Officers in Exodus, Military Losing Seasoned Soldiers Last year, 13 percent of junior officers with four to nine years experience left the armed services, a jump from eight percent in 2003. Marine Corps Times reporter Andrew Tilghman joins Talk of the Nation to discuss what this loss of experienced soldiers could mean for the military.
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Officers in Exodus, Military Losing Seasoned Soldiers

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LYNN NEARY, host:

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

Officers are the most highly educated and best trained members of the armed services. They are leaders expected to think creatively about what it takes to win a war. Without good officers, the military is greatly weakened. That's why there's growing concern in the Army about the increasing numbers of young officers who are returning to civilian life. In 2003, 8 percent of junior officers with four to nine years experience left the Army; last year, it was 13 percent. The reasons for this are both economic and cultural, and frequent tours in Iraq and Afghanistan play a large role.

Reporter Andrew Tilghman spoke to a number of officers about the problem for an article in this month's Washington Monthly magazine. Tilghman joins us today to talk about the high rate of attrition among young Army officers and it's implications for the future.

Later in the hour, the New York Times' carpetbagger joins us for a glimpse of the Oscars. But first, retaining the Army's brightest and best.

If you are an Army officer, we want to hear from you. Are you thinking of leaving and why? How is the Army changing? Tell us your story. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. E-mail address is talk@npr.org. And, of course, you can comment on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Andrew Tilghman joins us in Studio 3A. He is also a staff writer at the Marine Corps Times. Good to have you with us.

Mr. ANDREW TILGHMAN (Staff Writer, Marine Corps Times): Thank you.

NEARY: Now, as I understand it, there is a - there are a lot of reasons why this is happening, why the Army is losing its officers. But the Iraq war is a big part of it, is it not?

Mr. TILGHMAN: It is. I mean, it's certainly a convergence of factors and the war, undeniably, place a big part of it. I mean, I spoke with a lot of young officers that were in the process of making this decision, and they're all very personal decisions based on the individual marriage and family and financial considerations. But underlying that all is certainly the stress that the war has put on their professional environment.

NEARY: Let's talk first about some of the personal reasons, particularly the whole idea of going on tours of duty into war zones and the uncertainty that that creates in a family's life or even a young man's life. I think you interviewed one officer who said I want to have a girlfriend. I mean, get a girlfriend.

Mr. TILGHMAN: Yeah. I mean, it's extraordinary when you talk to some of these guys about what the past five years of their life has been like. I mean, I talked to a lot of guys that had, you know, children that were over six months old before they even met them. I had a lot of - talked to a lot of guys that were missing their children's seventh, eighth, and ninth grades in school, and it's really defining their life, certainly, and defining their family life.

NEARY: And to what degree is the decision economic?

Mr. TILGHMAN: Well, I didn't really talked to anybody, to be honest, who said this was an economic decision. But that was a factor in all of these discussions. And you're talking about guys who are very well-educated, who are very competent, and have extraordinary experience. You know, they've been to Iraq several times. They've led troops in combat. I mean, these guys have a lot of options. They're very desirable from the perspective of a lot of private sector recruiters.

So they're not leaving the Army because of money, but when they do their own personal equation and go to make these decisions, they do know they'll probably going to pretty well in the private sector.

NEARY: Yeah. And, you know, what I thought was interesting too at least one of the officers you spoke with, maybe a couple of them I think, there seemed to be a frustration with the culture of the Army and maybe feeling that they're expertise wasn't being used as well as it could be, both in the field and particularly in Iraq.

Mr. TILGHMAN: Yeah. That was a very significant part of the conversations that I had. I mean, I think one of the things that people underestimate about these young officers is their idealism. And there's really a fine line in many ways between a guy who finishes college and joins the Peace Corps and a guy who finishes college and becomes a lieutenant in the Army. In many ways they both want to serve, they want to go abroad to new and different places and meet people and try and make their lives better.

And I think that the way the war has gone over the past few years, the way it's been managed, the way it's - things are played out on the ground has really drained a lot of that idealism from these guys.

