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CNN NEWSROOM

U.S. Military in Gun Battle in Eastern Afghanistan; Name of U.S. Soldier Who Shot Comrades Released; NTSB Meets About Deadly Continental Crash; Senate Finance Committee Hosts Health Care Round Table; Shooting Reflects Need for Military Mental Health Care; Fla. Gov. Crist to Run for Senate; Students Promote Community Colleges; Scholarship Info Available Online; FTC to Target Car Warranty Scams; Families Questioning Women's Deaths at Thai Resort

Aired May 12, 2009 - 09:58   ET

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


HEIDI COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: Here are some other developing stories we're watching right now. The Pakistani military ramping up its offensive against Taliban fighters, now dropping more troops behind Taliban battle lines. At least nine militants were killed in a suspected U.S. drone attack in southwestern Pakistan.

It is inspection day for the space shuttle Atlantis. The astronauts are taking a 360-degree look at the outer shell of the shuttle to see if there's any damage from yesterday's launch. The shuttle is on a mission to fix the Hubble space telescope.

Just moments ago, Florida Governor Charlie Crist announced he won't run for re-election. He was elected governor in 2006. Instead, Crist says he'll run for the Senate. He's trying to replace retiring Republican Senator Mel Martinez.

At this hour, U.S. military forces are involved in a fierce battle with suicide bombers and militants in eastern Afghanistan. It started with coordinated attacks by as many as 30 suicide bombers in the city of Khost. They were targeting government buildings and U.S. troops.

CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr is joining us now live. So, Barbara, what do we know at this time?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Heidi, we've just spoken to a U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan who tells us they're trying to get this whole situation wrapped up, running gun battles across the city of Khost for about four hours earlier today. Why is Khost so vital and so important? Well, it sits right close to the Pakistan border, of course, where the U.S. believes insurgents come across the border into Afghanistan. It has been a Taliban stronghold for years as the people there have really struggled to gain their independence from the militants.

Suicide bombers this morning going into a number of government buildings, detonating their weapons. A number of dead and injured. The U.S. military had a small number of forces in the city at the time tried to rush in and help. They had to call in a larger U.S. military force, air and ground forces to try and get a handle on the situation. As of right now, they don't even consider the city fully secure. Another major attempt here by the Taliban to destabilize an Afghan city and really take on the government -- Heidi.

COLLINS: Wow. Certainly a lot going on there. Barbara, one other thing while we have you now. Defense Secretary Robert Gates making a pretty big change in Afghanistan, replacing the still commander, General David McKiernan. He's been there, doing this job for 11 months. So unusual? Not so unusual? What's the deal here?

STARR: Pretty darn unusual. Only there 11 months, General McKiernan was the one that pressed the Pentagon for more forces for Afghanistan just because of the kind of insurgent fighting that is being seen today in that city of Khost. But General McKiernan clearly had come under a lot of back room criticism around the Pentagon.

Many people say his thinking was too conventional, he wasn't really into the counterinsurgency kind of fight that Afghanistan requires. Whatever one believes about that, the new man, Lieutenant General Stan McCrystal is a veteran of special operations, headed a number of covert operations actually for the U.S. military over the years and is considered a very savvy war fighter on the ground and infighter back in the Pentagon. Heidi?

COLLINS: Well, quickly, Barbara, just explain this to me if you could. McKiernan has been on the job for 11 months. There was someone before him. So, there have been changes in the past.

STARR: Well, sure. I mean people do rotate. The job, the tour of duty is usually about two years or so. So, clearly, General McKiernan would have been scheduled to leave the job about a year from now. But make no mistakes, what Bob Gates did yesterday he is he came out in public and fired him. He said he asked General McKiernan for his resignation and Admiral Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, sitting right next to Gates at that hearing - at that news conference said that he was the one who went to Gates and said that McKiernan had to go.

COLLINS: All right. Understood. Thanks so much. Our CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr this morning. Thanks, Barbara.

The Obama administration special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan is on Capitol Hill today. Richard Holbrook appearing before the Senate foreign affairs committee. He's talking about U.S. strategies for both countries. This hearing comes on the heels of White House visits by the leaders of both countries. We'll stay on top of that for you.

Also President Obama talking about Iraq later today, but it will be behind closed doors. He's meeting with the General Ray Odierno, commander of the multinational force in Iraq. Also at that meeting will be the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Christopher Hill. And after that meeting President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden meet with Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

We now know the name of the U.S. soldier who allegedly gunned down five fellow troops in Iraq. A defense official confirms he is Army Sergeant John Russell. He's now in custody despite earlier reports that the shooter had killed himself. Russell is facing five counts of murder, one count of aggravated assault. The military, though, still is not releasing the names of the victims.

Russell was a patient at the Camp Liberty stress clinic outside of Baghdad. Cal Perry is actually following the story for us now live in Baghdad. So Cal, there are actually two investigations going on right now, right?

CAL PERRY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. One is a criminal investigation about the shooting itself. What happened, they'll obviously want to go through that scene. It is a crime scene, they'll do forensic evidence obviously on that scene.

