Archive for April, 2013

$500,000,000 VA Benefits Processing Software Program is DOA

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

New VA computer system DOAThe $500 million-plus software program that was supposed to eliminate the stubborn VA benefits backlog, the Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS), has been taken offline for “troubleshooting,” according to internal VA documents. 

VBMS is supposed to transform the VA benefits administration process by converting to a paperless system. It is the lynchpin of the VA’s efforts to meet Secretary Erik Shinseki’s goal of eliminating the backlog by 2015 and bringing the average waiting time for veterans to receive benefits down to 125 days. 

According to an internal document obtained by the website VAWatchdog.org, the system was causing VA claims processors to experience timeout errors and long latency periods. The errors sometimes even caused the system to boot processors from the system. The whole system has been taken offline. As of this writing, technicians could not provide an estimated time of resolution. 

VA workers have been instructed to go back to the old input system that contributed to the backlog in the first place.

A VA spokesperson minimized the problems with the system, saying occasional glitches were “to be expected” during a rollout of a computer software backbone like this one. As the Stars & Stripes reports, the two top technology officers at the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Chief Technology Officer and the Chief Information Officer, resigned earlier this year. Their resignations came after members of Congress from both parties excoriated the VA last February for abandoning a planned integrated health record system that would coordinate health information between the VA and the DoD. Said Rep. Mike Michaud (D-Maine), “Rep. Mike Michaud (D-Maine), ranking member of the House committee, said: “This is a huge setback and completely unacceptable. For years we have been told by both agencies that progress was made and that things were on track.  I’m disappointed that our nation’s two largest government agencies – one of which is the world’s foremost developer of high-tech machines and cyber-systems – could not come together on something that would have been so beneficial to those that served. We have just witnessed hundreds of millions of dollars go down the drain.”

Be the Dragon Baby

Posted by Charlotte Webster

For many Americans, this week kicked off with a bad day: Tax Day. From there things only got worse as news came of the bombing at the Boston Marathon. This was followed by the fertilzer plant explosion in West, Texas, and now we’re back to the chase of suspects in Boston. And historically it’s a week of infamous events: Lincoln’s assassination, the Great Quake in San Francisco, the Titanic sinking, the US Embassy bombing in Beirut, the end of the standoff with the Branch Davidian’s in Waco, the Oklahoma City bombing, the Columbine and VA Tech shootings, and the BP oil disaster. 

With so much negative news this week, it can be easy to feel helpless, like there is no way to fight back against the evil and horrific events that happen all around us. In light of that, today’s Friday Fun is meant to provide some inspiration.

Take a cue from Dragon Baby as he takes on his fluffy nemesis. If you fall down seven times, get up eight. When life kicks you in the stomach, laugh at it and jump back in the fight. Whatever it is you have to battle: sadness from the news, or stress that’s closer to home like that big tax bill or prepping for final exams in a college course, there’s nothing a little yellow jumpsuit and some Kung Fu can’t fix.

Happy Friday. Keep up the good fight and have a good weekend.

Vet Creates Own Path with G.I. Bill Benefits

Posted by S.E. Davidson Parker

Robert E. Lee did it in order to map the “impassible” Pedregal during the Mexican-American War.

George S. Patton did it in order to take Messina Palermo (oh, those garbled messages…).

fire fighters in trainingAnd now it’s Emmett Middaugh’s turn. It took a year of phone calls, paperwork, and determination, but Emmett Middaugh and the Forest Grove (Oregon) Fire and Rescue created the first on-the-job (OJT) training program in Oregon for students interested in firefighting that allow them to collect VA educational and training benefits.

Emmett Middaugh is studying full time for two associate degrees, fire protection and EMT-paramedics, while also volunteering for a 24-hour shift every three days at Forest Grove Fire and Rescue. That doesn’t leave much time for paying employment. By developing an approved program with the VA, student/volunteer fire fighters are eligible for not just benefits during school terms; if they continue volunteering (now an OJT program), veterans may be eligible for additional (non-school term) benefits through the VA.

Middaugh is the only person in the Oregon program so far. However, Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industry Brad Avakian is hoping to use this program as a template for other military-to-civil service transition programs in Oregon, as well as sharing these types of programs across the nation.

So what does that mean for you? It means the VA is willing to listen to ideas by veterans that can assist veterans. As the cliché goes, “the sky’s the limit.” Contact your local VA office as well as your school’s office of veterans’ services to see just how to proceed and who to speak with to make your program dreams a reality.

