybe do some shoveling. Maybe you should just wait a little while. Well, I guess the temperature's not going to warm up very much for today, but at least you have a white Christmas out there.

The problem is, for those of you that are traveling a little further to the north, we still have blizzard warnings. Now, they're starting to shrink in terms of size and intensity, in terms of how many states are affected, but we are still are looking at this storm carrying over right into the weekend for Fargo, on into Omaha, Nebraska, we'll see those strong winds that will blow about the snow as we go through a good portion of the day today and certainly into tomorrow. And that will be a busy travel time, as well.

I want to show you a live picture of Chicago because the temperature now is 39 degrees. The roads look kind of slick out there. But boy, are you in for some changes. In Chicago, the temperatures are going to fall tonight rapidly, getting down to 24 degrees. We're also looking at more moisture coming up from the south, so we'll see a combination of freezing rain, sleet and even snow into the overnight period. So for those of you that are traveling tonight in Chicago, be careful out there.

That holds true for Minneapolis, where we have 29 degrees right now, and in Des Moines, Iowa, we're also looking at a wintry mix. For those of you heading out to the airport, some good news. We have no airport delays, at least right now. Air traffic is kind of slow today. We have 3,100 planes in the air, Tony, at this time. This time yesterday, add a thousand to that, so...


SCHNEIDER: ... a lot of people are where they want to be for Christmas, and I'm glad with all this nasty weather.

HARRIS: Well said, where they want to be for Christmas. All right, Bonnie. Appreciate it. Thank you.


HARRIS: Got to tell you, members of Congress are relaxing and enjoying the holidays while many of you may be a bit concerned about your health care plan. What's going to happen in 2010?


CAPT. TRACY PECK, U.S. ARMY: Hi, I'm Captain Tracy Peck (ph) here in Kuwait. I want to say happy holidays to friends and family in South Port (ph), Ohio. And I miss you.



HARRIS: When lawmakers return to Washington after the holidays, they will still have plenty of work to do on health care reform. Hi, everyone. Our chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, examines some of the unresolved issues and concerns.


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: ... worth taking a look at where health care has been, where it's going, certainly over the next several months. Take a look at this timeline, important landmarks here. The bill obviously passed the House and now it has passed the Senate. The next step in all this is what's called reconciliation or conference, trying to merge these two bills.

About three quarters of that will be done by the staffers of the Senate. But there's going to be some big issues that still need to be resolved. One of them that we've talked about so much is this idea of a public option -- that is something that was passed in the House but not in the Senate -- and also with regard to abortion funding. Can federal dollars be used to pay for abortions? How exactly will that be reconciled? Again, big issues that still need to be worked out. If that happens and it gets passed, it will go to the president's desk, after which point it may get approved.

Now, this is obviously hypothetical, and it's important to keep in mind, as well, that final benchmark, which is that a lot of the things that we've been talking about so much over the past days and weeks and months won't really take effect until January of 2014. This is a process, a long one at that.

You guys have a lot of questions about it. Let's take one here. We got a question about Medicare specifically. It says, How does this bill affect a senior on Medicare? This has been a very important question, a common one, too. One thing to point out right away is that to pay for all this, one of the things that's been proposed is some dramatic cuts to Medicare, almost $500 billion over 10 years. A lot of seniors wondering where that money's going to come from specifically.

If we dissect it down to language, looking at this entire bill, we find that a lot of it comes from what is known as provider rate cuts, cutting down the reimbursement to hospitals and providers for specific care. People worry, could that possibly lead to some of those increased costs being passed on to patients. That's a little bit hard to know and to see.

But more specifically than that, there's something known as Medicare part C or the Medicare Advantage plan. This may be something that affects consumers directly. Let's take a look. This is a plan that typically covers all sorts of different things, but also has enhanced benefits, like vision and dental. And there's some concern that if you're starting to cut Medicare dramatically that some of those enhanced benefits will not be as available or even available at all. It is worth pointing out that when you're trying to project the future, trying to estimate costs, usually, we're way off. Take a look at some numbers there. What Medicare was supposed to cost in 1990, the projected cost of it was $9 billion. What the actual cost was, was $67 billion. Those numbers coming from the Cato Institute, a conservative think tank, but similar numbers being borne out elsewhere. Point is that it's very hard to project a lot of these numbers.

