Writing Notes

Our Forgotten Casualties

DSC07750On April 22, 1934, a 39-year old man died of pneumonia outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. To his neighbors who watched as the family house fell into disrepair, was finally boarded up and abandoned in the depths of the Depression, the owner was an oddball sort of man who never fit into their community. He was seen drinking alone on his porch, and in his final years alcoholism wrecked both his health and most of this relationships.

Wrote historian Dennis Gordon, “…spiritually ravaged by his war experience, he had increasingly sought release through drink. He appeared dispirited, much older than his thirty-nine years….”

Lieutenant_Colonel_William_Thaw_IIThis was the tragic last act in the life of Lieutenant Colonel William Thaw, the first American to fly in air combat. He became a national hero during World War I, first while as a Soldier in the French Foreign Legion, later as a member of the all-volunteer American squadron called the Lafayette Escadrille, which fought for the French long before President Wilson asked Congress to declare war on the Central Powers. Later, as the United States Army Air Service reached the Western Front in 1918, he commanded the 102nd Aero Squadron. He served with great distinction and was awarded two Distinguished Service Crosses, the Legion of Honor and the Croix de Guerre while being credited with five German planes downed.

Somewhere in his experience on the Western Front, the vibrant, brilliant young man suffered what has been called, “the soul loss moment.” He returned home, but returned home in form only. Ultimately, the war claimed him as surely as it claimed his comrades who died fighting on the Western Front.

Over the twenty-seven years I’ve been writing about and interviewing combat veterans and their families, I have heard the same refrain countless times. “He came home, but he was never the same.” Families have shared with me stories of their veteran’s return. The first months, a honeymoon, but after the luster wore off, the war reclaimed them. My knowledge is anecdotal, but the alcoholism and suicide rate among those who returned from World War II’s front lines seems to have been a vastly underreported cost of our victory.

A dear friend who served in combat during the Gulf War once retold the story of his own father’s struggles. His dad had joined the infantry at the start of World War II and was sent to fight in Italy. He stayed in after the war and rose through the enlisted ranks to be an established and highly regarded non-commissioned officer. He served in Korea, and during the Cold War. But his experiences in Italy were never far from him, or his family. Ultimately, he took his own life, years after the shooting had ended. When I asked his son, a well-respected NCO and combat veteran in his own right, if he considered his dad a combat casualty, he didn’t even hesitate, “He absolutely was.”

In 2011-12, I wrote a book with Captain Sean Parnell detailing the experiences of his infantry platoon in combat during a particularly difficult deployment to Afghanistan in 2006. Since Outlaw Platoon was published, at least four members of Captain Parnell’s company have taken their own lives.

From 2001-2014, the suicide rate among veterans jumped thirty-two percent. As of 2016, twenty veterans commit suicide every day. Not every one of those tragic ends is a result of combat experience, but some no doubt are.DSC07786

After World War II, thousands of veterans returned home with severe medical conditions. Many were survivors of Japanese prison camps and the Bataan Death March where starvation, jungle diseases and brutalizing treatment by their captors destroyed their physical health. Some survived only a few months after being rescued at war’s end, others survived longer. But all too often, their physical debilitations dramatically cut short their lives.

The Second World War was not unique in this regard. World War One saw thousands of post-Armistice deaths directly attributable to the wounds (such as those inflicted by gas) and the physical cost of serving in the trenches.

The Americans taken prisoner in Korea came back after the war in as poor condition as the captives of the Japanese. In Vietnam, it was the same story with our returning POW’s, but now chemicals such as Agent Orange inadvertently destroyed the post-deployment lives of tens of thousands of veterans. By the early 1990s, almost 40,000 veterans had filed disability claims with the VA as a result of the health impact of this defoliant. How many have died as a result of exposure is unclear, but it is not a trivial number.

During a deployment in Iraq during the early years of the invasion and occupation, Indiana and Oregon National Guard troops assigned to guard a water treatment facility were exposed to hexavalent chromium, which has caused several deaths to rare forms of cancer.