The other is really a military investigation, and reading through military jargon, from what I can tell, it's pretty much a look internally at its own status, how they handled the situation. Could a future situation like this be prevented? And they're using it really as a peg to look at bigger issues, post traumatic stress disorder, the length of tours.

We heard this from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff yesterday, we're talking about tours that can last up to 15 months. We heard from today General Perkins who said the shooter himself is believed to be at the end of a third tour. So, when you look at post traumatic stress disorder, we're not just talking about what these guys deal with on the streets in places like Baghdad, in places like Afghanistan, but obviously time away from your family, 15 months.

There is no motive yet for this shooting. But again, now that we have a name, clearly that's what we're going to be looking at this. Was the motive behind this post-traumatic stress disorder? Was this guy dealing with mental issues? Was he dealing with family issues? What caused him to walk into that clinic and do the shooting?

Now, his commander, we are told, took his weapon -- excuse me, took his weapon away from him about a week earlier. So, they had already had this guy pegged as a potential problem, a psychological problem based on things that he said and actions. So, he managed to get his hands on a second weapon, walk into that clinic and carry out that very bloody shooting -- Heidi.

COLLINS: It's really, really remarkable. New information coming in all the time on this story. We sure do appreciate it. Great reporting. Cal Perry live from Baghdad today.

So, did post-traumatic stress push Sgt. John Russell over the edge? In about 15 minutes from now, Jason Carroll looks at how soldiers deal with the horrors of war.

Pilot training, fatigue and airline oversight. All being discussed this morning in an unusual public hearing of the National Transportation Safety Board. For the first time in more than five years, all members are present. They've been looking into the deadly crash of a Continental connection flight outside of Buffalo, New York three months ago.

Former NTSB investigator Greg Feith is standing by with his take on the findings. So, Greg, first want to get to the crash which killed all 49 people on board and one man on the ground. Our senior correspondent Allan Chernoff takes a look now at what we're learning.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ALLAN CHERNOFF, CNN SENIOR CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): When Flight 3407 was about to stall, an emergency system called a stick pusher activated to push the aircraft's control column forward. Yet the pilot, Marvin Renslow, had never been trained in a flight simulator to respond to a stick pusher emergency, only in the classroom, an experience gap that may have been a factor in the pilot's failure to save the aircraft.

DOUG MOSS, STALL RECOVERY EXPERT: I think that's a significant problem. You can study it academically all you want to but you really need to develop the proficiency, the skill, the muscle memory required.

CHERNOFF: Colgan Air said, "We stand by our FAA certified crew training programs which meet or exceed the regulatory requirements for all major airlines and include training on emergency situations." The FAA concede it's requirements aren't exactly enough to demand stick pusher training in a flight stimulator.

MOSS: The FAA generally states it trains to a standard of routine line operations with only a minimal tolerance for deviation outside the norm. They don't focus at all on the edges of the envelope, which if they were to do that, it would be costly. But I think it would improve the overall competency of the airline pilots.

CHERNOFF: Veteran pilots tell CNN today's cost-conscious regional airlines need to provide more training, because many of their pilots are far less experienced than those at the major airlines. The Regional Airline Association counters that the Buffalo tragedy, notwithstanding, its flights are safer than ever.

ROGER COHEN, PRESIDENT, REGIONAL AIRLINE ASSOCIATION: The training standards for regional airlines, mainline airlines, network airlines and low-cost airlines, all identical under the exact same protocols, all approved in the exact same category by the Federal Aviation Administration.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COLLINS: And Greg Feith's joining us now from Washington. He actually just stepped out of that hearing and he is going to tell us a little bit more about what's going on there. He's a senior air safety investigator with the NTSB for many years, team guy (ph), as we call him.

So, let me ask you this, Greg. There's been a lot written, and of course, I'm referring to that "Wall Street Journal" report that the captain of this Buffalo flight flunked numerous flight tests during his career. Can you put that in perspective for us? What does it mean?

GREG FEITH, SENIOR SAFETY INVESTIGATOR, NTSB: Sure, I will, Heidi. One of the big things is the word "flunked." When you look at the way pilots are trained, and the courses they have to take, and then the certification they receive, they may get a disapproval. That is that if the element for a commercial pilots certificate is 50 items, and they miss one item, then they're disapproved, which means they have to go back, get retrained, and retested.

It doesn't necessarily mean that they're a bad pilot, it just means they get retrained. They go back. They get recertified and then they can perform those particular duties. And that's going to be a big issue today in the hearing. That's one of the things they've discussed already this morning.

COLLINS: Yes, I think you were likening it to flunking a driver's license test.

FEITH: Absolutely. I mean, you flunk the parallel parking part of it, they don't really make you take the whole test just to parallel parking after you either retrained or you just had a bad day on that particular day. But it doesn't mean that you're necessarily a bad driver.

COLLINS: All right. Let's talk a little bit more about the equipment on this plane, because that is being called into question, as well. And you want to talk specifically about the need for slow speed alerts. We're talking about preventing stalls here, right?

FEITH: Correct, absolutely. One of the things that the NTSB has done for about the past 10 years, they identified it in the Wellstone accident. The Senator Wellstone accident where the flight crew allowed that airplane to get very low.

COLLINS: Right.