So what the impact will be on seniors, we don't know yet. But I think that the $500 billion in cuts, people will notice that that's at least, as part of both of these bills, a way to pay for everything that we're talking about. Back to you for now.


HARRIS: All right, Sanjay, appreciate it. Thank you.

Actor Ben Stiller wants to you make his organization strong. We will show you what you it's all about next in the CNN NEWSROOM.


CPL. TRUSS, U.S. ARMY: Happy holidays. This is Corporal Truss (ph), deployed with VMA 231, Aces of Spades in southern Afghanistan. I just want to say merry Christmas and happy new year to my daughters, Marianna (ph) and Moriah (ph). Hi, babies. (INAUDIBLE) Pennsylvania. And happy holidays to my mom in Ambruss (ph), Pennsylvania. Happy holidays. Maybe this time next year, I'll be able to be home with you and spend the holidays with you.



HARRIS: All right. Big stars, big giving, all this week, CNN's American Morning has been profiling celebrities who are using their name and fame to help others. CNN's Alina Cho talks with actor and comedian Ben Stiller about his effort to help build a school in Haiti.


ALINA CHO, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): He makes a living making people laugh.

BEN STILLER, ACTOR/COMEDIAN: Well, I guess the look I'm best known for is (INAUDIBLE)

CHO: But talk about philanthropy and suddenly a side of Ben Stiller few see.

(on camera): You were actually skeptical about philanthropy.

STILLER: Yes. I think I've always come at it from a pretty cynical point of view, maybe just charity fundraisers and the whole show business aspect of it. I've made fun of it in the past and -- but I think as, you know, you see what's going on in our world, it's kind of hard to sit back and not do anything.

CHO (voice-over): It all began this summer. The actor traveled to Haiti with the charity Save the Children. He saw how kids didn't have access to clean water, how they weren't going to school, and he wanted to help.

STILLER: It's really sort of overwhelming when you see the level of poverty that these people are living with every day. It's just a different reality.

CHO (on camera): They know who you are.

STILLER: Not -- not really. Some do. Most don't, though. I mean, it's...

CHO: Most don't?

STILLER: Yes, so...

CHO: Really?

STILLER: Yes. It's not -- it's not about me. I think these people are just, you know, more focused on just getting through their day.

CHO (voice-over): The problem is serious, but Stiller by nature is not. So when he thought about how to raise money, he turned to what he does best, comedy.

STILLER: And basically, I'm going to sell these headbands, 300, 400, 500 bucks a pop, OK? And you get one, all the money goes to the school.

CHO: "Stillerstrong," the slogan -- "Stealing great ideas from other charities to build a school in Haiti."

(on camera): You came up with this really brilliant, original idea of Stillerstrong.

STILLER: Well, I thought it was original, so I came up with the idea of a headband.

CHO: Right.

STILLER: A yellow headband.

CHO: Yellow?

STILLER: Yes. It's great because it's useful. I later learned that Lance Armstrong had, I guess, done something with a...

CHO: Bracelet. Sort of.

STILLER: ... bracelet, yes. Sort of like a little...

CHO: Also yellow. STILLER: Yellow. Also yellow. But it doesn't really do anything.

CHO: Right.

STILLER: See, the great thing about the headband is it actually wicks away sweat.

CHO (voice-over): Go to and you'll find a social media bonanza, what some call the future of fund-raising.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What, give you 400 bucks to wear it? I'm happy just to wear it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, no. You pay $400 to support...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I pay you to wear it?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, no, for the school, to support the school.

CHO: And this plea from Stiller and Robert De Niro to Ashton Kutcher, who has millions of followers on Twitter.

STILLER: So Ashton, please, retweet it. Thanks.

ROBERT DE NIRO, ACTOR: Retweet it, Ashton.

CHO: It worked. Within seven minutes, Kutcher complied, the power of celebrity.

STILLER: Which color would you like, the yellow?

CHO (on camera): I like the yellow because...

STILLER: All right, good...


STILLER: I'll go for the red because -- see what I mean by it looks cool? See, you look -- actually look great in that.


STILLER: I like to wear multiple -- multiple bands sometimes just for a different kind of look.

CHO: I think that's very cool.

STILLER: Yes. If you happen to be abducting somebody, you don't want them to talk...


STILLER: So any kidnappers out there...

CHO (voice-over): Kidding aside, Stiller knows comedy can help shed light on the world's problems and maybe even begin to solve them.

