NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
When President Bush left Washington for a working vacation in Texas, Cindy Sheehan set up camp just outside his ranch, asking to meet the president, asking for answers about the war that claimed the life of her son, Army Specialist Casey Sheehan, who was killed in Iraq last year. Since then, Camp Casey, as it's called, has grown to--as hundreds arrive to support Cindy Sheehan and ask questions of their own. Her activism has prompted other parents of servicemen and women who died in Iraq to speak out, some angry with the president and his policies, others angry at protesters who they say dishonor their sons and daughters who died fighting in what they believed.
In just a moment we'll talk with parents of the fallen, including Cindy Sheehan, and we want to hear from parents, siblings, wives and husbands of servicemen and women who've been killed in Iraq. How did that change your perspective on the war? What's the appropriate way to remember their lives and their sacrifice? Our number here in Washington is (800) 989-8255. That's (800) 989-TALK. And our e-mail address is email@example.com.
Later on, an update on Hurricane Katrina. Flooding, wind damage and long-term impact of one of the worst storms ever to hit the United States.
But first, Cindy Sheehan joins us. She's a founding member of Gold Star Families for Peace and the mother of Army Specialist Casey Sheehan. She joins us from Camp Casey in Crawford, Texas.
Very nice of you to be with us today.
Ms. CINDY SHEEHAN (Gold Star Families for Peace): Oh, thank you.
CONAN: I know that you were out in California last week because your mother was ill. How's she doing?
Ms. SHEEHAN: She's doing better. They're trying to keep her from having another stroke, and if she doesn't have another stroke, she should recover somewhat.
CONAN: Well, that's good news.
Ms. SHEEHAN: Yeah.
CONAN: Tell us a little bit about your son, Casey.
Ms. SHEEHAN: My son Casey was an amazing human being. He was gentle, loving, peaceful, sweet. He always just wanted to help people. He was an Eagle Scout and an altar boy for 10 years. He had been in college three years before he was recruited. He was just almost perfect son and a really good big brother to his two sisters and other brother.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. Why did he decide to join the Army?
Ms. SHEEHAN: Well, he got lied to by his recruiter. He--his recruiter made him five promises that--he broke all the promises to Casey. Casey was a very trusting and trustworthy person, so he felt everybody else is trustworthy.
CONAN: He didn't believe...
Ms. SHEEHAN: Especially somebody who represents the government.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. So--but did he say afterwards, `I was duped'?
Ms. SHEEHAN: He--when we'd ask him about, `What about all these things that your recruiter promised you?' he would just say, `Well, Mom, you know, it's the Army and they didn't tell us--that they didn't have to fulfill their promises. We were the only ones that had to fulfill our promises.'
CONAN: Mm-hmm. And did he write you letters about what he was doing in Iraq?
Ms. SHEEHAN: Well, he was only there for five days before he was killed.
CONAN: Only five days.
Ms. SHEEHAN: And--yeah. He started one letter that he never finished, and we got it back with his things.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. What did it say?
Ms. SHEEHAN: Well, I'll give you the general thing, but it was kind of personal. You know, he said that it should be a pretty smooth year, that they were looking forward to a smooth year, and he was killed four days later. And he said that he wished he could be home for his sister's graduation and some other personal things.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. And, of course, I don't want to get too personal, but I wonder, when he was deciding to join the Army, did you try to talk him out of it?
Ms. SHEEHAN: Well, we didn't have a chance because he joined before he talked to us.
CONAN: Before he talked, so he made a choice of his own.
Ms. SHEEHAN: Right.
CONAN: Yeah. Now you were...
Ms. SHEEHAN: Now does that ...(audio loss)
CONAN: I'm sorry?
Ms. SHEEHAN: ...since, does that have ...(audio loss) to do with him being sent to a war that's illegal and immoral to kill people and get killed for--in a country that was no harm or threat to the United States of America?
CONAN: No, but he wasn't drafted. He made a choice of free will.
Ms. SHEEHAN: Yeah, and if we give our children to the government to serve their country, we should make sure that they're only used when it's absolutely necessary to defend the United States of America.
CONAN: I under--I wonder, now you got a chance to meet with President Bush, or with a group of other families, for a brief time. What happened in that meeting?