FEITH: There's an oral and a lit alert that would've given these pilots, had it been required for installation on the airplane, a warning saying, hey, the airplane is trending slow, it's getting slow, before the airplane actually got into that stall regime. And then the pilots had to take dramatic action to try and remedy it at a very low altitude.

That hasn't been required, and I would hope that the NTSB is going to talk about it. I didn't see it on their agenda today, so I'm very concerned that they may not talk about it.

COLLINS: So, wait a minute, the NTSB has been recommending this for about 10 years, and what, no one's listening?

FEITH: Well, the FAA has been listening. They keep responding to the NTSB saying, we're going to continue to study it. We're not sure that it's necessary. The pilot training and the equipment, that's already there is enough to alert the pilots.

I don't think that that's really the appropriate answer. And in this case, we wouldn't even be here in this public hearing if there had been a slow speed alert.

COLLINS: Yes.

FEITH: And one of the attorneys representing a number of the families wrote letters to the NTSB and the FAA and Congress saying, hey, look, this has been going on for a long time, why isn't anybody acting on it? We don't need to study it anymore.

COLLINS: Wow. Wow. All right, so slow speed alerts. Everybody needs to know exactly what that term means. Listen, I want to get Greg to Captain Chesley Sullenberger who I'm sure you know very well in all of this.

FEITH: Yes.

COLLINS: When he was actually a hearing at Capitol Hill, he talked about the bigger picture. The airline industry and what trouble they are in. Let's listen for a moment.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CAPT. CHESLEY SULLENBERGER, PILOT, U.S. AIRWAYS: Despite the economic turbulence hitting our industry, the airline companies must refocus their attention and their resources on the recruitment and retention of highly experienced and well-trained pilots and make that a priority that is at least equal to their financial bottom line.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COLLINS: What do you make of it? The outflux of experienced pilots. Is that then ultimately put passengers in safety -- in bad safety situations?

FEITH: One of the things about the airline business today is that they're attracting pilots from a variety of different disciplines that don't have a lot of practical experience. We have what's called these pilot schools where you can pay $30,000 or $50,000 to get all your pilot ratings, but you don't necessarily get a lot of experience.

And that's one of the issues that's actually going to be discussed today about the captain on the Buffalo flight. And when Captain Sullenberger talks about the fact that we're losing this experience, we are. We're going to have to, you know, look at making airline flying again not profitable in the sense of paying exorbitant salaries, but drawing the best of the best, the military folks coming out, the pilots that the airlines used to use don't necessarily gravitate to the civilian world anymore.

We have a lot of civilian pilots that are coming out of flight schools, but don't have a lot of practical experience. That's really going to have to be examined. And a lot of it has to do with salaries and retirement.

COLLINS: Right.

FEITH: If you don't have the incentive, you're not going to go. COLLINS: Yes, that's right. All right. We are watching that issue closely here, as well.

Greg Feith, sure do appreciate that, former NTSB investigator.

FEITH: Take care.

COLLINS: Nice to see you, Greg.

Big money in baggage, airlines are cashing in big time on fliers and their luggage. You know the deal. We'll tell you just how much they're making, though.

And fire danger down south. Florida, now on the front lines fighting the flames. Our Jacqui Jeras keeping an eye on all thing weather-related. Hey, Jacqui.

JACQUI JERAS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Hey there, Heidi. Yes, a little bit of good news in the forecast for those Florida fires, but stormy weather in the nation's midsection. We'll have your forecasts coming up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COLLINS: Weather officials in North Carolina still trying to determine if a tornado caused all of that damage you see there on the screen. Sixty-mile-per-hour winds pummeled the southeastern part of the state. Two houses completely obliterated, about half dozen were also badly damaged. One woman who was home when the storms hit suffered only minor injuries.

And in Florida, wind and lightning are working against firefighters in Martin county. And they're trying to stay ahead of several brush fires there. Firefighters say lightning sparked at least four of the six fires burning. Jacqui Jeras on top of all of it for us this morning. Hi, Jacqui.

JERAS: Hey, Heidi. You know, you get a little good with the bad today in Florida. Once again, those fires you were talking about sparked by lightning. Well, more lightning back in the states today. Certainly you don't want that to ignite more fires. But the good news is, I think we can get a good little dousing of some showers and thundershowers that they push on through and that should certainly help the effort a little bit.

Most of the rain has been in southern parts of Alabama. We do expect that to move down through the panhandle here in just a little while. But we do think that it should move into the fire areas by the middle of the afternoon. So, hopefully things will improve.

(WEATHER REPORT)

COLLINS: Also, I'll let you know what we've been watching in the control room. Take a look at this now. These are actually live pictures right here of the health care round table that is going on today in the Senate Finance Committee. But prior to these live pictures, we noticed something. A bunch of people needing to be escorted out. Each one of them standing up one by one protesting this health care round table. Apparently saying that they are not in favor of government-sponsored health care.

There you see someone being escorted out, I understand. One person is a doctor, at least that's what we have been told as we continue to watch some of these pictures. It just happened. So, I don't know, we want to go ahead and listen in for a moment.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... rule here today. So, if any senator wants to speak or ask a question, just raise your hand. Same goes for panelists. Some panelists may want to jump in and say something. Maybe, perish the thought.