STILLER: You know, when you're somebody who's -- you know, whom people know, celebrity or whatever, it doesn't mean that you know anything. I'm not claiming to be an expert on Haiti. I've been there once. But it affected me, and I'm trying to do something.


HARRIS: Wow. And coming up later this hour, Madonna in Malawi, how she's helping children in this African country.


HARRIS: Boy, checking our top stories now, a snowy, icy Christmas in much of the nation's midsection, forecasters predicting blizzards in at least 10 states. Oklahoma is already covered in heavy snow. With more on the way, the governor has ordered every state highway, interstate and turnpike closed. At least 18 people have died on slick roadways.

After almost losing his life on Monday, a Pierce County, Washington, sheriff's sergeant got to go home from the hospital for Christmas. Sergeant Nick Housener (ph) and Deputy Kent Mungle (ph) were wounded in a shootout after answering a domestic disturbance call. The shooter was killed. Authorities say the gunman's 16-year- old daughter knocked her father down as he was firing, possibly saving the officers' lives. Mungle remains hospitalized in critical condition.

Remembering the tsunami of 2004, its monster waves killing more than 200,000 people just after Christmas. Among those lucky enough to survive it, Kalle Widelius. He talked to CNN's Dan Rivers.


DAN RIVERS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Sara Touray (ph) and her boyfriend, Kalle Widelius, were enjoying the holiday of a lifetime on Piki (ph) Island in December of 2004.

KALLE WIDELIUS, THAILAND TSUNAMI SURVIVOR: I mean, it was a pure paradise, and when I met Sara, I decided I had to bring her there to show her the most wonderful -- one of the most beautiful places I've ever been to.

RIVERS: The day after Christmas, Kalle decided to shoot a video of Sara as the sea mysteriously retreated.

WIDELIUS: The water just grabbed my ankles, and there was this huge pressure. I'd never felt anything like it. It was as if someone was trying to pull me out in the ocean. So I'm more or less telling Sara, Come up, get out of the water and let's go to the other side of the island because something's weird here.

We started walking towards the other side of the island, and the faster we walked, the more water comes after us. And then we started to, you know, run slowly, and the water just chased us. And then we, you know -- seconds later, we ran for our lives. At one point, when I'm -- I'm telling Sara to run straight towards the other side, thank God she told me, Run towards the hotel instead.

And when we came in there, I remember seeing luggage just floating around, and more and more water was just coming from everywhere. And this was the point where everything started to be real scary.

Sara told me, Let's just go upstairs. Just when we reached the top floor, the whole ground just -- everything came with a bang. And there was, like -- it felt like an earthquake because everything shook and it was a tremendous sound.

You couldn't see anything of the island. Small -- small houses just collapsed. And a boat is coming from the -- from one side to the other, just passing the island. And -- and I remember just, oh, hell.

RIVERS: The tsunami brought Kalle and Sara close to death, but it was also a life-changing experience.

WIDELIUS: Well, I -- I said to Sara, I whispered in her ear that if we were to make it, make it down alive, let's get married when we get back home. Today, we have two beautiful kids, as well, Lydia (ph) and Sexton (ph), and 2-and-a-half years old, 1 year old today and -- life is quite strange. This is a really -- a really tragic story, but we have some kind of beautiful memory from it, as well.

RIVERS: Today, there is little trace of the disaster on Thailand's holiday islands, but those awful images and memories will live forever in the minds of people like Kalle who fought to survive the tsunami.

Dan Rivers, CNN, Kopipi, Thailand.


HARRIS: Got to show you these pictures, boy, just coming in to the CNN NEWSROOM. As you know, a winter storm is bringing a lot of pain, really, to a lot of folks across the country. These are pictures from Oklahoma City, which, as you know -- and you can certainly see in these pictures -- is just covered with snow. Our understanding is that more is on the way, and our thanks to our affiliates there in the upper right-hand portion of the screen there for providing the chopper aerials here.

The governor has already closed every state highway, interstate and turnpike shut down, but you can still see here plenty of cars still stuck, stranded on the side of the road. And at last check, at least 18 people have died on slick roadways. Take a look at this scene from Oklahoma City, motorists stranded in all of that snow.