Ms. SHEEHAN: I've talked about this a lot. Do we have to talk about this? Do you have any questions about what's going on right now or what we're gonna do in the future?
CONAN: I'm just curious. I've not heard your answer to this.
Ms. SHEEHAN: Excuse me?
CONAN: I've not heard your answer, if you wouldn't mind.
Ms. SHEEHAN: I have two minutes.
CONAN: You have two minutes?
Ms. SHEEHAN: OK. I have two minutes. So he was--George Bush acted like we were at a tea party. He was rude to us and we felt worse than we did when--after we met with him.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. I didn't realize you just had two minutes. We thought we had more time with you today. But I did want to ask, I know you're planning to--when President Bush comes back to Washington, to continue the protest here in Washington, DC.
Ms. SHEEHAN: Yeah, we're taking a bus tour to Washington, DC, and we're all meeting there on September 24th for the big United for Peace and Justice war protest.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. And you did get a chance to meet with some of his senior advisers...
Ms. SHEEHAN: Yes.
CONAN: ...a couple of weeks ago. Did you get a chance--did they listen to you or did they talk to you?
Ms. SHEEHAN: Hello?
CONAN: Did they listen to you or did they talk to you?
Ms. SHEEHAN: Hello?
CONAN: Yes, hi.
Ms. SHEEHAN: I didn't hear your question. I'm sorry. We have a really bad connection.
CONAN: I apologize for that. It's the cell...
Ms. SHEEHAN: Yeah, well, it's not your fault, you know.
CONAN: Cell phone there.
Ms. SHEEHAN: I'm in the middle of Crawford, so...
Ms. SHEEHAN: ...you know, it's very spotty cell service out here.
CONAN: I understand. I was asking...
Ms. SHEEHAN: OK.
CONAN: ...about your meeting with some of the president's chief advisers, including the national security adviser. In that meeting, did they listen to you?
Ms. SHEEHAN: They listened to me and they talked to me and they tried to tell me things that I knew weren't true, and so finally I said, `Just because I'm a grieving mother doesn't mean that I am stupid,' and I said, `I don't believe you guys are stupid either.' And so we had the meeting and said they would pass on my concerns to the president, and then they left.
CONAN: So you felt like you were being dismissed?
Ms. SHEEHAN: I felt like I was being patronized.
CONAN: Patronized. OK.
Ms. SHEEHAN: And I felt that they thought that they were gonna be able to intimidate me into leaving, and--or impress me by the high-level officials that they sent.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. What would you say to President Bush if you had another chance to meet him?
Ms. SHEEHAN: I'd say what was the noble cause he sent my son to die for, and why are our soldiers still fighting over there when we know this war is based on lies, and to tell him to quit using my son's name to justify the continued killing.
CONAN: As you know, there are parents of other men and women who've died in Iraq that say you're using their sons' and daughters' names in your cause.
Ms. SHEEHAN: To stop the killing? You know, just because my son's killed, why should I want any other children to be killed? Why would I want any other families to be going through this? And this seems to be the president's reason for continuing the war, because he's killed so many American soldiers already, he has to kill more, and I believe that's the most insane and immoral reason for continuing the war.
CONAN: I understand what you're saying, but they say you don't speak for them.
Ms. SHEEHAN: I never said I spoke for them. I never said I spoke for a hundred percent of the military families. I never claimed to. I know they have their opinions and I believe it's their right to their opinion.
CONAN: Fair enough. Do you--you've come out, and a lot of statements have been attributed to you as this Camp Casey has grown, as this movement has grown, and...
Ms. SHEEHAN: I got--I have to go now. Thank you.
CONAN: Cindy Sheehan leaving us there in Crawford, Texas. We apologize for that. We had arranged with people there to speak with Cindy Sheehan for the remainder of this segment and take some phone calls as well. Evidently plans changed at the last minute and we apologize for that.
Joining us now is Gary Qualls. He's the father of Marine Reservist Louis Qualls who died in Fallujah, Iraq, in November of 2004. He lives in Temple, Texas, and he's set up a counterencampment.
And, Mr. Qualls, nice of you to join us today.