NEARY: And a point that you made, too, was that many of these officers who are leaving are really the top-notch officers, really highly skilled, the creative thinkers - that the Army is losing some of its best.

Mr. TILGHMAN: Well, I think that it's certainly losing the people that are sort of the most strong, independent-minded guys. Because the Army today and its bureaucratic culture I think is a very difficult environment for a guy whose very independent minded and has his own ideas and wants those ideas heard and wants to try and, you know, implement new and innovative ways of doing things. That's not something that the Army bureaucracy is really historically rewarded.

NEARY: So what's the danger of losing the strong, independent-minded, young officers? What's the implication for the Army for the future?

Mr. TILGHMAN: Well, you know, the Army's an interesting situation because you can't enter - unlike every other company or every other government agency, you can't enter at mid-points. You know, you start out as a young lieutenant and move up through the 20-year system. And the implications of this are something that we might not see for another 20 years. You know, there's an erosion of the nature and, perhaps, the quality of the officer corps, and that's something that's, you know, has all sorts of ripple effects. And once that we would continue to see for many years to come.

NEARY: How much concern is there within the Army about what's happening?

Mr. TILGHMAN: I think there's some debate in the Army. I think this is actually a very significant debate. And my sense is that there are people that think this is a very, very serious problem, and then there are people that either don't think it's a problem or unwilling to recognize it as a problem at this point. So I think that's a real internal debate at this point.

NEARY: We're talking about the large number of officers who are deciding to leave the Army. If you'd like to join our discussion, the number is 800-989-8255.

We're going to take a call now from Mike(ph) in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Hi, Mike.

MIKE (Caller): Yes.

NEARY: Go ahead.

MIKE: Well, first of all, I'm an Army officer on active duty. You have to realize that the active Army strength now overall - the active Army, the National Guard and the Reserve - is one-half the size of it - that it was when we fought the first Gulf war. And now, we're fighting the global war in terror, the war in Afghanistan, and the war in Iraq. We have troops in Kosovo. And we're doing this with an Army that is half the size it was that we went to the Gulf during the first war in 1990.

And, you know - and at that time when I was a young officer on active duty, even when I was at my home station, I often went to work before my kids got out of bed in the morning, then came home when they are - after they were asleep at night. I would go for - at one time I went for - went out for an extended of time and - anyway, my growing are up without me even when I was at home. And that is not counting the months that I was deployed, the months that I was at my home station, but in the field. And it's much worse now than it was then.

Mr. TILGHMAN: I think Mike makes a really good point in that sense that there's a lot of talk about the - what they call the dwell time that these soldiers get. But, you know, just because they're doing 12 months on and 12 months off doesn't mean they are home for those entire 12 months. I mean, the truth is they're off doing domestic training operations and they're very much away from their family for a lot of that time.

And also, Mike, I think you make a really good point about the size of the force. I think that's - one of the driving factors here is that the active Army is half the size it was in the early '90s, and we've had this - and we (unintelligible) so-called peace dividend and the drawdown after the end of the Cold War. And that's why some of these things are of real concern, I think, is because there's - you know, there's no fat on the bones, you know. I mean, if the Army is having - promised retaining people like it doesn't have much room, it doesn't have much flexibility at this point because it's trying to mount these very large-scale operations on what is historically a very small force.

NEARY: Thanks for your call, Mike. And joining us now is Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl, he is an Army commander of Fort Riley, Kansas, and he's also here with us in Studio 3A. Thanks for being with us.

Lieutenant Colonel JOHN NAGL (U.S. Army): It's good to be here, Lynn.

NEARY: What is the Army doing to find a solution to some of these problems we've talking about, or is it?

Lt. Col. NAGL: The Army is very concerned about the loss of these young officers. They really are a (unintelligible). They are the future leaders of our Army 20 years from now. And I happen to know that the Army does view this problem, this situation, with extreme seriousness. There are high-level meetings going on in which the Army is talking about some are the ways to retain some of these officers.

The Army is now growing after of the number of years that it was not. It's expanding of 65 thousand, but that expansion is going to need leaders, and these battle-hardened captains that we're talking about and that Andrew wrote about so very well, so movingly - a piece that is very widely read in the United States Army - those are the focus we need, the bedrock on which we're going to build this bigger Army and we got to hold on to these combat-experienced young men and women.