LANCE CPL. SHANE CARULLA, U.S. ARMY: Hi. This is Lance Corporal Shane Carulla (ph) here at VMA (INAUDIBLE) southern Afghanistan. I'd just like to wish a merry Christmas and happy holidays to all my friends and family back home in Moscow, Pennsylvania. I miss you guys and I can't wait to see you soon. Happy new year's.


(COMMERCIAL BREAK) So CNN iReports are coming to us from the center of the fierce winter storm in Oklahoma.


DANIEL BILLINGS, OKLAHOMA: Obviously, the visibility is awful! And actually (INAUDIBLE)


HARRIS: OK, that's CNN iReporter Daniel Billings, his voice being drowned out by the strong wind. Daniel is a student at Cameron University in Lawton, Oklahoma, venturing out of his truck because he'd left a window open just a bit. Daniel says in a matter of hours, his truck's interior was covered with snow.

Take a look at this photo sent to us by CNN iReporter Henry Critchlow (ph). The wind and snow were strong enough in Norman, Oklahoma, as you can see here, to knock over the gazebo in his back yard.

Bonnie Schneider, take it away. Did you see those pictures just a couple of minutes ago from Oklahoma City of the motorists stranded on the side of the road there because...

SCHNEIDER: I sure did.

HARRIS: ... of all the snow, slick conditions there?

HARRIS: I mean, this is record-breaking, Tony, to have 14.1 inches of snow in Oklahoma City and a blizzard warning. Well, it shattered the record. It never snowed that much in one day before. And we have some more pictures to show you out of the area because even though the airport's open, I couldn't find any flights on Flight Explorer heading to or from Oklahoma City. So call ahead.

There is still a lot of snow on the ground. The temperature's 24 degrees, the windchill factor is 6. So it is not comfortable to be out there, despite the sun shining. Oh, and I also want to mention the winds are still very strong. So even though we have the sunshine, you could have some blowing snow. Be careful. That creates those high snowdrifts, where motorists, of course, will have a lot of problems.

Another place we're watching for advisories that persist into the afternoon and evening, the Plains, the northern Plains states, parts of Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and even Minnesota under winter weather advisories, including blizzard warnings because the blowing snow, winds up to 50 miles per hour. And in Oklahoma City, we actually tracked a wind gust of 58 miles per hour.

Look at this storm. It's incredible. Plenty of heavy rain sweeping across the north and to Wisconsin, Illinois. Then you have the wraparound effect of the winds coming in from the north. Boy, is that bringing in some snow, and it's very blustery out there, creating those drifts that we've been tracking.

Some good news. We had a tornado watch down into the South. That has now expired. So at least we don't have that to contend with. But going forward into tomorrow, we are going to see a wintry mix build in to the Northeast. We haven't been talking much about the Northeast, but this storm system will affect you there, as well.

Here's where it's affecting you right now -- into Minneapolis, into Des Moines. Temperatures are right around the freezing mark, so you will see that changeover from rain to snow at times.


HARRIS: Did you hear -- did you see what happened to the pope? Pope Benedict delivered his annual Christmas address today. By all appearances seemed unfazed and unharmed following a bizarre attack hours earlier. Here is CNN's Colleen McEdwards.


COLLEEN MCEDWARDS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A woman in red clears the barricade and runs toward Pope Benedict XVI. In this amateur video, you see him fall forward, a moment of high drama before Christmas Eve mass. Watch again and you will see security rush to surround him. The woman appears to touch the pope but is quickly moved away. A Texas family on a trip to Rome caught the incident on video.

MARY BETH BURNS, EYEWITNESS: All of a sudden, this person sort of flew over the barricade and the holy father went down. And all of a sudden, all the security people were all on top of it, you know, the whole pile there, getting her off and pulling him back up.

MCEDWARDS: Moments later, you see the pope continue down the aisle toward the main altar, where he celebrated mass. The Vatican confirms he was not hurt and describes the woman as unstable. CNN's Vatican analyst says traditionally, authorities take no action against people who try to touch the pope.

JOHN ALLEN, SENIOR VATICAN ANALYST: Usually, they are not -- there is no malicious intent involved. They just want to either touch the pope or say something to him, but it's a reminder, actually, that as compared to other world leaders, presidents and prime ministers, the security penumbra around the pope is actually fairly thin.

MCEDWARDS: That is by design. The Vatican wants the pope to remain accessible, enough security to the keep him safe but not so much that he seems out of reach. So these incidents actually happen quite often.