COLLINS: You can't quite hear, but you're listening to some of the live testimony that's going on right now and watching pictures that happened earlier. Again you see, I think that is the physician there that was escorted out. So, lots of issues to be resolved as we've been talking for quite some time about it as you well know. So health care, again, being handled today in Washington.

The airlines made a lot of money off your baggage last year. I'm sure you're well aware of that. But listen to the numbers, they're just being released this morning. And they show us the U.S. airlines took in more than $1 billion just on baggage fees. That's more than double what they made the year before.

American Airlines and U.S. Airways topped the list. Delta, United, and Northwest rounded out the top five. Airlines said they raised baggage fees to offset higher fuel costs.

Well, some soldiers may recover physically from war, trying to heal mentally is far more difficult. We break down the psychological toll of war.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COLLINS: The U.S. soldier accused of opening fire on his fellow troops is now, excuse me, charged with five counts of murder and one count of aggravated assault. He's identified as Army Sergeant John Russell. The shootings took place yesterday at a stress clinic at Camp Liberty in Baghdad. Military officials say he was a patient at the clinic.

CNN's Jason Carroll spoke with a former soldier about the psychological toll of war.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JASON CARROLL, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): As news spreads about the shooting at Camp Liberty in Iraq, thousands of miles away in Colorado, Alan Pitts questioned whether the soldier in custody was fighting the same kind of battle he deals with every day. ALAN PITTS, FORMER U.S. ARMY SERGEANT: It's not the first time I heard about this. I've friends that, you know, committed suicide back in the states or, you know, did other horrible things to other people.

CARROLL: 2004, western Iraq. Insurgents attacked, killing his driver and shooting Pitts. He recovered physically, but not mentally.

PITTS: The sleepless nights, flashbacks, hearing things that aren't there. It's just hard to deal with people that don't understand or have never seen the things I've seen or gone through the things I've seen.

CARROLL: Five years ago Pitts was discharged, he continues treatment under a doctor's care. A recent study found one in five veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan reported PTSD symptoms like depression and aggression. A separate Army study, more alarming. It found a record number of suicides, 143 in 2008.

HEIDI KRAFT, FMR. NAVY PSYCHOLOGIST: It still has a long way to go.

CARROLL: Heidi Kraft wrote a book about soldiers in combat and treats combat trauma patients. She says overcoming the stigma associated with needing help is a major obstacle.

KRAFT: The longstanding culture that has had no tolerance for anything that looks like less than emotional perfection.

CARROLL: Military leaders acknowledge more needs to be done.

ADM. MICHAEL MULLEN, JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF: It does speak to me, though, about the need for us to redouble our efforts, the concerns in terms of dealing with the stress, and it also speaks to the issue of multiple deployments.

CARROLL: PTSD experts say military leaders have to better prepare soldiers for the psychological effect of combat.

STEVE ROBINSON, SWORDS TO PLOWSHARES/IRAQ VETERAN PROJECT: We have not broken through to our military leaders that understanding how your brain and your body works in war and recognizing the signs and symptoms of distress is as important as knowing how to use your weapon.

CARROLL (on camera): The military has put out a public service announcement to talk about the stress servicemen face and they've set up a Web site, communityofveterans.org. Veterans can go there to get information about mental health resources, and transition back to home life. In terms of treatment, experts say if on active duty, it may mean getting off, regardless, they say, talking to a qualified therapist as soon as possible is key. Jason Carroll, CNN, New York.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COLLINS: Our Class of '09 segments puts a spotlight on students graduating during this recession. Today we're talking about community colleges. As the recession goes on, more and more people are heading there. We'll talk to a few of them coming up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COLLINS: The Republican Party's struggling for a new direction. The Democrats possibly overreaching on health care reform. Perfect topics, don't you think? We'll talk about it with John King. There he is.

Host of CNN's "STATE OF THE UNION." John is making a rare appearance in the NEWSROOM with us today. Let's go ahead and start with the Republicans.

JOHN KING, CNN HOST "STATE OF THE UNION": This is where you work, Huh?

COLLINS: Yes. I know you've been here before, snob. Hey, so, this announcement that just came out of Florida, Charlie Crist today.

KING: It is great news for the Republican Party in that Governor Crist remains pretty popular. And it's a seat they want to definitely hold. Mel Martinez is the Republican incumbent. He decided not to seek re-election, and the Democratic field at the moment is viewed as relatively weak.

However, you talked about the turmoil in the Republican Party since the last two election defeats. There's a conservative state senator running, and Governor Crist, although he is a Republican, his problem will be a primary from the right. He supported the Obama stimulus plan, and conservatives say that was a big mistake. A lot of big spending, they don't like him. There are other issues on which the right will take issue with Governor Crist. Hard to beat, but there will be a primary there.

COLLINS: You know, it's interesting, too, to talk about these moderates, right? Because some people would say, well, if you're moderate, than what are you? You can go, you know, to the right or to the left. Where's the conviction? Some people were saying that about Arlen Specter.

KING: Well, people have said that in the past about Bill Clinton. So, this runs in cycles. And the problem for the Republican Party is right now it's trying to figure out, where is its anchor. And the conservatives say the anchor is in national security, less spending, lower taxes, free markets. And they think they can make a pretty good case against the Obama administration.