Mr. GARY QUALLS (Louis Qualls' Father): How are you doing today, sir?
CONAN: I'm very well. Tell us a little bit about your son.
Mr. QUALLS: Louis was raised in a Christian environment. I've been--most of my time I've been a single parent raising two boys what best I can, and I lost my son in the battle for Fallujah, and he's followed through a military background. That's all I've ever done is worked with the federal government and the military. I did 28 years. And he, too, wanted to serve, and he looked at me as his hero, and this man and all the other who serve, they're my heroes. They've stood forth and they've gone to fight terrorism, which was brought to this country, and we can't afford to sit around and wait to have another 3,000 or another 3,000. We have to fight this and follow this course through.
CONAN: When you say another 3,000, you're referring to the deaths on September the 11th?
Mr. QUALLS: Yes, sir. And even one of the 9/11 survivors are out here supporting the movement that's here, and not on Cindy Sheehan's side.
CONAN: No, I understand. What prompted you to speak out like this?
Mr. QUALLS: Say again?
CONAN: What prompted you to decide to speak out like this?
Mr. QUALLS: Well, my first phone call on--you know, I had listened to the news and I had heard about Cindy Sheehan being out here protesting which, you know, she had all that right. And then I found out that she represented a site that was called Gold Star Families for Peace. Well, I had went on her Web site and I had found her cell phone number and I had called her up, and through--you know, I had introduced myself and through a casual conversation I then asked her if she could--you know, if I could ask her a question, and she said yes. I asked her to explain her motives and what she was trying to gain by protesting at President Bush's ranch, and all of a sudden there was a hostile voice that came back on and she started tapping on the phone voice emitter and she started saying, `Hello, hello. We have a communication problem here. Hello, hello.' And then she hung up on me. And immediately right afterward I called back up, she never would answer her phone, so I left her a voicemail message, and I gave her--you know, told her how rude she was and inconsiderate. That was impolite and very un-American.
CONAN: I can testify. We just had an experience a few minutes ago. Cell phone service in Crawford is not terrific.
Mr. QUALLS: Right. Well, when you're way out there in the middle, there's one thing about it, and she did try to say that she lost a signal with me, which I know that wasn't true because she said she was en route to Dallas.
Mr. QUALLS: And another thing is, if I lose cell phone communication with you, my cell phone system tells me.
Mr. QUALLS: And that never happens.
CONAN: I understand. Now you've--how do you think it is--well, we just have a few seconds left in this segment. Can you hold on, and we'll take you over the break?
Mr. QUALLS: Yes, sir.
CONAN: All right. It's just a one-minute break. Stay with us.
We've heard from Cindy Sheehan and we're talking now with Gary Qualls. Both have children who died in the war in Iraq. We want to hear from you. If you've suffered a loss in Iraq, tell us how your feelings about the war have changed, if they have. Also, what has Cindy Sheehan's vigil meant specifically to those who support the war? (800) 989-8255, (800) 989-TALK. Our e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. We'll be back after the break.
It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
Updating the story we're following all day today on NPR News, Hurricane Katrina now a Category 2 hurricane with sustained winds of 105 miles an hour, pushing north through Louisiana now. Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast with fierce 140-mile-an-hour winds that tore off sections of the New Orleans Superdome roof and blew out transformers, leaving much of New Orleans without electricity. The low-lying city was spared a direct hit from the storm, but officials worry that a day of rain and expected storm surge of 15 to 20 feet may flood New Orleans' historic districts, and there have been pump failures and some places are underwater already. More on the expected path of Katrina later this hour and all that she's left in her wake.
An Associated Press-Ipsos poll released over the weekend showed that 58 percent of Americans disapprove of the administration's conduct of the war in Iraq. That same poll shows that people with friends or relatives serving in Iraq are more likely to have a positive view of the war. Some of those surveyed said their relationships with the troops help them understand more about what's going on their. Others said their opinions were shaped by a sense of loyalty to those in harm's way.
Perhaps no one has more right to speak out about the war, for or against, than the parents of those who've died there. Earlier this hour we spoke with Cindy Sheehan, an anti-war activist who's camped out near President Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas. Our guest now is Gary Qualls. He's the father of Marine Reservist Louis Qualls, who died in Fallujah last year, and he's set up a counterprotest.