Mastering the Web-Based Interview

Posted by Kelli McKinney

online interviewing tipsOh, I love interviewing for a job,” said nobody, ever, “and I especially love interviewing over Skype or other internet-enabled video chat programs. It’s my favorite.”

It’s not that military members are afraid of technology. Quite the opposite – they’ve usually had more exposure to and training with systems and tools than the average civilian. But when the word “interview” enters any conversation, it’s usually followed by a cringe or a shudder.

That’s normal, and like every challenge service members face, preparation is the key for successfully overcoming the pre-Skype or internet interview jitters.

First off, let’s talk about the why. As in, why would the hiring company use online platforms to interview prospective candidates as opposed to scheduling a simple phone call?

Seeing is believing. You know that moment when you’ve paused to consider how you’re going to respond to a question, then you wonder if you’ve taken too long to respond, but since you can’t see the other person’s face over the phone, you can’t really gauge whether you’ve screwed up or not? That moment can still happen when you’re in a video interview, but at least on a video interview you can see the other person’s face. This works both ways – hiring managers want to see you, too, so that they get a feel for your personality, sincerity, and professionalism. These are all qualities you’ve developed in your military career, and they are worth showcasing.

Travel is expensive. Especially if you’re interested in working for a large corporation that’s located in a flyover state, it costs money for either you or the hiring team to bring the two parties together. Early on in the hiring process, it just makes sense for the hiring company to screen candidates from their home base instead of racking up airline, hotel, and rental car costs. You know how much it costs to transport personnel and vehicles, so if you’re open to saving your potential employer money, you’re already worth a second look as a candidate.

Now, about that prep work.

Preparing for the web-based interview is no different than preparing for any other interview, in terms of the kinds of topics covered and questions asked. But just because you’re interviewing from the comfort of your own home, doesn’t mean that etiquette goes by the wayside.

  1. Leave your jammies in the dresser. Sure, it’s tempting to throw a jacket on over your t-shirt. It’s even more tempting to keep your flannel pj pants and fluffy slippers on and point the web cam at your upper half. Remember, this is your future on the line here. Do you really want to gamble with it? Because sure as shootin’, the one time you try to pull this off will be the time you bump the desk with your leg and the camera reveals your little secret. Dress for a web interview as you would for an in-person interview and make a professional impression.
  2. Look at the camera. Have you ever spoken with someone who stared at your nose during the whole conversation? Not only does that make you feel like they’re not really listening to you, it’s just weird. In an interview, maintaining eye contact with your interviewer reassures them that not only are you listening, you’re confident, capable, and somebody worth hiring. But how do you keep eye contact in a web interview? Think of the web cam as the interviewer’s eye, relax, and look directly at it. You can blink, of course, but try not to stare at your notes, look over at your cat, or worse – open a web browser and scroll through your Twitter feed while you’re being interviewed.
  3. Practice with a friend. If you’re not really sure how this is going to work, set up a trial run with a trusted friend or family member. Have them prepare some interview questions, dress up, and do a mock interview over Skype. Tell them to critique your performance, too – are you fidgeting or staring off into space too much? Are you easy to hear, or speaking too fast? Practicing in advance can really boost your confidence because you’re not going through something both stressful and new at the same time.
  4. Clean up your act. Pay attention to what your employer could see – both online and in view of the web cam. Let’s start with your online profile: whether you’re using Skype, Windows Live Messenger, or any of the services, your potential employer will be able to see your account username. Make sure any photos you use are business-friendly and that your username is professional and straightforward. An employer is much more likely to maintain an interest in a candidate with a username that’s their first and last name than they are with someone who calls themselves “istealpuppiesfordrugmoney,” for example. During the interview, make sure you’re in a quiet, well-lit, clean-and-tidy-looking environment, free from distractions like clutter, noisy televisions, loud music, energetic pets or busy children. It’s ok that the interviewer sees you at home, but they don’t need to see you in the middle of life at home. If you have to, hire a babysitter to keep the kids quietly occupied in another room for an hour so you can give the interview your undivided attention.
  5. Don’t lose out on a job because of a technicality. Before the interview, make sure you’ve checked on all power and connectivity sources. You don’t want your brilliant responses to get cut short or delayed because of a slow connection. And you don’t want the embarrassment of having to stop and plug in your a/c adapter in the middle of an interview. Another technical issue worth mentioning is time zone differences. If you’re a San Diego resident interviewing for a New York-based company at 8:30 a.m. Eastern, you better be up bright and early. Make sure you and the interviewer are crystal clear on timing so you can make sure both you and your internet are ready to go.