These men and women are never honored on Memorial Day. Counting them is impossible because of the nature of their deaths and how the war claimed them. They did not fall in battle, but they deserve to have their service and its consequences recognized and honored, even if one considers suicide a dishonorable end. Men like William Thaw helped secure freedom for Europe and the United States, and their devotion in battle should not be tainted by the way they chose to die. Judging them, stripping them of what they did accomplish in their lives by ignoring them, is to deny the emotional anguish and trauma they lived with every day after returning home.  For those who know its nature, it is a form of living death.

The consequences of loss, be it on the battlefield or after, has a generational impact on the families who endure these deaths. That point was driven home to me early in my career when I wrote about a fighter ace who died at the end of World War II.  His wife was destroyed by his loss and the family was forever scarred by his death. It led to dysfunction and fifty years of pain, alcoholism and mental illness. His brother, who also served, blamed himself for his brother’s death in 1945 and took his own life in 1975. I remember writing the end of that story, sobbing as I recounted how everything in his family broke after the fighter ace’s death. It was never whole again.

When I moved to my little town in Oregon in 1994, I discovered one of our neighbors had lost her husband during WWII. She raised a daughter alone, never remarried and lived a silent, desperately lonely life as a recluse. The death of her loved one caused her to disengage from almost everyone around her.

More recently, I’ve been researching another ace whose loss had a similarly catastrophic effect on his family. Once highly regarded and politically connected, his family slipped into financial insolvency, abuse and chaos as his widow married and remarried five times. Who can ever fill the void of the loss of one’s true love?

DSC07787These are all human costs of war; ones that rarely makes the history books as they are difficult to face and discuss. But we need to have a conversation about them, because it is an after-effect of every war this country has fought. Before we send our men and women into battle, our nation’s leaders must recognize the long-term effect it will have on some of the families and communities that send their loved ones off to war. It must be a factor when deciding whether or not the crisis at hand merits the use of force. Once the decision is made to send in the troops, we must have in place a better and more robust structure to support those who return home. In the last sixteen years of war, we have a spotty record at best of doing that, and the toll has been a heavy one as a result.

So this weekend, while we honor those who have fallen in battle, I will take a moment and give thought and prayer to those families who have lived the nightmare of loss and know the shattering moment when the contact team arrives on their doorstep. Their loved one gone, their lives destroyed—rebuilding and finding a new sense of normalcy among such grief is a monumentally difficult task.

This weekend, I’ll remember what I’ve learned these past twenty-seven years of the post-war deaths that wrought such pain to the families I have met. Just don’t tell me their loved ones were not combat casualties. The only difference I see is that it took longer for the war to claim their lives.  I hope you will join me in remembering these forgotten combat veterans as well.

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Categories: Uncategorized, Warrior Memories, Writing Notes | Tags: | 1 Comment

My Last Chino Moment (For this Trip)

At Planes of Fame Last Week:
There I was, walking back to the 475th FG hangar, and here was this little kid staring at the Bell X-2 fuselage tucked beside it. His eyes were wide, mouth agape. He turned to me and erupted, “That’s a Bell X-2! An X-2!! I had no idea there was one here!!”

I started laughing.

This was me in 1978. Same place. It brought back memories of sneaking into the boneyard and getting caught inside the fuselage of a Bollingbroke bomber, playing with the controls and calling out Messerschmitts to my gunners.

“What’s your name, kid?” I asked.

“Micah. Did you see the three bladed P-51A? It is the only flyable one in the world!”

“It is pretty cool, isn’t it?”

“Had an Allison engine, not a Merlin. Three blades.”

I started laughing, “Your dad get you into airplanes?”

Again, I had a flashback to my own childhood, eating oatmeal at the kitchen counter as my dad walked in, briefcase in hand, ready for work. “I think Johnny’s ready to build a model,” he said to my mom.