And, Mr. Qualls, I did want to ask you, also: What do you think is the appropriate way that we should remember people like your son, who died in Iraq?
Mr. QUALLS: One thing that should be done, if she wants to express her point of view, she needs to stick exactly to that. But what she has done is she has taken my son's name and everybody's sons' and daughters' names that are fallen heroes and she's put them on crosses, and she's putting them out there and reviewing that for her political purposes. Now this is counterreacting apparently what she had just said earlier, that she didn't want President Bush using her son's name or anything, and now all of a sudden she come up and started this. Now she's using everybody else's sons' and daughters' name. And this is very impolite, unprofessional and very un-American to sit there and use and abuse our fallen heroes' sons' and daughters' names and even the respect of our servicemembers.
CONAN: You may have heard her say earlier on this program that she doesn't believe she speaks for all the parents of the fallen. She doesn't speak for you. She's just expressing her opinion.
Mr. QUALLS: Well, if she wants to express her opinion, she needs to express her own opinion, and when--if she dragged our sons' and daughters' names and our family names into this, she just opened up a big can of worms, and...
CONAN: Well, let's get some callers in on the conversation.
Mr. QUALLS: Yes, sir.
CONAN: (800) 989-8255, (800) 989-TALK. E-mail us: email@example.com.
And let's talk with Mary. Mary calling from Atchison, Kansas.
MARY (Caller): Hello, Neal.
MARY: I have not lost a child, but my husband did serve 35 years in the military. He retired in October. I have a daughter that just joined the military. She's looking at finishing basic training and then going to DLI to take Arabic so she can go to Iraq. My husband has just served five six-month tours over there, the last six years, and when we were stationed in Europe, we were proud of him, and what we're getting from the news and from the news as we were in Germany was not positive for the soldier.
MARY: I don't know of any soldier who loves war or who is pro-war. Soldiers, more than anyone, are against war, but they know the importance of it, they know why they are there and why we need to defend our freedom by going to war.
CONAN: So when your daughter does go off to Iraq, when she's done her training--well, obviously I'm sure you'll worry.
MARY: Concerned, but proud. We know it's for a good, worthy cause. Whatever political reasons, we know she is doing what she knows is right and patriotic, and we are very proud of her.
CONAN: Mary, we wish you and your daughter the best of luck.
MARY: Thank you.
CONAN: I wonder, Mr. Qualls, if you feel the same way, that your son died fighting for something that he believed in?
Mr. QUALLS: Yes, sir, he certainly did, and talk about belief again, my son did not believe about anything about what type of supporters and who is backing Cindy Sheehan. She has all the perverse groups what we've been taught about even in church backing her, and my son would never align or associate with anybody like this. And yet they feel like they have every right in this world to use my son's name and/or any other sons' or daughters' name for their own political and their perverted causes.
CONAN: Mr. Qualls, thank you very much for being with us today.
Mr. QUALLS: Thank you, sir.
CONAN: Gary Qualls is the father of Marine Reservist Louis Qualls, who died in Fallujah, Iraq, November 16th, 2004.
Christine Dybevik is the mother of Marine Lance Corporal Gary Van Leuven, who was killed in action on April 17th, 2004, in Husabaya, Iraq. She joins us now from her home in Coos Bay, Oregon.
Very nice for you to be with us today.
Ms. CHRISTINE DYBEVIK (Gary Van Leuven's Mother): Thank you.
CONAN: Now your son served two tours of duty, as I understand it?
Ms. DYBEVIK: He did. He didn't make it through the second tour, though.
CONAN: Tell us a little bit about him. What was he like?
Ms. DYBEVIK: Fun, funny, strong, independent, just a typical young man that you'd be proud of.
CONAN: Why did he sign up, do you think?
Ms. DYBEVIK: 9/11 was his basic reason. Our country came under attack and he felt it necessary to support our country.
CONAN: I've heard that he once figured out his hourly salary as a soldier in Iraq.
Ms. DYBEVIK: Yeah, it was like 27 cents an hour.
Ms. DYBEVIK: People say that, you know, these kids are joining the Marine Corps or the military for school money or for money. He could've made more at McDonald's and gotten a student loan and went to college, but that's not what he chose to do.
