Answering The Call To Serve Changes Lives

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Guests

Joe Haldeman, combat engineer in Vietnam War and author of 28 novels, including The Forever War
Michael Jernigan, retired Marine corporal

As a young man, Joe Haldeman joined the U.S. Army not as a career, but hoping to become a scientist after serving in the war in Vietnam. He came out of the jungle with a bullet wound, a Purple Heart and a new calling: to become a writer. Even brief military careers can be life-changing.

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

At the height of the war in Vietnam, Joe Haldeman joined the Army when he got a draft notice and planned afterwards to go on to a career in astronomy. After a year in the boonies, a bullet wound and a Purple Heart, he switched from a telescope to a typewriter.

He's since published more than two dozen novels, most of them, he says, colored by his experience in combat. His best-known work is an anti-war science fiction novel called "The Forever War," drawn directly from his time in Vietnam.

Proceedings, the magazine of the U.S. Naval Institute, is running a series of essays by men and women who served a short time in the military about how that changed their life and their careers. Joe Haldeman's essay appears in the April issue.

If you served briefly in uniform, how did that experience change your life? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, two prominent critics answer the frequently asked question: Should I open a restaurant?

But first, Joe Haldeman currently teaches a course on the craft of science fiction at MIT, where he's a professor of writing, and joins us today from a studio in Gainesville, Florida.

And it's nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. Joe Haldeman (Author): It's good to be here, Neal.

CONAN: And you wrote in your piece: In my work, it always comes back to the jungle.

What did you mean by that?

Mr. HALDEMAN: Well, you'd have to see it in context, but, in fact, so many of my books either have to do with war or have characters who have been through war, that I guess it goes back to the mindset.

I think any writer keeps going back to some basic theme. Sometimes it's autobiographical. I guess it usually is.

CONAN: And that basic theme, in your case, goes back to that year in Vietnam.

Mr. HALDEMAN: Yeah, that's correct. I was sort of an unwilling soldier, but once you're there, of course, what you do is fight.

CONAN: And your experience in that conflict, you had written a couple of stories before you went to war. What were they about?

Mr. HALDEMAN: Oh, they were pretty weird science fiction stories about meeting aliens, one of them, and the other was about a mathematician who stumbles on a deal-with-the-devil formula.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Yeah, I remember science fiction in those days.

Mr. HALDEMAN: Yeah.

CONAN: And that kind of writing changed a lot after you got out of the Army.

Mr. HALDEMAN: Well, it did. And, in fact, I think I would have been a writer, anyhow, in the sense of having written a story every now and then, or continued writing poetry. But it was the war experience and the two novels I wrote about Vietnam that really got me started as a professional writer.

The other one was called "War Year." It wasn't science fiction. It was a straight novel.

CONAN: And when you got around to writing "The Forever War," which, as you note, has been your most successful book, you sort of made a - well, rotated Vietnam into the future. I don't think too many readers missed the analogy.

Mr. HALDEMAN: No, that's true, although they do now. I think younger readers can read the book and enjoy it without seeing any parallel with Vietnam, which is ancient history, of course.

CONAN: And the experience of your - well, the isolation of those soldiers caught in time, as it were, did that reflect the sort of isolation you felt in your unit when you were just cut off from the world, so to speak?

Mr. HALDEMAN: I think it did on several levels. I think - of course, you'd have to put yourself back in the 1960s to understand how separate from the mainstream of American life soldiers felt themselves to be, because we knew that students and others were demonstrating pretty violently against what we were doing.

And a lot of us, like me, had been drafted against our will and wound up fighting, even though we either cared nothing about the politics or we were on the other side of the fence.

CONAN: You wrote in your piece that you were, you know, that geek, peacenik kid who got drafted into the Army, and in the Hollywood version of the story, you learn the meaning of sacrifice and love of country.

Mr. HALDEMAN: Yeah. Yeah. That's the Hollywood version.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HALDEMAN: I think in the real-life version, you learn to keep your head down and don't call attention to yourself. I think a lot of privates learn that.