We went to Woolworths. I picked out the Hawk Spirit of St. Louis, and decorated it with Hot Wheels stickers. My dad was disgusted by my murder of historical authenticity. I was three.

Micah looked at me and said, “A little bit. But I read a lot.”
An hour later, I saw him meet Lt. Col. Dick Cole and have his photo taken with him. He was in awe. I talked to his father, who told me that Micah knows far more about aircraft now than he will ever know. “All he does is read and play video games.”

I have wondered if, the farther we get from the living memory of WWII, the number of kids wanting to learn, who are touched by whatever it is we here on this page were touched with, would dwindle away. Meeting this kid showed me that the fire is there in this new generation too.

Thank God.

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The Legend of Pappy Gunn 59 Years Later

p-i-gunn-portraitOn the night of October 11, 1957, Paul Irvin “Pappy” Gunn was flying a Beech 18 in the Central Philippines. A sudden downforce slammed his low flying aircraft into the ground. Props damaged, fuselage and wings torn up, the Beech was probably doomed right then. But Pappy Gunn, with over 20,000 flight hours, somehow managed to firewall the throttles, gain a bit of altitude and start to turn for the nearest airfield. If he had only a few more feet of altitude, he might have made it. Instead, he struck a tree, and the Beech crashed with the loss of everyone on board.
Pappy used to say he would die before he was sixty with his boots on and the throttles firewalled. That is exactly how he went out 59 years today.
In a fluke of circumstance and serendipity, today our biography of Pappy Gunn and his family reached bookstore (and Costco) shelves around the country he so loved.
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When I was a kid, I read about the legend of Pappy Gunn in an Air Classics Magazine article. Later, I read General Kenney’s book about him. Those of you who have been in my life since college know I pretty much became obsessed in the 1990s with telling the story of Oregon’s top ace, Gerald Johnson. While researching Gerald’s life, I encounter many men who also flew with Pappy Gunn. They told me crazy stories about this remarkable man that made me want to write about him as well someday.
npc-54I spent a lot of time on road tripping around the country from 2010 on; many of you have followed my shenanigans here on FB as I’ve passionately explored our beautiful country and its history from the left seat of the Goat. I’ve met a lot of people, had a lot of special moments from walking the Selma Bridge and sitting at Rosa Parks’ bus stop to chance encounters with destitute and desperate Americans, farmers and people my age grimly trying to build a second career after losing their first one in the 08 recession.

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On those trips, it has felt like we’re a country that has lost its way. People want to believe in the American dream, that all things are still possible, but too many of us have been clinging to what we have, desperate not to lose our houses or cars or families in the midst of war, Recession and domestic turmoil, that the pride we once felt in who we are and what we have accomplished has been dimmed.1935779_1249689682837_1701706_n

Pappy Gunn always inspired me. In moments where I was bullied in school, or feeling trapped in the cubicle world of the computer game business, or smothered by red tape as I tried to do something positive for my community on the city council and school board–his never say die spirit reminded me that great things can be accomplished by average Americans.

pappy-in-cockpitWhy? Because we are an exceptional people. I don’t care your color, gender, sexual identity–we are a tapestry of unusual awesome. No other country has such a vast spectrum of human experience, talent, ability, values, and outlooks. Yes, it makes us fractious and nasty at times like now, but collectively it gives us the power to change the world. And we have been doing that for two hundred plus years. From the first imperfect, but radical ideas of freedom and liberty to the hundreds of thousands who perished in combat to extend freedom’s reach, to the social and technological revolutions we have started–computers, television, vehicles, industry, psychology and space travel. Historians and football players can say America was never great, but to say Americans are not exceptional is to insult every great one who has found the courage to stride into the wind and change the world for the better. Rosa. Martin. Ike. Lincoln, Susan B Anthony, Elizabeth Blackburn. Pappy Gunn. The list could go on for thousands of pages.G86A0419