CONAN: He had been wounded earlier.
Ms. DYBEVIK: He--yeah, he received two Purple Hearts. He was hit on March 22nd of 2004 by an IED, and then killed April 17th, 2004, just after his 20th birthday.
CONAN: Hmm. We're so sorry for your loss. This is...
Ms. DYBEVIK: Thank you. I appreciate that.
CONAN: How much did he share with you about what he was going through in Iraq?
Ms. DYBEVIK: Not a lot because they're kind of limited as to what they can share. When he came home the first time, it was--they bring home pictures and whatnot. My son did not take pictures of war. He didn't take pictures of blown-up vehicles. He didn't take pictures of any of that, the stuff that you associate with war. The pictures my son brought home were of young children playing in the streets, little old ladies sitting on their front stoop enjoying the evening, soccer games between the Marines and the locals. Just hope. Hope for a nation. That's what he took pictures of.
CONAN: Do you question the war in which your son died?
Ms. DYBEVIK: I cannot question a war in which my son died, because my son joined the Marine Corps. He wasn't drafted. It's an all-volunteer military. And I raised my son to be strong, independent, free thinking and stand by your decisions, and to question him, his decision would be to question how I raised him.
CONAN: Hmm. Let's see if we can get another caller on the line, and this is Michael. Michael calling from Cincinnati.
MICHAEL (Caller): Hi. Thanks for having me.
MICHAEL: I had a friend in college who actually went and served in Iraq and was injured in an IED, and briefly I've just been communicating with him through e-mail, and just talking about this Sally Sheehan issue, and one of the things that struck me when I was talking to him...
CONAN: Her name is Cindy Sheehan. That's all right. But to ahead.
MICHAEL: Cindy Sheehan. Whatever. She doesn't seem to have any real clear-cut solution to the problem. She seems to be oversimplifying it, and really almost to a lot of the soldiers that he's talked with, she seems to be drawing a lot of attention away from the actual issues that this is really a global war on terrorism, that she seems to think that just by pulling out, that she's gonna actually end up saving more lives. The problem is she probably would end up--it probably would end up saving a lot more American lives, but what would the overall cost to our global community be? She doesn't seem to look at the larger picture, and that's one thing that--I mean, if she feels she was treated unfairly by the president, she might not just have had, you know--she's just completely oversimplifying her solution to the problem. And that's one of the things that I seem to be, you know, picking up from some of the people that have come back from Iraq, that the people here don't seem to have a sense of what's actually going on.
One thing, when I was talking with him, he said he just really has a hard time telling who's civilians and who he's actually fighting against because everybody to him appeared to similarly dressed, acted in very, you know, similar fashions, and just with her in Crawford, Texas, protesting just in such a broad spectrum of, you know, her voice against the war. People aren't really--she's not giving people a fair chance to make up their mind, I guess, would be what I'm saying.
CONAN: OK, Michael, thanks very much.
CONAN: I wonder, Christine Dybevik, as you listen to this controversy, do you think it's appropriate for--to speak out? I mean, obviously everybody has to make a decision on their own.
Ms. DYBEVIK: She absolutely has the right to speak out. However, she does not have the right to bolster her stand by standing on my son's grave and the grave of 1,872 other American soldiers that have lost their lives. If her statement, if her position is not strong enough on its own, then it's not strong enough. She does not have the right to stand on my son's grave to make her point.
CONAN: We were speaking earlier with both Ms. Sheehan and Mr. Qualls. They both decided to speak out on this issue. You have not.
Ms. DYBEVIK: No. I--in my opinion, support for the troops and your political opinion and two distinct, separate issues. They're two distinct, separate issues. All of American children, all of America's children are fighting. We need to support our children. Our political opinions are totally separate from the support for the troops.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Elizabeth. Elizabeth calling from Westchester, New York.
ELIZABETH (Caller): Hi.
ELIZABETH: I've never done this before, but...
CONAN: I do it every day. That's OK.