ALLEN: I think in the wake of these now, you know, repeated incidents there probably will be a meeting in the Vatican some time soon to ask the question of whether they need to tighten up on the security presence. MCEDWARDS: A mass interrupted and major relief on one of Christianity's holiest days. Colleen McEdwards, CNN, Atlanta.


HARRIS: Boy, cold weather, fireplaces, alcohol, food. There is plenty of holiday cheer that can actually hurt you. Our Dr. Sanjay Gupta tells you how to stay fit this holiday.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hi, I'm senior chief Rich Vegel (ph), and I'm with provincial reconstruction team, currently deployed to Camp Wright in Kunar Province, Afghanistan. I want to say hello to my wife Corrine, son Christian and daughter Anisa back home in St. Petersburg, Florida. I wish you a very merry Christmas and a happy New Year.



HARRIS: OK. Uh, do we have it set? Is everything set? Is everything ready to go? OK, then let's do this. You know, for a member of our team, um, even the joy of being here with me on Christmas can't quite make up for the loss, or at least the absence of a very special someone who is not with her for this Christmas. Our thoughts and prayers are we with the tens and thousands of American men and women serving our country in the Iraq and Afghanistan war zones.

But kind of tell you, we can't help but say a few extra prayers for one soldier in particular today, senior master sergeant Sidney McIntosh. You see, Sergeant McIntosh is the father of our beloved Sydney McIntosh. There she is. And mom. I didn't know mom was going to be here. Oh. Mom. Michelle, wave to everyone. Our ready for prime time associate producer, Sergeant McIntosh is on the phone with us from Kandahar, Afghanistan. Sergeant --

Good to speak with you. You know something, I think we actually managed to do this. We pulled this off. Merry Christmas to you.

SIDNEY MCINTOSH, U.S. AIR FORCE (on phone): Merry Christmas to y'all, too. Thank you, sir, I appreciate you doing this.



HARRIS: Well, sergeant, if you would - what would you -- let me turn it over to you and what would you like to say to your wife, what would you like to say to your daughter?

SIDNEY MCINTOSH: All right. Hey, Sydney, you know I miss you guys.

SYDNEY MCINTOSH: We miss you, too. SIDNEY MCINTOSH: First Christmas in a while we not going to be together. So, I don't know what else to say to you. You know, my heart is with you. And I'm keeping your memory. I enjoy the pictures that you send me, so y'all enjoy your time there together, OK? I know you crying, aren't you?

SYDNEY MCINTOSH: Yes. I love you. We miss you.

SIDNEY MCINTOSH: I love you, too, girl.

SYDNEY MCINTOSH: And stay safe.


HARRIS: Hey, sergeant, a couple of questions for you, just because I want to keep this shot up as long as I can, how difficult is it for you to be away from this wonderful family during the holidays?

SIDNEY MCINTOSH: It's tough. I mean, it has been a long journey. I have been in the service now for 23 years and I got to be honest to say this is pretty much the first time that I had to spend a Christmas holiday away from my family. So it is kind of tough. I mean, the days are long just because of it.

HARRIS: Yeah. What is Christmas like, if you don't mind me intruding just a bit. You know, I'm not there. But I'm just wondering, what is Christmas like in Kandahar, Afghanistan?

SIDNEY MCINTOSH: Well, Christmas here for us is, I mean, we are spending Christmas with our family away from home. I mean this is my family here. We have Christmas dinner and, you know, we kind of keep each other company as much as we possibly can. But today is a normal work day for me, you know? I'm still putting in time, trying to make sure that what we need to get done here is getting done.


SIDNEY MCINTOSH: It's still a work day here.

HARRIS: Yeah, and to that point, your leader, General McChrystal, seems ready to move forward and really seems enthusiastic about the mission there in Afghanistan moving forward. But I bet you're pretty happy that reinforcements are on the way.

SIDNEY MCINTOSH: Oh, most definitely. I mean, the more reinforcements here, the safer we feel, so I give credit to all my combats in arms. I mean, right now, I truly feel safe because of the surrounding folks that I have here with me.

HARRIS: And oh, Sydney, anything you want to say to your dad before we go?

SYDNEY MCINTOSH: We miss and we wish you were here and I love you so much and I can't wait till you come home in April.

SIDNEY MCINTOSH: Right. SYDNEY MCINTOSH: And thank you to my team. This is the best gift you could have given me. So happy right now.