NEARY: Lieutenant Colonel Nagl, you are in fact retiring from the military, and you're on the young side yourself.

Lt. Col. NAGL: I'm - you're too kind. I'm a broken old man. I'm actually, like Mike, a veteran of Operation Desert Storm of the first Gulf war, and also fought in Iraq. And the decision to leave the Army is an extraordinarily difficult one. And actually my reasons for leaving, Andrew covered very well in this article. The hardest job in the Army, isn't being a soldier, it's being married to a soldier. And there are - no one joins the Army or stays in the Army certainly for a career, because of the extrinsic rewards, the pay simply can't be compared to what you could get for working for a few hours and far less dangerous conditions.

But the rewards of service, of being a part of an organization that does so many wonderful things all over the world, are enormously fulfilling. But the people who pay the price for that are the families back home. And my son had some problems, I missed the entire second year of his life as he was growing up, and that was so hard for us. My wife has had to put her career and so with her ambitions and dreams on hold. And I'm at a position now were I'm able to continue to remain engaged in the national security business, which I'm going to do and I hope I'd still be part of the Army family, but I'm in fact only take off the uniform.

NEARY: Can the Army take on some of these larger, sort of, family problems you're talking about, including the fact that many women have their own ambitions and may not, as in the old days, be ready to stay home and just take care of the kids, waiting for the husband to come home. I mean, is the Army -can the Army take on this big cultural, sort of, issues that affect the family?

Lt. Col. NAGL: This is the real generational shift. The Army is still largely -based on a model in which there's a single wage earner in the family, and the other spouse stays home and takes care of the kids. That is almost impossible. It's almost impossible for the other spouse to have a career. There was a very Washington Post op-ed this week on Tuesday in which an Army spouse talked about the problems she's had with her career because of the frequent moves that the Army demands.

NEARY: Alright, we're going to continue this discussion after a very short break. We're talking about the Army this hour, why it's losing it's young officers. If you'd like to join the discussion, the nu8mber is 800-989-8255. I'm Lyn Neary. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

NEARY: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington.

The Army is the largest branch of the United States Armed Services, and it's facing a problem - a slow leak of mid-level officers. We're talking about why the Army is losing its appeal for these young men and women, and talking about what's being done to retain them. My guests are Andrew Tilghman, he's a staff writer at the Marine Corps Times, and Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl Army Commander of Fort Riley, Kansas. And we're taking your calls. If you're an Army officer, we want to hear from you, give us a call at 800-989-8255. Our e-mail address is talk@npr.org. And check out our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

We're going to take a call now. We're going to go now to Martha(ph). And Martha is in Long Island in New York. Hello, Martha, go ahead.

MARTHA (Caller): Hi, I'm calling - my daughter is a JAG officer, she's starting her 10th year. She served for a year in Iraq from November of 2005 to 2006. And her husband was over there, he was a Marine captain for the middle seven months of her tour. She is expecting her first child and she is resigning from the Army number one, because she feels that the maternity leave isn't long enough. And number two she does not want to have any chance of being sent back to Iraq.

NEARY: Lieutenant Colonel Nagl, I see you - he's nodding his ahead as you said that.

Lt. Col. NAGL: We have a very hard time, Martha, retaining female officers for this very reason. And I taught at West Point back in '97 to 2001 - one of the best experiences in my life. And one of my favorite students - actually a young woman who won a Truman scholarship and a Rhodes scholarship - is also resigning from the Army, resigning her commission, because she's also married to an Army captain,. And she wants to start a family. So the balancing - the demands of raising a family and serving your nation in uniform makes it extraordinarily difficult to ask.

I have enormous respect, in particular, for the female officers. A friend of mine - West Point 1987, mother of four, Army officer who served in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan Operation Desert Storm, I don't know how she does it. Enormous respect for your daughter service and for your son-in-law's as well, and thank them for all they've done.