CONAN: And you were a private. You had a degree in physics and astronomy, and ended up as a private in Vietnam.

Mr. HALDEMAN: Yes. Well, they offered me officer candidate school, of course.

CONAN: And you turned it down?

Mr. HALDEMAN: Definitely.

CONAN: Why?

Mr. HALDEMAN: Well, I was against the war, philosophically. I didn't think America should be there. And actually, in my naivete, I thought: Well, if I just stay an enlisted man, they'll see that I have all this education. And I'm an old guy. So they're not going to send me into combat, anyhow. So what would I gain by getting lieutenant's bars, which would probably put me in the middle of the jungle?

CONAN: Put you at the head of a platoon.

Mr. HALDEMAN: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: As you learned the experience, you also noted that the job of the private is to do what other people tell him to do.

Mr. HALDEMAN: Exactly. And I didn't have much training in that, having been simply a happy-go-lucky college student.

CONAN: As you look back on the experience, would your life have been changed had you been sent to Germany, instead?

Mr. HALDEMAN: I think it would have been changed completely. I don't think I would have written a combat novel if I had just had peacetime military training. I think, in fact, I probably would have remained a poet and just written a short story every now and then. I don't think I would have written a novel because - I don't know. I - you have to have to have something really burning to start it and to finish a complete novel.

CONAN: Would we now know Comet Haldeman?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HALDEMAN: I don't know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Well, in fact, that's an odd thought. I never thought of that. Would there be a Comet Haldeman? I mean, that could be my nickname if I were a soccer star or something.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: We're talking with Joe Haldeman. His piece appears in the April issue of Proceedings, the magazine of the U.S. Naval Institute, "In My Work, It Always Comes Back to the Jungle." It's part of a series of essays by people who served briefly in the military under the general topic: answering the call.

We'd like to hear from those of you who served a brief time in the military. How did it affect your life and your career? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

And we'll start with Stacy(ph), Stacy with us from Fort Myers.

STACY (Caller): Hi. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: I should note the Fort Myers in Florida, not the one in Virginia, which is still a military base.

STACY: Exactly. And actually, being in the military, I was in the Army as a flute player for the Army. And my husband was an enlisted man who did go to Vietnam.

And both aspects affected, you know, how I do my job today, though my job today is quite a bit different. How I lead was taught to me by the military. However, the compassionate side of me - I now am a psychiatric nurse - is a direct result of having a husband with PTSD after Vietnam, before we had a name for PTSD.

CONAN: And how did that manifest when he got home?

STACY: Shortly after - besides the fact that some of his friends came back severely addicted to drugs and alcohol, his was an addiction to alcohol that developed after being over in Vietnam. He would blackout drink and start screaming, trying to shoot things with household items, you know...

CONAN: And were you already in nursing school by that point?

STACY: No, I wasn't. I was relatively young. I was 23 years old and had no idea what was going on.

CONAN: So that experience was what convinced you, at some point, to change careers.

STACY: Exactly. Exactly.

CONAN: Do you still play the flute?

STACY: Occasionally, for, you know, special events, friends and family.

CONAN: But not as a - on a regular basis?

STACY: Yes.

CONAN: All right. Well, thank you very much for that. And it's an interesting story, Stacy. Appreciate it.

STACY: Thank you.

CONAN: Joe Haldeman, did you experience PTSD?

Mr. HALDEMAN: Well, yeah. Like her husband, I - there was no such designation for what we had. I had increasingly severe anxiety attacks, and I drank a great deal. And basically, I went to a psychiatrist and tried to find some sort of solution. And through a combination of talk therapy and less and less powerful psych drugs, I wound up getting the better of it, I think.

I still have bad dreams and that sort of thing, but I no longer pick up household objects and try to shoot people with them. I used to - some of the household object I used to have included guns, and that wouldn't be good.

CONAN: We should point out that you did have a wound in combat and got the Purple Heart.

Mr. HALDEMAN: Yeah, actually, I had about 100 wounds.

CONAN: A hundred?