Great Americans come from all walks of life. In Indestructible, I wrote about one family that came from humble origins to face challenges few of us today could ever imagine. They handled it as a family: full of love and trust for each other. Devoted and willing to do anything to ensure each other’s survival.gunnfamily
I wrote Indestructible as my twentieth book because Pappy Gunn is a quintessential American hero. I wrote Indestructible now at this point in my life because underneath Pappy’s story is the story of his wife and children. He was not the only hero in his family. Courage was a trait they all shared.g15-pappy-polly-dutch-k
It seemed to me as I drove around the country that if I could just remind my readers of who we are and what we can accomplish when our backs are to the wall, well, maybe we can all take pride in our national identity again. I didn’t have the courage to take a leap and try to do that until my daughter gave me a push. Hachette and all the incredible people there who believe in the book and the power of Pappy’s story made this dream a reality.11336857_10205693155425566_3210305845677159996_o
I suck at selling stuff, always have. But if you’ve looked around our country these past years and felt like I have–that we just need a win. If you want to feel good about ourselves again and be reassured that we are stronger than recession, war, elections and domestic turmoil—then I hope you will crack open a copy of Indestructible. Pappy’s story carried me through some of the darkest times of my life and inspired me to turn into the wind and fight for a future that I believe in. If his story inspires the same response in my readers, then I will consider this my most meaningful professional success.14264819_10208929708613898_4964300419684423464_n
Thank you for reading to the end of this massive missive. Bless all of you, my friends. And thank you for all the love and support you have shown me and my family these many years.
John R. Bruning
Categories: World War II in the Pacific, Writing Notes | Tags: | Leave a comment

Amazon Book of October!

pappy-in-cockpitMy Friends,

I’m very humbled and very excited to report that Amazon selected Indestructible as one of its Best Books of October!
I want to take a minute and thank everyone who has pre-ordered this labor of love. I know that it is delayed gratification to do it, something I hate too, but those pre-orders are incredibly important for the book’s launch. So, it is much appreciated, especially since each book purchased equals about 15 more seconds I can keep Renee in college.🙂

We are also up to 29 reviews on Amazon through the pre-release Vine program. Pleased to report that I won’t need to day drink after reading them! The story of Pappy Gunn and his family is having a profound impact on our readers.

Thank you all again, your support and interest makes possible what I love doing.

 

John R. Bruning

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Categories: Uncategorized, World War II in the Pacific, Writing Notes | Tags: | 1 Comment

The Liberation of Santo Tomas Internment Camp

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Indestructible is not just the story of Pappy Gunn, the legendary aviator and mad genius of the 5th Air Force. It is the story of his family’s experience during World War II as Pappy went to extraordinary lengths to rescue them from the hellish conditions of Japanese captivity in Santo Tomas University Internment Camp.

In 1945, when the camp was liberated, Pappy’s family nearly died during a Japanese artillery bombardment that struck the university. I recently drove to Texas and interviewed Nat Gunn, Pappy’s son, on camera about his experiences during WWII. The moment he describes in this interview was one of the most difficult scenes to write in Indestructible. But I thought it was extremely important; Pappy was not the only hero in the Gunn family.

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Mother’s Day 2016

To Moms across our country who have sons and daughters guarding our nation’s ramparts in this time of war, my family’s thoughts are with you on this Sunday morning. Your trials and suffering, the fear late at night and the questions that linger in moments of solitude are understood by so few. Yet without your love, support and endurance, the defense of our country would not be possible. Yours is a journey few ask for, but many need. Bless you, and may your sons and daughters return home soon to your loving arms.

–John R. Bruning

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Historians and their Animals

Today we kick off our theamericanwarrior.com podcast series!  This week, we’ll be talking about a little-known characteristic historians have in common–the way we name our pets.

Hope you’ll listen in as Renee Bruning and I (John R. Bruning) chat about World War II battles, Civil War generals and foundling kittens.