MARTHA: Thank you. We and my family, we're not a military family, but we have the greatest respect for the Army and the opportunities that it has presented to my daughter. She went in because she wanted to become a trial officer and within six months she was in the court room. So she has had quite an amazing experience with the military.

NEARY: And it was a hard decision for her, I mean does she not…

MARTHA: Yes, it is. She was thinking career for quite a while and we all were. I mean, we we're absolutely amazed by her decision to go in the Army in the first place, and of course when she was in Iraq you can imagine how difficult it was for both families.

Lt. Col. NAGL: I just want to emphasize how much I have loved being in the Army, and jumping out of airplanes and pulling off on helicopters. It's absolutely lifelong bonds I've made in combat and in back at home with some of the finest men and women I'll ever know. And I leave with regret, absolutely, but with the feeling that I'm doing with what's right for my family. So balancing…

MARTHA: She is also - she was jump-certified. She was at Fort Bragg and she, you know, got to do all of those exciting things as well. And as I said, it's was a tremendous opportunity for her.

NEARY: Alright, thanks so much - Great. And I'm sorry to hear that she had to make that decision. Thank you so much for your call, Martha.

MARTHA: You're welcome. Bye.

NEARY: That's a good example what we've been talking about here. In this case, a woman which we've - there've been some articles about that recently that -you know, women have to return to combat, I think it's - pretty quickly after they give birth to a baby.

Lt. Col. NAGL: Yeah. There was a Washington Post story about that this week. And the policy is enormously difficult I think. It was hard for me to leave my infant son behind when I deployed to Iraq in late 2003, I think that the bond between a mother and her child is even closer than that between a father and his child. And I have enormous respect for the women who make that sacrifice and the family sacrifices that are made as a part of service to the nation in uniform.

But I want to emphasize, almost nobody I know of leaves the Army with anything except fond memories of their service and a sense of regret that they're being pulled away from something they truly love. It's like leaving your family.

Mr. TILGHMAN: I would totally, I mean, agree with that. The people that I spoke to all - as I interviewed them and just asked them, matter-of-factly, what their reasons were and what they're thinking, was they would sort of instinctively, sort of, apologize for leaving and really, very sincerely, lament the fact that they had done this, and talked about how difficult the decision was. So these are not particularly - these are definitely not disgruntled people that are leaving. These people are leaving because of a lot of circumstances that didn't play out the way they may have hoped.

NEARY: All right. Let's take a call from John(ph) in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Hi, John.

JOHN (Caller): Hi. Yes, thank you for talking my call. I just wanted to make a comment that's a little bit different from the view that your guest was just presenting. I've been very dissatisfied. And it's not about the sacrifice -although I know there a lot of people who leave for specific circumstances because of family demands and so forth, officers signed up for service and sacrifice, you know. We know that that's what's going to happen. I just don't feel that my service, the service in general, has been respected. I feel that the forces have been used for - improperly, for political reasons. And that it's very frustrating, it's - I'm coming to believe that people who are in charge are not respecting my service, my colleagues' service, and that was the reason for my dissatisfaction.

NEARY: I just want to check, John, are you in the military now or did you leave? And are you an officer?

JOHN: I am. I'm not on active duty right now, I'm continuing my education. And I'm in very dissatisfied.

NEARY: Well, I think, Andrew Tilghman, your article - I will say that Andrew Tilghman's article actually address that as well. You did speak to officers who did have a sense of frustration. I wonder if you could address this caller.

Mr. TILGHMAN: Absolutely. I think that - I did speak to a lot of officers that did have a frustration with the way the senior leadership may have managed the recent operations or the way the bureaucratic culture was operating today. But at the - they sort of lament the fact that that's the way it turned out. I think you have a lot of guys that come in to the Army and have the highest of hopes and the best of intentions and they really want to serve, and they end up leaving partly because maybe they don't feel they're a good match for what the Army actually is. I mean, you know, there are certain people that just don't feel like they're going to flourish in that environment.

NEARY: All right. John, does that answer your question, I mean, did that response…

JOHN: Yeah. I want to mention that I think I'm a good match for the Army, I don't think the people who are currently in charge are a good match for the Army. I mean, that's the thing. I think that there is an issue of what we're meant to do to protect our national interest, to protect the security of our citizens. I mean, I know why I got in, and I just stopped getting the sense that the people who are in charge had those things in mind. So - and not that that is - that I became a bad match for the Army, but that the Army was being diverted from its proper role.