Mr. HALDEMAN: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HALDEMAN: This is what happens when you get hit with fragmentation weapons. Most of them are very small. But I suppose I could go to court and ask for 99 little extra ribbons on my Purple Heart.

But, in fact, if you look at the wording for the medal, you could actually get a special little thing for every individual wound, but people would think it was tacky, I suppose.

CONAN: You thought you would be in the engineers, what, designing dams or something?

Mr. HALDEMAN: Something like that. They said, well, you'd probably just be some sort of a scientific clerk. And I said: Well, you know, I could do that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HALDEMAN: It's basically what I was doing in the summers, anyhow.

CONAN: And for those of us who don't know, tell us what a combat engineer does.

Mr. HALDEMAN: A combat engineer basically - well, we joked with each other, saying that we were too dumb to be infantry. So they gave us a shovel instead of a rifle. But, in fact, a combat engineer does basic infantry stuff, and also builds things and blows them up.

We did a lot more blowing up things than building them. I was a combat demolition engineer. And basically, we went through the jungle with a small group of infantry. And when we got in contact and had wounded, the engineers would drop back and blow down enough trees to bring in a helicopter, to give a place for a helicopter to come in and evacuate the wounded.

CONAN: Has this - any of those skills that you learned been applicable in civilian life?

Mr. HALDEMAN: You know, I very rarely have to blow anything up nowadays. I've had to use a machete, it being Florida where I live, and I have occasionally wished I had a few sticks of plastic explosive to save some time and effort.

But no. I guess my marksmanship, which was pretty good, has stood me in good stead against tin cans and floating sticks, but that's about all.

CONAN: We're talking with Joe Haldeman, as you've heard, just served as a combat engineer in the Vietnam, about how the experience of brief service in uniform changed his life and his career. If that's your story, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

Joe Haldeman, the author of "The Forever War" and two dozen other novels describes how his service in Vietnam changed him. One greetings letter from the Selective Service System put an end to my career track, he writes. Overnight, I was just another faceless, disposable body in uniform. The life difference was profound. I never went back to science. The bullet that drilled into my groin and took me out of combat also took me out of my comfortable career path. I had a story to tell, a story I had to tell, and after realizing it, I realized the only place was - I was comfortable was behind a typewriter.

Proceedings, the magazine of the U.S. Naval Institute, is running a series of essays by men and women who served briefly in the military about how that experience changed their lives and their careers. Joe Haldeman's story runs in the April edition.

If you served briefly in uniform, how did it change you? 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org.

And joining us now from his home in St. Petersburg, Florida, Michael Jernigan. He served in Iraq from 2002 to 2005 as a Marine corporal. He was hit by a roadside bomb and suffered extensive injuries, including the loss of both eyes.

And Michael, nice to have you back with us.

Mr. MICHAEL JERNIGAN (U.S. Marines, Retired): Thank you, thank you very much.

CONAN: It's been a couple years since we last spoke with you. How are you doing?

Mr. JERNIGAN: I'm doing well. I'm doing well. I was actually in your studio for my 29th birthday.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: So you're now in your 30s, and no longer trustable. I guess that's a Vietnam-era joke.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JERNIGAN: I guess so. I guess so.

CONAN: How did your - obviously, your time in uniform involved the loss of your eyes, but it will therefore be one of the key moments of your life forever.

Mr. JERNIGAN: Yes, it is. You know, it's one of those things, it significantly altered my life. And due to the way I lost both my eyes, you know, I will never see again. So there is - I shouldn't say there is not any hope for my hopes of vision, but, you know, it's kind of over.

CONAN: What else did that experience in uniform do for your life?

Mr. JERNIGAN: It taught me the value of getting an education. It taught me the value of giving back to my community. You know, I'll tell you a little bit, before I joined the Marine Corps, I was bartending at the Don CeSar beach resort. And I didn't have any money.

And I was looking around at all my co-workers who were in their 30s and 40s and seeing that they were doing the exact same thing I was, and I didn't want that for myself. So I joined the Marine Corps. You know, I'm a third-generation Marine. It worked for my grandfather. It worked for my dad.