But you have a guy like Charlie Crist or Arlen Specter, they represent states. They have to run statewide in pretty diverse complex states. And they would say, you know what? I have to be against offshore drilling to be the governor of Florida. I have to be maybe pro-choice on some things or maybe an open mind on another issue that conservatives don't like. Otherwise, you can't win in my state.

There are others who say look at the previous Republican governor, Jeb Bush, who was pretty conservative on most issues. Not all. Even Jeb Bush moderated on some. But the Republicans are struggling right now to try to figure out who they are and where they are, and I've used this term a lot about Democrats in 20 years covering politics, the circular firing squad. It's the Republicans in that formation at the moment.

COLLINS: Yes, yes. Well, I know what you're talking about there. But what about 2012? Because obviously when we talk about, quote, "turmoil" in the Republican Party, because some people would argue with you about that, right?

KING: Of course.

COLLINS: Where are we looking?

KING: Governors.

COLLINS: Are we -- Mitt Romney?

KING: He is one of them.

COLLINS: Is he back in the picture?

KING: He's a former governor. He's never left the picture.

COLLINS: Yes, that's true.

KING: Governor Romney has a political action committee. He is moving around the country. He's writing a book. He's been moving around the country, helping Republicans raise money. He's also part of one of several efforts to rebrand the party. Received some criticism himself just recently from the national committee chairman, Michael Steele.

This is the guy whose job it is to fix the Republican Party. And he was hosting Bill Bennett's radio show the other day, and he said, you know, one of the reasons Romney didn't win last time was that the base of our party rejected his Mormonism. Again, internal circular firing squad.

Unhelpful. The Romney campaign has fired back. And most smart people who have been through this before -- the Republican Party went through this in the '90s, they went through this in the '70s and in the '60s -- said, you know what, we have to get our act in order, start speaking in one voice and focus on the Democrats, not ourselves.

COLLINS: Yes, the Democrats have been through it too, certainly, the party.

KING: Of course.

COLLINS: Yes. All right, so, listen, I want to talk about health care, because obviously that's very timely today in Washington. They're talking a lot about it.

The Obama administration says it's going to save $2 trillion over 10 years. Such a massive number. We've been talking about all of these massive numbers with the bank bailouts and so forth. How do they break that down? How do they prove that? How do they get people on board to say, wow, if you're going to save that much money, then we need to go to this system?

KING: And they said this on the very day they also said the budget deficit is going to be even higher than they originally thought because tax revenues are down. Because the economy is slow, more people unemployed, you're putting out more money in government benefits, you're taking in less in income taxes. A lot of people are suspicious about these numbers.

What they're saying is, the doctors, the hospitals, the insurance companies, the drug companies, all the providers out there have agreed to help control costs, using new technology, taking other steps. People are very suspect that the numbers will actually add up. These are promises to try to help. They're not commitments to actually...

COLLINS: How are they handling it?

KING: Well, how they're handling it is, they're trying to create momentum for health care reform. There's a policy argument here about the math, the money, and there's a political argument about, we want to create momentum for bigger health care reform.

And if you're the administration, there are critics right now saying your math doesn't add up. But they have the people at least talking to them now who took Bill Clinton's health care plan down in 1994. You talked about the Democrats being out of power. Remember, Bill Clinton tried this in 1993 and '94, and the big money, the Harry and Louise ads, was against him.

Those were the same people who are working with President Obama for now. So, you'd rather have them on your side. Because remember, in 1994, we talked about the Republicans in the dumps right now. They were in the dumps in 1992, and then they owned everything...

COLLINS: And then what happened? Yes.

KING: ... in 1994.

COLLINS: Yes, yes, yes. Well, hey, that's politics, right?

KING: That's the way it goes.

COLLINS: And you know what? You talked so much, I don't have a chance to talk about that show you're doing now. What is it, 9:00 a.m.?

KING: That would be Sunday morning. We call it "STATE OF THE UNION," and we're having a lot of fun. Sixteen weeks old, we're having fun.

COLLINS: Well, we'd like to talk to you again another time about it because you've been doing a great job.

KING: Thanks. COLLINS: And it's a great one to catch on Sundays, certainly.

KING: Thank you. I'll call you and wake you up if you need a call.

COLLINS: All right. No, hey, I'm up.

(LAUGHTER)

COLLINS: All right. John King, nice to see you. Thank you.

KING: Thanks, Heidi.

COLLINS: Our Class of '09 segment puts the spotlight on students graduating during this recession. Today, we're talking about community colleges. As the recession goes on, more and more people are headed there. We'll talk to a few of them, coming up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COLLINS: Searching for educational alternatives in these tough economic times. One option, community colleges. A lot of people say they're a good place to get a first-rate education at a bargain price. So, we wanted to find out more about community colleges as part of our special look at the Class of 2009.

So, from Chicago this morning, we have Andrea Andrada, who is a student at Elgin Community College in Elgin, Indiana (sic). Joining us from Cleveland, David Sigmund, a student at Stark State College in Canton, Ohio. And from Washington, George Boggs, president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges. Thanks, guys, for being here.