Technology is a lot of things, but one thing it’s not is unchanging. That’s a great thing, because the more technology continues to develop, the more it helps us connect, live, work – and interview – in ways that save us time and money. Without it, we might miss out on some amazing opportunities. So now’s the time to prepare and take advantage of some of the career opportunities that web-based interviewing can make available for candidates with military backgrounds.

Chained CPI and the Battle Over Veterans’ Benefits

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

Veterans groups and elder advocacy organizations such as the AARP are lobbying overtime to protect their constituents from the long-term effects of a budget-saving measure designed to reduce the rate of increase of future Social Security benefits, retirement income and VA disability compensation. 

The United States Government, still smarting from a nasty recession and suffering the fiscal hangover effects of the so-called ‘Stimulus’ package, is looking for ways to rein in spending in order to preserve the long-term financial stability of Social Security. According to the Social Security Administration’s own actuaries, the program has enough in hand to pay planned benefits through approximately 2033 – after which time its portfolio of bonds will be exhausted. At that point, projected revenues coming into the program from payroll taxes would be sufficient to fund only about 75 percent of currently projected benefits. 

One proposed solution – which the President himself is said to favor – is to slow down the rate of growth in benefits by switching to a new method of accounting for inflation. Specifically, the President, and certain fiscal hawks would like to switch over to a Chained CPI measurement.

The Chained CPI is thought to be a more accurate measure of the true cost of living because it takes into account dynamic consumer reactions to changes in prices. Under current methodology, if the price of steak doubles but the price of chicken stays the same, the current measure simply assumes that the retiree or veteran will still buy the same amount of steak. The Chained CPI method, on the other hand, will assume that higher steak prices will result in less purchases of steak and more substitution of chicken.

The result, chained CPI advocates say, is a more accurate picture of the true cost of living, given that consumers are able to mitigate the effects of inflation by making smarter purchases.

It will also result in COLA adjustments being reduced by half. That means lower cost-of-living increases to Social Security recipients, veterans, and any other beneficiaries of programs affected by chained CPI methodology.

As a result, the Veterans of Foreign Wars has come out strongly against the measure, as has the American Association of Retired Persons.

According to a report issued in 2011 by a group called Strengthen Social Security, a switch to chained CPI would result in a relatively small decrease in planned benefits of less than 1 percent in the first year for a 65 year old veteran. But the reduction would become much more noticeable as he grows older: Benefits would be 9.2 percent lower than an unchained CPI would generate by the time the veteran turned 95 years old.

That’s a significant difference – both for the veteran and the taxpayer.

Moreover, a switch to chained CPI would most severely affect younger veterans, who will be reaching their retirement years decades away, or living on disability compensation payments for many decades to come. According to the same report, a disabled veteran who started receiving VA disability benefits at age 30 would have his or her benefits reduced by $1,376 at age 45, $1,821 at age 55 and $2,260 at age 65.

Reduction in VA Comp

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A switch to chained CPI would also disproportionately affect women, who both live longer than men, on average, and rely on Social Security for a greater proportion of their retirement income than men. And finally, a broad switch to chained CPI would also doubly affect the young, since it would quickly result in a higher and higher tax burden. This is because the chained CPI would also reduce the annual adjustments to tax brackets every year, resulting in more and more money becoming taxable at higher tax brackets.

Ultimately, it’s up to Congress to reconcile the competing interest groups. Last week, the Senate expressed its opposition to transitioning to a chained CPI for veterans in a non-binding voice-vote. There was no roll call on the vote, so there is no real record of how your Senator voted. The measure’s sponsors were Senators Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.)

While early indications are that Senate liberals and Democrats generally oppose the adoption of chained CPI – as does the AFL-CIO, for that matter – the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution has come out in favor of considering chained CPI, and including veterans’ benefits in the equation:

“We are in an era where benefits are going to be reduced and revenues are going to rise,” said Isabel Sawhill, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, according to reporting by Federal News Radio. There’s just no way around that. We’re on an unsustainable fiscal course,” Sawhill said. “Dealing with it is going to be painful, and the American public has not yet accepted that. As long as every group keeps saying, ‘I need a carve-out, I need an exception,’ this is not going to work.”

Sawhill argued that making changes now will actually make it easier for veterans in the long run.

“The longer we wait to make these changes, the worse the hole we’ll be in and the more draconian the cuts will have to be,” she said. 