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What’s Ahead in 2016

IMG_8115 Dear Friends,

I wanted to take a moment and thank each of you for coming to visit my little corner of the web. Last year, the site’s readership exploded. We went from having a few visits every month to thousands a day at times, something that both elated and surprised me. As a writer, there is nothing more gratifying than seeing the words we write resonate out there and find an audience.

Roald Dahl, the great children’s author, wrote, “So Matilda’s strong young mind continued to grow, nurtured by the voices of all those authors who had sent their books out into the world like ships on the sea. These books gave Matilda a hopeful and comforting message: You are not alone.”

I read that book to my daughter, Renee when she was little, and that passage always stuck with me. Every time we’ve had a book released, I circle back to that quote and wonder where the winds will take it. With this website, I don’t have to wonder, the feedback is virtually instantaneous, something I truly love. I’ve sat here in wonder looking at all the folks from around the world who have come to look at my words, the photos and videos here, and I cannot help but to marvel at this amazing technology. I am profoundly grateful for every visit. So thank you, Dear Reader. Your interest has made this site a focal point of my life.

In the months to come, we’re going to be leveraging technology even more here. We’ll be starting a podcast series soon that will cover a rage of topics and highlight plenty of nearly forgotten American warriors. I’ll be bringing in some guests, doing some interviews, and having a lot of fun with the studio equipment we just picked up to pull this off.IMG_0328

We’re working on a new mini-documentary that we’ll serialize here later in the spring. We’ve acquired some color footage rarely seen before from both the ETO and PTO during WWII, and we’ll be acquiring more over the coming year.

On May 3rd, Indestructible will hit bookstores. This is a book I’ve wanted to write since I was a kid marveling at the tales told by George Kenney and the likes of Ed Sims & Martin Caidin in their books.  Indestructible is the story of Pappy Gunn and his family’s experience during the Pacific War. In researching the book, I compiled something like 30,000 pages of documents and many, many stories about Pappy that we did not have room to include in the main narrative. To support the release, throughout May and June, I’ll be posting additional stories, documents and videos about Pappy, his family and friends.

540083_136587323139361_1939119800_nA little later this year, I’ll be embedding with an artillery battalion during their annual field training exercise and will be posting stories, photos and videos about the men & women behind the guns.

We’ll also be following up on some of the stories posted last year. Most notably, thanks to y’all out there in cyberspace,  The Last, Lost Letter reached Frank Christen’s surviving relatives. Though his widow passed in 2004, his sister and her family finally received closure and read Frank’s final words home. When his family contacted me…well, all I can say is that have been few professional moments in my life more powerful and rewarding. So stay tuned for an update on that article in the weeks ahead.

Of course, we’ll be updating Gwenie’s story. Our Jordanian refugee continues to grow, get into trouble and cause mayhem wherever she goes.  We’ll be following year two of her experience in Oregon after being rescued in Amman by Captain Cassie Wyllie, one of my favorite humans.IMG_3784

Thanks again for making this all possible. Looking forward to a tremendous 2016, and thank you again for your interest and support!

 

John R. Bruning & Gwenie

 

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To Those Who Wear the Flag

Smoke rises behind a Charlie Company HUMVEE from a car that charged the scene firing at the unit. Charlie Company returned fire, stopping the car, to secure the area, during increased tension in Sadr City, Iraq on July 5, 2004. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt Ashley Brokop (Released)

To all those men and women who go to work every day with our flag on their shoulder:

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You are part of a legacy of service that transcends national interest, but fights for basic human rights. For two hundred years, those who have worn the uniform have stood in the eye of the storm to protect those basic human rights. From the outset, Americans in uniform have changed the world, reshaped it, destroyed the oppression of the British Empire, ensured the evil of slavery would be destroyed–despite the brutal cost–freed Europe twice, saved millions from genocide, reshaped the Free World and held the line against religious extremism that threatens it.vietnam color series810 4x6


To wear the flag means you are a game-changer. Every generation’s men and women in uniform have made a difference from Lexington Green to the Qalats of rural Afghanistan.

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This day is for all of you with the courage to serve and fight.