Andrea, I want to start with you. You graduated at the top of your class and then chose to attend a community college. Why did you go this route?

ANDREA ANDRADA, STUDENT, ELGIN COMMUNITY COLLEGE: Well, it was primarily for financial reasons. And I believe that's probably why community colleges don't have that great of a reputation. It's because most people come to them because it fits their budget. But really, they need to understand that the quality of education exists at community colleges, and it's such a surprising and wonderful thing to have in our society.

COLLINS: So, what's your experience been like so far?

ANDRADA: It's been wonderful. It's been one of the best experiences of my life. And...

COLLINS: Wow.

ANDRADA: ... because community colleges -- yes, they really care about you. The faculty and the teachers and staff and, like, the student life department. They care about your growth as a person. And they give you the tools to make sure that you succeed further beyond the community college. And I believe that so many students who graduate from the community college level are going to be very successful.

COLLINS: All right. Very good.

Well, David, talking to you, you're a 56-year-old grandfather who is working full-time. So, is that why you chose to go to community college?

DAVID SIGMUND, STUDENT, STARK STATE COLLEGE: Yes, I chose to go to the community college back in 2004 because it was convenient. And the big advantage for me is the community college is very flexible with people that work. Especially like myself, who works rotating shifts. And 86 percent of the students at my college do have a job outside of the college itself.

COLLINS: So, what are you going to school for? Are you trying to change industries that you're in?

SIGMUND: Well, I'm in school right now for applied industrial technology, which was kind of, like, based with my job as being an industrial electrician.

COLLINS: OK.

SIGMUND: And after graduation, I'm going on for a degree in applied management. And what I'm focusing on is to begin a second career after I retire in three years, and hopefully that will be in marketing and recruiting with my community college because I just...

COLLINS: Wow.

SIGMUND: ... I really want to support the college. I believe in it that much.

COLLINS: All right. Well, terrific. Let's talk to George, George Boggs, because your association actually represents more than 1,100 community colleges. Are these schools -- I imagine -- seeing an increase in enrollment now?

GEORGE BOGGS, AMERICAN ASSOCIATION OF COMMUNITY COLLEGES: Yes, Heidi, enrollments are surging in community colleges across the country in response to some of the things you've heard from these two fine students.

COLLINS: Right. So, what do you see as the future here?

BOGGS: Well, I think people are discovering the high quality that community colleges have. The low -- the small class sizes, the convenience and the high quality that students can transfer to a university or go into the world of work.

COLLINS: See, it sounds like things have changed quite a bit, though, by way of who is attending community colleges. You believe that that is due to the economy? BOGGS: I think that's part of the reason we're seeing the surge right now. Of course, a lot of people who are unemployed are coming back to college. Also, more younger students are coming right out of high school into community colleges so they can save the money. They can live at home. They can pay much less in tuition and fees and still obtain a quality education.

COLLINS: All right. I want to get back to Andrea quickly because, Andrea, we'd love to hear some advice from you for other students who are thinking about college now and really struggling to come up with the money.

ANDRADA: Well, community colleges are one of the greatest investments in our society. And I believe that it was one of the greatest choices I ever made. Because I didn't want to attend a community college at first. I thought I was cheating myself out of a great education. I mean, all of my peers were immediately going off to other universities, and I was staying at home.

But in the long run, I've had so many more opportunities that I don't think I would have had if I had gone straight to a four-year university. And it's a great opportunity to develop your personal skills and your leadership skills and just grow where you are for the meantime, and then you'll have the tools to be able to succeed in the future at another institution, so...

COLLINS: All right. Understood.

ANDRADA: ... it's a great investment.

COLLINS: All right. Very good.

Well, David, what about you? Do you have any advice for students who, maybe even nontraditional students who want to go to college but are having a hard time financially?

SIGMUND: Beyond a doubt, the community college is your best investment. It provides for the lowest-cost education. But the most important thing is that people understand that those classes are taught by, you know, very knowledgeable professors that are very in tune with the real-life situations.

It is because you hear "community college" doesn't mean it's a second-rate education. It's a very good education, and it is every bit as equal, and in some cases, superior than a four-year college. When you're talking about 30 students in a classroom in comparison to over 400, you can see what I'm saying.

COLLINS: Yes. So George, is that true? As you look across these 1,100 different community colleges that you represent, staffing is not a problem? You're getting premiere staffing, and you're also talking about smaller class size, all of these things? Sell the community college for us.

BOGGS: Well, yes, that's true. The community colleges, we have to remember are credited by the same agencies that accredit the major universities in this country. So, the faculty are very highly qualified, and as the students have mentioned, the class sizes are much smaller than you'd find in the first two years at a major university.

So, of course, for some students, going away from home to a university is the best answer. But for a lot of students, going to their local community college is the best option for them.

COLLINS: All right. Well, to the three of you, we sure do appreciate your time today. Andrea Andrada, David Sigmund and George Boggs. Thanks, guys. Appreciate it. Community colleges today...

SIGMUND: My pleasure.

BOGGS: Thank you.

COLLINS: ... our Class of '09.