Nonsense. Veterans disability compensation, especially, needs to be carved out and protected from any move to a chained CPI, for the simple reason that these veterans have already sacrificed for the good of the Republic. In many cases, these veterans have had limbs carved off in the service of their country – something not generally true of most Social Security beneficiaries.

Social Security is a fundamentally different program than veterans’ benefits. First of all, its original design was to be self-supporting. Current benefits were to be paid by current workers. That was the deal all along. It is, at its core, an insurance program, and we are all policyholders. Because Social Security’s reach is so broad, there is no real way to ‘carve out’ segments of the population, because any decisions made for Social Security ultimately affect all of us.

This is not the case with veterans benefits. It is not a mutual aid program. It is not predicated on a veteran having paid into the system, and benefits were never meant to be actuarially driven. Any veteran who served, and some who were wounded or injured in the service to their country, did so under the understanding that they would qualify for disability compensation if they were wounded or injured in the line of duty, and that these benefits would increase with inflation.

As the Veterans of Foreign Wars points out in its own talking points memo on the issue, Chained CPI is based on changes in purchasing habits during poor economic times (buying hamburger instead of steak, renting a movie instead of going to the movies). However, military families and disabled veterans are often on fixed incomes and do not have the luxury of making these choices; they already buy hamburger and rent movies.

In Memoriam: Jonathan Winters, USMC

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

In Memoriam: Jonathan Winters, USMCJonathan Winters, a legendary comedian and the widely acknowledged king of improvisational comedy – and a U.S. Marine Corps World War Two veteran, passed away last week. He was 87 years old. Winters got his start as a comedian in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Mr. Winters is best known to younger audiences for his appearances on the 1970s television show “Mork & Mindy,” though he came to national prominence with appearances on the Jack Paar Show and Steve Allen Show in the 1960s. He also appeared in the movies The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

Winters was a huge influence on Robin Williams and many other improvisational comedians of later generations. Here is Winters at his sublime best, improvising on being handed a stick on the Jack Paar show in 1964.

Winters dropped out of high school and enlisted in the Marine Corps during World War Two, at the age of 17. He served as a gunner aboard the aircraft carrier USS Bon Homme Richard during the final months of the war against Japan. 

Here is Winters starring opposite Jack Klugman in the Twilight Zone episode, “A Game of Pool,” in which Winters says the line, “As long as people speak your name you continue. The legend doesn’t die, just because the man does.”

Rest in peace, Mr. Winters.

Call Me Maybe…Again

Posted by Charlotte Webster

“Call me maybe” may be the song of the summer that just won’t end. This time around, some of our guys serving in Afghanistan were inspired by the Miami Dolphin’s Cheerleader’s version and made a video of their own. To show you how talented they are, the videos are circulating as a mashup, so you can decide who has the better moves. My vote? Military all the way!

Thanks for reading, everyone. Have a Fun Friday and enjoy your weekend!

The New Army OER: Character Matters

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

General MacArthurA new Army Officer Evaluation Report form is on the way, and the short version of the upcoming changes is this: Character matters. According to reporting from the Northwest Guardian – a paper serving the Joint Base Lewis-McChord community, the new OER will require raters to be much more specific and detailed in assessing junior officers’ abilities and characteristics regarding character, presence and leadership ability.

“One of our attributes and competencies is character,” said Major General Richard Mustion, commander of Army Human Resources Command. “Our OER today doesn’t require (an) assessment of an officer’s character; it’s a yes or no box check.”

The new ratings system will also draw a brighter line between rater and senior rater responsibilities. The rater – the rated officer’s direct supervisor – will comment strictly on performance. The senior rater will address the officer’s long-term potential for advancement in the Army.

Army officers can expect mobile training teams from Human Resources Command to begin visiting units this summer to train officers on the philosophy and approaches behind the new rating system. HRC will also publish a training video.

The goal: Eliminate rating inflation, and force raters to make tough character assessments of their officers. Under the new system, raters will actually have to make a written evaluation of rated officers’ character, presence and intellect. Raters will also have to make a written evaluation of how a junior officer “leads, develops and achieves.” 

Army officers can also expect three different sets of forms to come out: One for company-grades and warrants, one for majors and lieutenant colonels, and one for colonels, brigadier and major generals. The OER for majors and lieutenant colonels will feature a “top ten percent” block, to identify the movers and the shakers. 

Raters will only be able to ‘top block’ 50 percent or less of the officers they rate.