ELIZABETH: But I feel pretty strongly about this. And you asked about people having changed their minds during the time that the war has gone on. And I was vehemently opposed to the war, and it broke my heart that my son was there, and he had to repay his college education, and he was, you know, proud to do that, and he was one of the first people on the scene of 9/11. He happened to be in New York at that time, and he's a very patriotic young man. So I have nothing against our military. I just felt that we shouldn't have been there.
But then when we did go in, we went in on the cheap, and we went in without our boys being protected and with too few people, and I think that we now have this absolute mess on our hands, and what we've got to do is--somehow or another, we've got to extricate ourselves, but we can't do it, unfortunately, by just turning around and leaving. We've got to come to grips with it. We've got to give the people in Baghdad electricity and water, you know, and make that country a liveable place, and I just--so it's--I am--in some ways, I have done an about-face, but I'm still deeply opposed to the war and heartbroken that my son is over there.
CONAN: We wish him the best of luck.
ELIZABETH: Well, thank you. I've gotten off my soapbox now.
CONAN: OK. Thanks for the call, Elizabeth, and for a first-timer, you didn't do too badly.
ELIZABETH: Thank you.
CONAN: Bye-bye. And, Christine Dybevik, I wanted to thank you for your time today. I know this isn't easy.
Ms. DYBEVIK: Thank you.
CONAN: Christine Dybevik, the mother of Marine Lance Corporal Gary Van Leuven, who was killed in Iraq. She called us from her home in Coos Bay, Oregon.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Sharon Westbrook is the mother of Marine Private First Class Jason Poindexter, who was killed in action on September 12th, 2004, in Ramadi in Iraq. She joins us now by phone from San Angelo, Texas. And again, thanks very much for being with us today.
Ms. SHARON WESTBROOK (Son Was Killed In Iraq): Sure. Thank you.
CONAN: Your son, Jason, as I understand it, joined the Marines just a couple of days after President Bush announced that America was going to war. What did he tell you about his decision?
Ms. WESTBROOK: He had--ever since September 11th--he had actually taken the test to join the military back in--when he was in high school as a senior. And...
CONAN: So this was something he was always interested in.
Ms. WESTBROOK: Right. He was always leaning in that direction. After September 11th, he told me--he would tell me all the time that if President Bush decided we were going to war, he was going to join the Marines, and I always suggested the Air Force. And he would get mad at me and, you know, ask if I thought he wasn't tough enough to be a Marine. But...
CONAN: Why did you say the Air Force?
Ms. WESTBROOK: I've always heard they had better facilities, better benefits. I don't know. It's just something that people had told me that, you know, Marines--when I hear of Marines, I think of front-line. So, you know, as a parent, it's a scary thought.
CONAN: Yeah. And that's sort of the way it worked out, isn't it?
Ms. WESTBROOK: Exactly. He called me the day that Bush said that we were going to war, and he said he was headed to the recruiting office, him and his cousin. He followed through. His cousin didn't. And he left for boot camp in November of 2003.
CONAN: Let's see if we c...
Ms. WESTBROOK: I have to say it was probably one of the greatest things to see, the transformation.
CONAN: The transformation?
Ms. WESTBROOK: Yes. He chang--in three short months, he changed so much. He was absolutely the proudest I had ever seen him of himself, not just--it wasn't just us proud of him. He was completely content with his decision.
CONAN: He was there not very long before he was killed. Did you know about what exactly he was doing there?
Ms. WESTBROOK: No. He had joined under infantry, so I knew that he would be front-line and that it would be dangerous. I had just started getting acquainted with other Marine moms that had been through deployments already. So I was worried, but I didn't understand everything that was going on over there.
CONAN: We just have a few seconds with you.
Ms. WESTBROOK: OK.
CONAN: I did want to ask if you question now why it was he had to die?
Ms. WESTBROOK: If I question...
CONAN: Yeah. Do you question the war in which he died?
Ms. WESTBROOK: No, I do not question it. I think other countries deserve the rights that we have, and I think if we're able to go and help those countries get those rights, I think it's a good thing.
CONAN: Thank you so much for being with us.
Ms. WESTBROOK: Uh-huh. Thank you.
CONAN: Sharon Westbrook, the mother of Marine Private First Class Jason Poindexter.
When we come back from a short break, the latest from New Orleans and locations north and east of that city as Katrina continues.
This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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