Millions of young people are graduating from high school this month and getting all set for college. So, now comes what may be the hardest part, as we've been saying, paying for it. There are scholarships out there, though, to help. Want to talk a little bit more about that now with Josh Levs. So, where do we find them, Josh?

JOSH LEVS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, you know, it's interesting. I've been talking with experts, and they tell me there's something really important to know. They say, do not use any Web site out there that asks you to spend money in order to track down scholarships. And they tell me that there are three good ones to use.

I want to show them to everybody right now. Let's zoom right in. I'm going to show them to you, but I'm going to show you where you can get this list. Fastweb.com, really good one, does a lot of searching for you, searches through billions of dollars out there. The second one right here is called petersons.com. Does the same thing. They have a section called Scholarship Central. And they again will search for you out there. They will alert you if something comes up later on after your search that matches your criteria.

And finally, you have this one from the College Board called Scholarship Search. So, there are three major ones, and I have done everything I possibly can think of to make it easy for you to find. Check it out. You can just Google. I tried it. Google "CNN find college scholarships." My story comes up right there.

You also get the video version right here. And Heidi, I'm going to send it out on Twitter, and I'm going to send it out on Facebook. There should not be any unused scholarship dollars in this economy at all.

COLLINS: All right, well, once you find that scholarship, though, how do you win it?

LEVS: This is -- I know, and that's the tricky part, because there's so much competition now, right?

COLLINS: Of course.

LEVS: I spoke with an expert about that. I said, in the end, what does the winning application have? Here's what she told me.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TALLY HART, OHIO STATE UNIVERSITY: Your uniquenesses may help distinguish you. Remember that there are going to be lots of people competing for those dollars, especially if you've overcome some obstacle or found something that has really inspired you.

Don't worry if it doesn't fit the usual mode that you think describes the scholarship. An example might be a student who's had to work to help finance part of their high school cost and plan for college, and has worked flipping burgers but took on a management task or became a team leader. Those things are really of interest in distinguishing a student in a scholarship process.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LEVS: And Heidi, you know Tally Hart. She's a good friend of the show right here. And she always has great information. Obviously, all of that stuff available right there online. Definitely do everything you can. Find those scholarship dollars. Like I said, this economy, they should not go unused.

COLLINS: Yes, don't give up, because they're out there. All right, Josh, appreciate that.

You have questions about your money, one personal finance editor -- our personal finance editor Gerri Willis has some answers. She tackles some of your issues coming up after the break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COLLINS: If you are one of the many people who's gotten a message saying that your car warranty has expired, beware, it's probably a scam. But the government is getting ready now to crack down on these deceptive calls. Susan Lisovicz on the New York Stock Exchange with more details. Susan, I get these calls all the time, even on my cell phone now.

SUSAN LISOVICZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's the problem. You're one of many, many people, Heidi. I get them in the mail.

Well, you can call these calls robo calls, voice blasting or just plain old harassment. What it is is, people like Heidi called randomly. The message says your car warranty expired. Never mind if you don't even own a car...

COLLINS: Important detail.

LISOVICZ: ... which has happened. And if all that isn't troublesome enough, if you call back to buy the policy, the company oftentimes makes you pay up front, sometimes thousands of dollars, before you're even shown a contract. The issue here is that the deal doesn't cover many types of repairs.

So, the FTC is going to address this at the top of the hour. Don't be surprised if there's a lawsuit. Senators Chuck Schumer and Mark Warner will be making the announcement. And both of them have received these calls. They're not...

COLLINS: Yes, and...

LISOVICZ: Wrong people to call, Heidi.

COLLINS: I bet. Yes. No question about that. I can't believe that people pay money, though, before getting a service of some kind. I mean, how big of a problem is it?

LISOVICZ: Well, it's big enough that there are 300,000 complaints to the FTC. And like you, even people who are on the "do not call" list have been targeted. The FTC has a link on its site to file a complaint. And officials in 40 states are investigating. Most of these companies, by the way, for some reason are based in St. Louis.

Here on Wall Street, real quickly, not a whole lot of action. I guess that's the good news because we're to the downside right now, but just modestly so. Citigroup shares are off 1 percent, but the company says it will boost lending initiatives to $45 billion. That's basically what it's paid out since it's got $45 billion in government loans. Basically what the government wanted to do.

And that's about it, Heidi. Getting the wrap cue. Back to you.

COLLINS: They're screaming in both our ears.

LISOVICZ: In our ears.

COLLINS: All right, Susan, thanks so much. We're watching Wall Street, too, all day long right here in the CNN NEWSROOM.

Tough decisions to make during this recession: credit card issues, bank loans, mortgages, bankruptcy. The list of overwhelming economic problems can be endless. Our personal finance editor Gerri Willis has got got your back. She and her panel of experts are getting you answers.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GERRI WILLIS, CNN PERSONAL FINANCE EDITOR: We want to get you answers to your financial questions. Let's get straight to "The Help Desk."

Hilary Kramer is an AOL Money Coach, and Gary Schatsky is the president and founder of objectiveadvice.com. All right, guys, let's get right to those questions.

The first one's from Mark in Colorado, who asks, "I have a small business, and I'm in the process of refinancing my commercial real estate loan. Should I be concerned about the financial condition of the banks I apply to? Once I get the loan, should I worry about the bank's condition?"