NEARY: All right. I understand. Okay, thanks so much for your call, John.

JOHN: Thank you.

NEARY: You know this is - there seems to be so many facets to this story and reasons for why officers are leaving that, obviously, it's going to require as equally a complex response. And, you know, I'm not sure I hear that that's really completely - they're ready to snap off it, just step up to the plate with the solution to this anytime soon.

Lt. Col. NAGL: Well, the solution to these problems is, as you suggest, are multivaried, and it is going to take a number of actions, I think, probably by the Army, by the Congress, to solve some of these problems. But there are things the Army can do probably to make spousal careers more of an option to send people back to the same posts repeatedly, to move in the direction of British regimental system in which officers are always assigned top the same regimen so they have a home base from which they deploy and they leave their families in one place, able to serve in one place.

I will say that I'm currently looking for a house in Washington, D.C., and I'm - at age 42, I'm finally going to be able to buy my first house. An important part of American dream but something that my Army career hasn't allowed me to do. And I think there are policy changes we could make that would make that more possible.

NEARY: What about the tougher issue here and that is the fact that we are fighting a war that we may have troops in - we have no idea how long we're going to have troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. And we don't have a very big - you know, the Army is dwindling, not just the officers, but it's getting harder to recruit people into the Army, which is why you have people going back in on these - you know, on tours every couple of years. Would this go away if Iraq -if we found a solution to the war in Iraq?

Mr. TILGHMAN: I don't think a lot of these cultural and socioeconomic issues are going to go away. I mean, the fact is a lot of officers' wives are going to continue to have professional careers that need to be balanced with their husbands' careers.

NEARY: But Iraq does play into the whole issue, is what I'm trying to say.

Mr. TILGHMAN: Certainly, there's a lot of things I think that the Army is doing. And then - but I think to really address this, there's going to require some things that really are difficult right now given that demands on the forces. I mean, If we're going to continue right now to have, you know, 150,000 troops in Iraq and, you know, 20, 30 in Afghanistan, that's got - that's the priority. And they just need people to continue to man those missions. And some of the distress that we're talking about can't be reduced until you begin to address the strain of those missions.

NEARY: All right. Let me read an e-mail here. This is from Joseph(ph) in Columbia, South Carolina. What role has Don't Ask, Don't Tell played in the loss of highly skilled intelligence officers especially with regard to the Arab translators that has been fired? Lieutenant Colonel Nagl?

Lt. Col. NAGL: Most of those folks are actually not commissioned officers but are enlisted soldiers, very highly skilled ones. Some - few are officers. We do continue to lose several hundred personnel throughout the Department of Defense every year to be Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy. Increasingly, what I'm hearing anecdotally from my friends is that as American society becomes more accepting of homosexuality that that is also happening increasingly in Army and in military units as well.

NEARY: So you're not seeing that as a - the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy you're saying is not a huge part of this.

Lt. Col. NAGL: No. I don't think that's a huge part of this. The issue there, however, is that some of those folks are very highly skilled. Arabic linguists, for instance, who we very desperately need.

NEARY: Yeah. And another e-mail, this is from Ferdinand(ph). And he writes, I'm very glad to hear your discussions today on this topic and would like to share my view from the Reserve components side. I've served as an officer recruiter strength manager for a state Army National Guard. And during that assignment, I had to conduct exit interviews with all the officers we were losing. Many spoke of the high operational tempo, interference with family life and activities, as well as demands from their civilian careers. Evenly offers of bonuses and incentives were often not even taken of the consideration as the factors against staying and, at least to them, were much more compelling. It's to an extremely demanding job, especially given current world events. And it's hard to finds faults in their decision.

And I have to ask you, Andrew Tilghman, I think, as I recall in your article, you said that one solution to the Army is try to throw money after this, is trying to say here is - let us give you some bonus or let us give you incentives.

Mr. TILGHMAN: Yeah.