SIDNEY MCINTOSH: Don't you start making me cry, OK? Hey, do me a favor, tell everybody I said hi, OK? Tell them I miss them and make sure you wish them a merry Christmas from me. That goes to all of you guys. Thanks a lot, Mr. Harris.

HARRIS: Oh, please, call me Tony. Oh, yes, be safe. Be safe and get back home to this wonderful family. OK, we got to go before stuff starts happening here.

SYDNEY MCINTOSH: Bye, daddy, I love you.

SIDNEY MCINTOSH: All right, love you.

HARRIS: Let's get you caught up now on our top stories. Boy, oh, boy, boy, it rarely works that well. A fierce winter storm making Christmas travel treacherous across Oklahoma. Blizzard conditions caused this chain reaction crash yesterday in the Midwest portion of the city, actually, Midwest city. It involved about 50 vehicles. Oklahoma's governor has ordered every turnpike closed due to the weather.

Filipinos are hoping the Mayon volcano won't erupt on Christmas day. Meantime, a bit of Christmas cheer coming to some 47,000 people forced from their homes near the volcano. Kids in evacuation centers opened donated presents and were entertained by clowns. They also shared a Christmas meal and a mass.

Survive and thrive. That is the message of Madonna's Raising Malawi organization. How it is helping children in need. That is next, right here in the CNN NEWSROOM.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Molly Sanchez (ph) from Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan. I would like to wish a happy holiday season to all my family and friends in San Jose and also Fresno, California.



HARRIS: All right. This time of year, you don't want to experience any medical problems. CNN's chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, has some advice on avoiding heart attacks.


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: We don't want to sound like the Grim Reaper around the holiday season, but there is something to this idea of people having more cardiac deaths or heart attacks during the holidays. And it's interesting. If you look at the three days where you have the most of these happen it is on Christmas day, the day after Christmas and New Year's day. So what is going on here specifically? A couple of broad reasons, first. One is that people may pay less attention to things during the holiday season. They don't want to bother their family. They don't want to go to the hospital, so they don't pay as much attention. That is one of the reasons. Two is this idea that hospitals may not be as well staffed during the holiday season, so people going in may have to wait longer, may not stick around. So those are a couple of the reasons that medical journals have talked about.

But take a look at the long list of reasons of things that are happening to people specifically, and some of these are going to sound very familiar, everything from stress, which occurs so more over the holiday season, leading to increased inflammation in the body, all the way through travel, cold weather, food and fireplaces as well. Fireplaces can be a problem. They oftentimes can release a lot of carbon monoxide in the air, especially if they are not being vented properly. And people with even a little bit of underlying cardiac disease or lung disease can be really affected by that.

The good news is there are some pretty simple things that you can do to try and avoid becoming one of those statistics. Stay alert, first of all, so that means not blowing off symptoms just because it is the holiday season. Bringing your medications, especially if you are traveling around, visiting family, minimizing alcohol consumption. Obviously people may have a couple of drinks over the holiday if you drink, but really try to cut down on that and making sure your family is informed about any underlying illnesses and any current symptoms you might have as well.

We always give what are the potential symptoms of a heart attack and I always get e-mails about this. Oftentimes, people being thankful because they had forgotten or saw these types of symptoms but again, chest pain, obviously, pain going into your left arm or neck, light headedness, shortness of breath and excessive sweating. But really the thing to keep in mind is that symptoms of heart attack can be different for just about any given individual. It doesn't have to be any of those symptoms that I just mentioned. If something seems abnormal, if do you have some underlying heart disease, go see your doctor, even if it is the holidays. Good luck, happy holidays, hope to see you soon.


HARRIS: Sanjay, thank you.

The students at Baltimore's Highlandtown Elementary and Middle School have been busy working on a little assignment for us. I visited Ms. Gordon's fourth grade class a couple of weeks ago and asked them to tell us what Christmas means to them.

Walter Rivera says "Christmas means being with my family and not being angry or upset at anything or anyone. It is a day of happiness and a time to drink chocolate milk with the ones I love."

Kaylah Lowry says to me, "Christmas means more than getting gifts, it means spending time with your family. This year, I am going to play with my cousins, my sisters and brothers."

And this one from Alicia Fernandez, who writes, "Christmas is a time to celebrate Jesus' birthday. It is a time to be with friends and family. I love Christmas."