You know, I had just failed out of junior college, four-and-a-half unsuccessful years of junior college. So I looked to the Marine Corps. And now that I'm on the other side of it, I see the value in higher education.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JERNIGAN: If I would have done better in college, I would have never been in a hole.

CONAN: And never been in that hole in the first place. Do you keep in touch with the people from your unit?

Mr. JERNIGAN: There's a few of them I'm still in touch with. You know, I think that those bonds formed in combat, anyone will tell you, are thicker than anybody can imagine.

CONAN: And as you now look ahead toward the rest of your life, you're going to be engaged with some aspect of the military - the VA, for example - well, for the rest of your life.

Mr. JERNIGAN: I will. I get my medical care at the VA. You know, I've also gotten involved with a program called Paws for Patriots, which is sponsored by Southeastern Guide Dogs. And we provide priority to those that have been visually impaired in Afghanistan and Iraq.

And we're opening up our program to start offering veteran assistance dogs for those that live with post-traumatic stress.

CONAN: And I wonder: As - I wanted to bring Joe Haldeman into the conversation. Obviously, yours was a very different experience. You did have the education. Nevertheless, it was the time of the draft. So you had no alternative except to go into the military.

Mr. HALDEMAN: Yes. It's quite different now.

CONAN: Quite different now, but I wonder: Do you keep in touch with the people that you served with?

Mr. HALDEMAN: Well, that's a curious thing, because for years - at least until a couple of years ago - I thought that all of my squad mates were killed the day that I was wounded. And it wasn't until a few years ago that I found that although everybody else lost arms and legs, nobody else was - nobody was killed.

They weren't particularly letter-writer kind of guys. So we just fell off each other's radar. I'm in touch - I'm in fairly close touch with a guy I met in the Red Cross while I was recovering from my wounds. And I volunteered for the Red Cross in the hospital at Cam Ranh Bay.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HALDEMAN: So we got to know each other pretty well and stayed in contact after we came back stateside. And I see him about once a year or so. We get together every now and then and have a few laughs.

CONAN: Does your injury require you to go to the VA every once in a while?

Mr. HALDEMAN: Oh, I'm...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HALDEMAN: I'm one of their best customers. They love me over there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HALDEMAN: Yeah. I go there for my hearing, which is pretty awful. Demolition engineering is not good for that. And I've got recurrent things with my wounds, and then I - from - probably from drinking so much, I got pancreatitis. And so that had me in and out of the hospital for a couple of years.

CONAN: So this is a familiar story to you. Do you have any tips for Michael Jernigan about the way ahead?

Mr. HALDEMAN: I think Michael's doing very well, considering the severity of his handicap.

You know, I basically don't have any problems, really. I dodged a bullet. It took me a long time to get to where I could walk straight, but that's not a big deal compared to losing your sight. I think that we...

Mr. JERNIGAN: I mean, we...

Mr. HALDEMAN: Yeah.

Mr. JERNIGAN: I mean, we all go through something. You know, you don't come back from combat without some type of wound, whether it be physical or mental. You know, I fell into drinking pretty heavily for a few years after I was wounded. It's only been in the last few years that I've come out of it and getting ready to graduate from college.

CONAN: And Michael, somebody in your situation might start feeling pretty sorry for themselves.

Mr. JERNIGAN: Most people in my situation do.

CONAN: Was that...

Mr. JERNIGAN: It's one of things that - for me, I've had a family that stood by me. I met my wife after I went blind. She has inspired me to become a better person. And really, I fall back on my Marine Corps training and the idea that you keep moving forward.

You know, in the Marine Corps, we have a saying that if a movement -fire without movement is a waste, and movement without fire is suicide. You know, it's - you have to keep shooting and keep moving.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HALDEMAN: That's a good philosophy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HALDEMAN: You know, I guess mine is kind of orthogonal to yours. My big lesson from combat was: I think I can survive anything, anything they throw at me. And I (unintelligible).