NEARY: And that's not really…

Mr. TILGHMAN: The Army last year offered (unintelligible) that ranges from 25 to 35,000 depending on the circumstances to an individual officer to extend his commitment. And as far as I know that's the first time in the history the volunteer Army that they've done that. I mean, that's a pretty big step. I mean, they've always done reenlistment bonuses for enlisted soldiers, but it's always been assumed that you ask officers to stay and they feel a call to duty and they decide to stay. I remember thinking that that was a very significant step when the Army unveiled, you know, a 30,000-dollar bonus to keep officers in the force.

NEARY: Let me just remind our listeners that you are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Mr. TILGHMAN: We really are in uncharted territory here. We're fighting two extended wars with an all-volunteer force for the first time in American history since the Revolutionary War. So we are, as in all volunteer forces at the Department of Defense, adapting to a brand new situation and we're - even in the face of societal and social changes that we've been talking about.

So it's going to take a while to figure out exactly what buttons to press in order to retain individual officers. And it's going to be an individual medley of options, perhaps, for each individual person, and a personal system that really isn't designed around the individual.

NEARY: Let me read another e-mail from Charlotte(ph). My son is just his beginning Army career after a successful four years of varsity football-razzi and a summa cum laude graduation. He is well-traveled, well-read, and creative. He is just the type of intelligent officer the Army needs now in this brave new world. He loves the action and the challenge and could very well be career military, but he will not stay in the Army if he asked use this cannon fodder drone or political poem. Andrew.

Mr. TILGHMAN: I think this e-mail from the mother of a soldier is very telling, and I think it goes to what the military calls the influencers. And I think this goes to retention and recruiting. And, you know, people do make a decision in a vacuum to join the Army or to stay in the Army. They consult with their family, they consult with their friends. And one of the things I think that the Army's facing is that they can still convince 17, 18-year-olds that the Army might be a good idea and they can still convince young officers to stay, but I think one of the real campaigns they're struggling against now is the public opinions and perceptions among the parents and feelings among the spouses, and really trying to reach beyond just that individual recruit or officer who's making that position.

Lt. Col. NAGL: And just to put a personal touch on that, both my wife and my mother were very interested in having me retire from the Army. My mom had me Al Anbar for year and then almost immediately had my baby brother in Al Anbar for year. And after two consecutive years of literally her heart stopping every time (unintelligible) someone knocked on the door.

NEARY: Yeah.

Lt. Col. NAGL: She was done. So Charlotte's son is like a fine young man, just the sort of person we want to have as an Army officer. I hope the experience is as rewarding for him as it was for me. And I also hope that his family will support him in his desires for as long as they're able to do so.

NEARY: You know, when you're talking about the families, you're also talking about the entire context of the country right now. And I think, Andrew, in your article you made the point that something like this also happened after the Vietnam War which was an unpopular war. So is this one of the side effects of a war that people are either tired of or that's unpopular. No, I see you winking.

Lt. Col. NAGL: I really strongly disagree with that.

NEARY: Okay.

Mr. TILGHMAN: when I got back to the United States after Desert Storm, I couldn't buy a beer. I couldn't buy dinner. America was just overwhelmingly supportive of its troops. And that has certainly been in the case as well throughout the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And when I walk through airports in uniform people stop and shake my hand and thank me for my services.

NEARY: But people as frustrated with it in the same way, perhaps, that the members of the military are? I don't know, Andrew.

Mr. TILGHMAN: I think people are frustrated with it and I think that - I agree with the caller. I mean, you're very hesitant to make a whole lot of analogies to Vietnam, although some of them are kind of insightful, I think. And one of which I would say is that at the end of the Vietnam War, we had - I think - a million and a half active-duty troops. And in those years afterwards, yes, the Army did struggle, but we reduced the size of the force in half to its Cold War size of, you know, 800 and 900,000. So there was a little bit of wiggle room, so to speak.

NEARY: I'm sorry. We've just run out of time. But thank you to both of you for being with us. Andrew Tilghman is a staff writer at the Marine Corps Times. Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl also joined us in the studio. It's TALK OF THE NATION.

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