We will read more of their comments in the next hour of CNN NEWSROOM.


HARRIS: And here's what we are working over the next hour of CNN NEWSROOM. Taking you back five years to the horrific day giant waves reared up and swallowed up entire cities, villages, homes and families. More than 200,000 people killed in an instant. The epic tsunami remembered.

Plus, Sir Elton John committed to much more than music. We will tell you about his other passion and how he is helping people around the world. That and more in the next hour of CNN NEWSROOM.

Right now let's listen to a terrific sound of the Georgia Boy Choir singing "Carol of the Bells".


HARRIS: Superstars doing super good deeds. All this week, CNN is profiling celebrities who are using their name and fame to help others. CNN's Alina Cho talks with Madonna about how she is making a difference in Malawi.


ALINA CHO, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): She's a woman who only needs one name.

(on camera): So you're Madonna.


CHO: Yes, you are.

(voice-over): Madonna has spent most of her life being provocative. But these days, nothing is more important than her children. Two of them adopted from Malawi, a small African nation where more than a half million children are orphaned by AIDS.

CHO (on camera): All of those orphans, I mean, a million --

MADONNA: I would love to take them all home. Yes. If I could.

CHO (voice-over): Because she can't and because she's Madonna, she made a documentary about the country.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "I AM BECAUSE WE ARE") VOICE OF MADONNA: People always ask me why I chose Malawi. And I tell them, I didn't. It chose me. (END VIDEO CLIP)

CHO: She also founded the charity Raising Malawi, to help the orphans she can't bring home.

MADONNA: We found and met a lot of people who were sick and dying of HIV with no medical help. And it just felt like a death camp. And it was astonishing. And so on the other hand, though, everybody that I met was also incredibly brave. So it's a very confusing paradox.

CHO (on camera): It's an interesting dichotomy because I know that Malawi is known as the warm heart of Africa. As much suffering as there is there, there's a certain spirit to the people.

MADONNA: Yes, there is. Because on the one hand, I went there and I thought, I have to help. I have to save these people. And then I thought, wait a minute, I think it's the other way around. I think they might be saving me.

CHO: Why do you say that?

MADONNA: Because they help you to get a sense of appreciation for -- for life. For -- for what you have. I mean --

CHO (voice-over): A new appreciation for life and a new sense of responsibility. Her latest project, breaking ground on a $15 million boarding school. The Raising Malawi Academy for Girls slated to open in 2012.

MADONNA: I never intended to go to Malawi and just sort of, you know, dump a bunch of, like, aid on people and flee the country. It -- it's always been about partnership.

CHO: And she's putting her money where her mouth is. Every dollar donated to, Madonna will match.

(on camera): So you just said, hey.

MADONNA: Match my dollar.

CHO: I'll keep going?

MADONNA: Match my hundred grand. Yes.

CHO (voice-over): Make that 300 grand and counting.

MADONNA: My biggest asset as a human being is, I would say, my resiliency and my survival skills. You know, I'm like a cockroach. You can't get rid of me.

CHO (on camera): But that's helpful in philanthropy.


CHO: Yes, right?

MADONNA: It is. I mean, you have to -- you have to be pretty tireless.

CHO (voice-over): Her tenacity was on display back in 2006, when many people, both in Malawi and around the world, accused her of using her celebrity and her money to buy an adoption. She won. David, now 4, calls Madonna mom.

MADONNA: It seems that a lot of the things I do end up being controversial even when I don't mean them to be.

CHO (on camera): Right. Does it hurt your feelings?

MADONNA: Hurt my feelings. I don't know if it hurts my feelings. I think sometimes I'm pretty prepared often for some of the things I say and do. I go, I know this is going to freak some people out. But the other things I do, like adopting a child who's about to die, I don't think I'm going to get a hard time for it, and I do.

CHO (voice-over): Yet, Madonna says she'll take the criticism if it means one more child in Malawi gets to go to school, survive and thrive.

(on camera): Do you ever get overwhelmed by all of the work that needs to be done? Because it seems like you help one kid and there's like a thousand more standing in line.


CHO: And it can be overwhelming.

MADONNA: Yes, it can. I mean, sometimes you just -- it stops you dead in your tracks and you think, my God, I can't do this. But then I see the success rate. I talk to the people in Malawi whose lives have been changed, and that just helps me and keeps me going.