Mr. JERNIGAN: Exactly.

CONAN: Yeah. Let's see if we can get another voice into the conversation. Let's turn to Hillary, and Hillary's with us from Cotati in California.

HILLARY (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi, Hillary.

HILLARY: Yeah, I just wanted to share how the Army changed my life. I was a very, like, troubled teenager. I didn't finish high school. I got a GED. And then my brother and I decided to go to the Army.

And it really taught me a lot of discipline, resourcefulness. It taught me to appreciate just being able to take a shower.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HILLARY: Just little things. And I think that, you know, those lessons helped me finish college, and now I'm in grad school. I feel like I'm on a good trajectory.

And also, because of my service, I'm eligible for Section 8 housing. So I was able to finish my undergraduate degree while working part-time, and I was able to have, you know, a roof over my head, and also VA health care. You know, I was able to quit my job and go back to school full-time on the GI Bill and still have health care. So...

CONAN: And where did you serve, Hillary?

HILLARY: I served in Korea, and then I served at Fort Bliss, Texas. And then right toward the end of my service, we got deployed to Kuwait. So actually I was in the same battalion as Shoshana.

CONAN: Oh, as Shoshana Johnson, who we heard from at the beginning of the program, the - in one of the maintenance battalions that - well, obviously, her unit ran into trouble in March of 2003.

HILLARY: Right.

CONAN: Yeah.

HILLARY: So it's been great.

CONAN: Well, congratulations, Hillary.

HILLARY: Thank you.

CONAN: Appreciate the phone call.

HILLARY: Thanks for having my call.

CONAN: Okay, no problem.

Here's an email from Nathan in Huntsville: I spent four years in the USAF right after Vietnam. My training as an avionics technician led me into all phases of IT at the start of the computer revolution. I have had a successful 30-year career as a result.

So I guess we have to bear in mind that everybody's experience is quite different.

Let's see if we can go next to Matt, and Matt's with us from Buffalo.

MATT (Caller): Hello, Neal.

CONAN: Hi, Matt. Go ahead, please.

MATT: Yeah. I was deployed to - well, first of all, I was a member of the Explosive Ordinance Disposal Division in the Air Force, and I was deployed to Iraq in '05, '06.

CONAN: So let me just translate. In other words, you were blowing up IEDs.

MATT: Yes. That's exactly what we were doing. And so on one of our missions, we were going out to look at what we call post-blast, after an IED goes off. The EOD technicians go out, and they look at the scenario and try to figure out what blew up.

And there's a particularly scenario where one of the Humvees, the armored Humvees got hit and it was totally torn to pieces and everyone inside of it ended up dying, really. They - we felt like - the entire unit was there. We felt like we needed to do something to show how frustrated we were. And so, as the EOD with explosives, we ended up blowing up a couple of buildings.

Now, this whole scenario - I mean, I was frustrated and most of the other people were frustrated. We were trying to figure out, you know, was this justified, you know? We're we right in doing this? And since I got out of the military, I was originally going to study engineering, and I took an ethics course and that was it. It hit me. Right there and then, I was like, this is what I need to be doing.

And since then I've been studying ethics. Pretty hardcore trying to make sense of these types of situations that soldiers find themselves in all the time without necessarily knowing what, you know, having any kind of guidance as to what the right of course action was supposed to be. So that's my story.

CONAN: I have to ask, Matt, in blowing up those buildings, did anybody get hurt?

MATT: No. Nobody got hurt. It was just a material kind of response. We knew we cleared the area. We knew everybody was gone. So, you know, we took measures in that way. But still, you know, the question is, should we be doing that at all? Is it right for us to be responding in that way? And it's a very difficult question to answer. It's got a very - a lot of different facets to it.

CONAN: Joe Haldeman, you had access to large amounts of explosives when you were in Vietnam too. Did anything like that ever happen to you?

Mr. HALDEMAN: Well, yeah. As a general rule, of course, you don't risk one life if you can stand back and just chuck grenades at something until it blows up. I mean, that was our philosophy. You can - if something looks suspicious, you can probably detonate it at a distance and then go in and see if you were right.