Hillary, interesting question. Normally we're talking to people who are putting their paychecks into a bank, what should they do. But this is someone who has a commercial loan. What should they think about?

HILARY KRAMER, AOL MONEY COACH: Always think about a bank that has a very healthy balance sheet, excellent, excellent health and that looks very strong. Because that bank will be more flexible in dealing with your loan or your refinancing.

The worse condition a bank is, they don't have the money to loan out. They're going to be difficult. And it's going to be a long process. So, go with a healthy bank. And once you have the loan, most of the time it's securitized out. So, if your bank does happen to fail, don't worry. They'll still be collecting. A monthly check will find you.

WILLIS: All right. And securitization, of course, means that it's sold to other lenders.

KRAMER: That's right.

WILLIS: One other great thing to do, bankrate.com has a safety and soundness ratings for banks if you want to look up just how safe your bank is.

Kristina in Colorado has another question: "My husband and I are going through a bankruptcy and are determined never to open another credit card. What can we do to build our credit back after this bankruptcy?"

Gary, interesting question.

GARY SCHATSKY, PRESIDENT AND FOUNDER, OBJECTIVEADVICE.COM: Well, you know, obviously you're quite limited in terms of your ability to borrow. But often people are looking at secured credit cards. And that's a situation where you're putting up a sum of money, and then you're granted a credit card, and it can help your credit score.

Clearly, you don't want to get into the same situation. So, you don't want to be borrowing money you don't have. But building up your credit is crucial, and a secured credit card is probably one of the best ways.

WILLIS: You know, a lot of people out there, they want to get rid of the credit cards. But I think people in this society, they need some kind of credit card, A, to prove who they are, to pay for emergency expenses. Hilary, what do you think?

KRAMER: Credit cards are vital and important for building your credit score because that's how much credit limit that you have, and you want as much as possible. So, having many credit cards, but don't go over the limit, that's the way to go.

WILLIS: All right, guys, great answers, tough questions. "The Help Desk" is all about getting you answers. Send me an e-mail to gerri@CNN.com or log on to CNN.com/helpdesk to see more of our financial solutions. And "The Help Desk" is everywhere. Make sure to check out the latest issue of "Money" magazine on newsstands now.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COLLINS: Tourist time in paradise ends violently. Two healthy young women staying in the same island hotel die from mysterious conditions.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COLLINS: Two young women, one American, one Norwegian, enjoying the pleasures of a tropical island vacation until their stays and their lives were cut short. Here's CNN's Drew Griffin on the trail of a mystery.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DREW GRIFFIN, CNN INVESTIGATIVE UNIT CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It was supposed to be a dream vacation for Jill St. Onge: a three- month journey through Asia capped by a visit to Thailand's Phi Phi Islands.

There was even a marriage proposal from fiance Ryan Kells, but then something went horribly wrong. Kells says he found St. Onge gravely ill in their room at the Lalina (ph) guest house. He put her in a shopping cart and searched desperately for help.

RYAN KELLS, ST. ONGE'S FIANCE: She couldn't breathe. She was vomiting. And I tried to run her to a hospital. And she ended up passing within maybe 12 hours of the first symptoms of being sick.

GRIFFIN: Her family in California was crushed.

ROBERT ST. ONGE, JILL ST. ONGE'S BROTHER (via telephone): It's really bad. It's about the worst thing any of us have ever gone through.

GRIFFIN: The Phi Phi Islands are a popular tourist destination off the west coast of Thailand. And up until she died, St. Onge seemed to be having the time of her life.

"Food, drink, good books, sun and warm waters...what else do ya need?" she wrote on her blog. St. Onge was only 27 and described by her friends and family as healthy and vibrant.

BROOKE FRIED, ST. ONGE'S BEST FRIEND: She was just so much a part of our lives. It's impossible to think about what it's going to be like without her.

GRIFFIN: Adding to the mystery, the Associated Press reports that within hours of St. Onge becoming ill, another tourist also was sickened and died. She, too, had been staying at the Lalina (ph) guest house, a budget hotel where rooms go for as little as $17 a night. That woman was Julie Michelle Bergheim (ph), a 22-year-old from Norway.

A Norwegian newspaper citing a local police chief reported traces of cyanide had been found in her stomach. Autopsy reports for the two women have yet to be released, but authorities are looking at the possibility that Bergheim (ph) and St. Onge may have died from food poisoning.

That is cold comfort for St. Onge's friends, who've erected a memorial at the bar where she worked.

WHITNEY FILSINGER, BARTENDER: It's a little hard to be here. We can feel her here, and we miss her. And the hardest part, I think, is that we just don't really know what happened to her.

GRIFFIN: The owner of the guest house in Thailand where both women were staying says the resort has nothing to do with their deaths. He thinks they died from drinking too much. Until the mystery is solved, a cloud of uncertainty could cast a shadow over this tropical paradise.

Drew Griffin, CNN, New York.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COLLINS: I'm Heidi Collins. Following information out of Iraq after a deadly shooting involving five U.S. soldiers. Live from Baghdad with the latest.

CNN NEWSROOM continues right now with Tony Harris.