 

 

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Happy Veteran’s Day,

 

John R. Bruning

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Categories: American Warriors, Uncategorized, Writing Notes | Tags: | 1 Comment

Back from the Writing Marathon

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Cabanistan, my writing retreat.

Friends and Readers,

 

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Digby in the woods during a rare break in his woodland critter spree killing.

My apologies for being absent from this page for these past few months. Gwen and Digby (another foundling cat) have been up in the Oregon mountains with me as I’ve separated myself from daily life to get the Indestructible manuscript finished. Frankly, it got pretty lonely up there in the Cascades away from the family. At times I went two weeks without seeing anyone besides the clerk at the nearest market four miles away.  The last month up there is all sort of a blur, but I do believe I began to talk to the trees and at some point befriended a mouse that kept getting into the cabin to eat my English muffins. At one point, he ate half a tomato sitting on the kitchen counter while I was in the shower and Digby the cat sacked out on the couch. That level of brazen had to be rewarded, so I began feeding him too. Digby and DeShawn (the mouse) entered into some sort of unholy domestic-woodland creature alliance that ensured there would be no bloodshed between them.

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The family came up with Ryder for a weekend. I wanted to sing Some Enchanted Evening when Ryder and Gwen spotted each other for the first time in a week. (Ryder is the blur at the bottom left).

When at home in the Willamette Valley, Digby is a lazy, dump truck sized cat with a big waddle of fat that slops from side to side on those rare moments where he engages in any sort of cardio exercise. See the video below for his inspiring mellowness. If he were a person, he’d be that 25 year old kid playing Xbox all day in his grandma’s basement eating funions and drinking Mountain Dew. Passive, perpetually happy and mild mannered, Digby turned into a murderous beclawed machine of death when I took him up into the Cascades with me. Seriously, I thought I brought a furry lump with which to decorate the couch. Instead, I unleashed a spree killer on the local woodland creatures. He’d go outside, and within minutes, voles, mice, rats, chipmonks and even a salamander ended up victimized. So I ended up living for a month with the feline version of Hannibal Lechter, yet he never ate DeShawn–the one creature inside the cabin.11885276_10206361739579752_7239250386173235472_n - Copy

Gwen hung out with me at times up there too, but our now-full grown Jordanian refugee spent her time in the woods pining for Ryder, our Aussie Shepherd. As much as she is my dog, her heart belongs to the Aussie. While I wrote, she would pace restlessly around the cabin, occasionally howling as she looked around for Ryder and wondered why anyone could be so cruel as to separate her from her pack.  Long walks and runs to the lake didn’t seem to calm her down. At one point, she decided to eat some of my secondary sources including a volume of Cate & Craven’s history of the USAAF during WWII.  I draw the line at chewing up books, so Gwen went back to the valley and Digby stayed with me to ensure the enforced solitude would not cause long-term insanity.

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Thanks to the drought, not much water in the lake this summer.

Anyhoo, once I finished Indestructible, I came out of isolation and have been enjoying some much needed family time. My daughter Renee is a senior in high school now, and I am determined to see as much of her final year as I can. Ed is a freshman, just had his first slow dance, and is in the school’s fall musical. So, I’ve been spending my time photographing their fall term and taking lots of walks with Ryder and Gwen.

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Renee’s first day of senior year with her new ride, which was my first ride. Anyone know what it is??

I’m back to it now, and in the coming weeks, we’ll have some unusual stories to share here, including an update on the Last Lost Letter,  a story about a legendary Marine’s shower shoes, and how they went from Guadalcanal to Tarawa with two different great American warriors. We’ll also have more stories to share from the Japanese side of the Pacific War and some fantastic photographs from the Korean War So stay tuned, and happy Fall to all of you!

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Ed and I on prom night last spring, right before I went into the woods for the first major writing session for Indestructible.

 

 

 

Regards,

 

John R. Bruning

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Warriors of the Homeland. Eugene Police Department training in an active shooter exercise.

 

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