We were not as scientific as the guys are now. But we had a lot of rifle grenades and hand grenades and we knew how to use them, as they say in the movies.

CONAN: Matt, studying ethics. When do you graduate?

MATT: Actually, I have one more year left in school and I will be graduating. And I actually think I might go on to graduate school for philosophy and ethics so.

CONAN: Going after the big bucks, are you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MATT: Yes. That's exactly what I'm looking for.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Matt, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it. Good luck in school.

MATT: Thank you very much.

CONAN: We're talking with Joe Haldeman, a science fiction writer who served as a combat engineer in Vietnam, Michael Jernigan, a retired Marine corporal who served in Iraq and lost his sight there in an IED explosion, about how the experience of a brief time in uniform changed their lives and their careers.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's get another caller on the line. This is Keith, Keith with us from Evansville in Indiana.

KEITH (Caller): Thank you for taking my call. I entered the Army in 1969 at the age of 19 and had my 21st birthday in Vietnam. I flew the Hueys for the Army...

CONAN: Small helicopters, yeah.

KEITH: ...yes, in what was called the central highlands and I came home pretty much just an adrenaline junkie and a very heavy drinker. At age 42, I became actively suicidal and quit drinking. Five months later, I had a breakdown, eventually was diagnosed as suffering from chronic and severe post-traumatic stress disorder.

I had a successful sales career in the insurance industry. I lost that. But I've rebuilt a life. I'm now a peer support specialist. I volunteer at the VA and help other veterans who have mental health diagnoses. And that there is a reward there that I really do feel like so much of my sense of who I was was so damaged by the destruction that we brought upon other people. And I've come to believe that my PTSD at least is a soul sickness.

I came home from Vietnam an atheist. Now, I consider myself an agnostic in that the creator of the universe is beyond my understanding. But one of the things I believe about that creator is that power would not have us do to one another what war creates for us.

I wrote some stories while I was trying to (unintelligible) rehab. And I wrote one called "The Schoolyard," which involved a mission where I was going to be working with some advisors, some American advisors, to the 22nd ARVN working in the village of An Khe in the central highlands.

We landed to the schoolyard there. There were a few hundred schoolchildren there. And when we shut down, I had seen something laying about 30 yards in front of our helicopter. We shut down and we walked over. And there was an elderly Vietnam man, that means he was probably in his 40s, and a very young teenager, who has been gutted and castrated and had the tops of his head blown off and left there as an example. They were Vietcong sappers who had tried who had been caught in the wire about three or four days before.

The image of that haunted me. The fear that that might happen to me did away with whatever conscience was left. And I became - I just let the darkness that was inside of me out and that's one of the, I think, the greatest injuries from war, is when that darkness and that evilness inside of us that's driven by our desire to survive lets us do anything to them.

CONAN: Keith...

KEITH: That's my comment.

CONAN: ...a searing story. Thank you so much for that. It's, I know, not easy to talk about, but we appreciate the phone call. Thank you very much.

KEITH: Thank you.

CONAN: And I'm afraid - we were going to ask some more questions, but Joe Haldeman, I'm afraid we're out of time. We appreciate your time today and wish you the best of luck.

Mr. HALDEMAN: Thank you. Glad to be here.

CONAN: Joe Haldeman, the science fiction writer - his best known work, "The Forever War" - joined us from a studio in Gainesville, Florida. And, Michael Jernigan, nice to speak with you again.

Cpl. JERNIGAN: Thank you, Neal. You have a wonderful day.

CONAN: And we're going to check back with you from time to time, if you don't mind.

Cpl. JERNIGAN: Not a problem.

CONAN: All right. Michael Jernigan, a retired Marine Corps corporal who served in Iraq from 2002 to 2005, joined us from his home in St. Petersburg.

When we come back from a short break, we're going to be talking to all of you potential restaurateurs. Don't do it. Well, that's according to Tim and Nina Zagat of the Zagat Survey. They'll be joining us.

I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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