Support forms will still be mandatory for captains and below, but optional for majors and above. This is significant because junior officers have long made a practice of gearing their own OER support forms to the criteria on the senior officer’s OER support form. For example, if a battalion commander’s OER support form indicates that he will be assessed on whether he achieves a goal of hitting a vehicle OR rating of 88 percent or better, the company commander will typically have a similar entry on his own OER support form. This is one way the priorities of senior commanders are communicated down the chain of command.

Similar changes are expected for NCOERs, though those changes are still in the works and will follow the officer-side rollout.

Additionally, battalion and brigade commanders will also soon undergo so-called 360-degree evaluations. That means that their subordinates will also weigh in on their ratings in a formal review process – a measure that Army Chief of Staff General Odierno has pushed in an effort to eliminate what he calls “toxic leaders.”

The measure comes in the wake of the Army’s disciplining a three-star general, LTG Patrick O’Reilly, the head of the Missile Defense Agency, for verbally harassing his subordinates and berating them in public for trivial offenses. Witnesses told Army investigators that on several occasions O’Reilly said he would “f***ing choke” them. The Inspector General report on Gen. O’Reilly, complete with salacious details on a number of incidents in which O’Reilly was reported to have screamed at, verbally abused or otherwise mistreated subordinates, is available here.

 

Would General Patton have survived a 360-degree rating process in the 1930s and early 1940s? Would General Douglass MacArthur? How would you change the OER system? Sound off in the comments!

STOCK Act Puts Military Officers at Risk

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

STOCK Act is a risk to officersA little-known provision of the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act – also known as the STOCK Act, could put some senior military officers at risk, and harm national security interests, according to the Military Officers Association of America.

Specifically, Section 11 of the Act requires all currently-serving flag officers to disclose detailed financial information on their own personal finances, to be published on the Web. Concerns over the possible national security consequences to the Act resulted in a delay in its implementation. The National Academy of Public Administration, under the leadership of former Undersecretary of Defense David Chu, published a report entitled The Stock Act – An Independent Review of the Impact of Providing Personally Identifiable Financial Information Online, analyzing the possible effects of the law.

The NAPA panel found that implementation as written would cause harm to both government employees and the missions of their agencies. Specifically, the panel issued the following findings:

  1. The growth of publicly available, easily accessible data on almost every aspect of an individual’s personal life has radically changed the privacy landscape, with potential negative consequences for both the institutions of government and the individual public servants (and their families) who serve them.
  2. An open, online, searchable, and exploitable database of personal financial information about senior federal employees will provide easy access to “high quality” personal information on “high value” targets… virtually all the cybersecurity, national security, and law enforcement experts interviewed during this study noted that making this information available in this fashion fundamentally transforms the ability (and the likelihood) of others—individuals, organizations, nation-states—to exploit that information for criminal, intelligence, and other purposes. Posting this information online in a searchable, exploitable database adds an important new element to the equation: specific, verified personal information about individual assets and holdings—high value information— which, coupled with existing information on the Internet, can be used to develop powerful profiles of individuals and organizations that can be reused and repurposed in damaging ways. The Panel believes the federal government has a responsibility to ensure that by its own actions and policies, its employees are not adversely impacted by virtue of their public service.
  3. National security and law enforcement officials have serious concerns about posting this information online.
  4. Online posting of personal financial information offers little added value for detecting conflicts of interest and insider trading according to ethics officials in the executive branch.
  5. The online posting requirements are seen as affecting recruitment and retention for senior- level positions in the executive branch.

The NAPA panel recommended that Congress suspend the requirement for disclosures for online postings – the first of which are due on April 15th. The panel also recommended that Congress suspend the creation of a “searchable, sortable, downloadable database,” which is due to roll out in October 2013. The panel recommended that other aspects of the law remain in force and be allowed to go forward. Specifically, the panel concurred with Congress that we should go ahead with the requirement that flag and general officers and other senior federal employees should file periodic disclosures of covered transactions, and upgrading to a more efficient electronic filing system.

In the wake of the report, the Military Officers Association of America published an open letter to the House Chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, calling on him to put legislation before the House to suspend the implementation of the disclosure, at least for military officers. The letter to Congressman McKeon stated that the NAPA report found that publishing disclosures on the Internet would cause harm to national security that outweighed any anticipated benefit.

Vice Admiral Norbert R. Ryan, USN (Ret) wrote Chairman McKeon that senior military officers are already subject to strict ethics rules, including “vigorous oversight of their financial disclosures by various designated agency ethics officials, who will also review their stock trades.” Ryan also pointed out that military officers are subject to strict rules regarding conflict of interest, divestiture and recusal laws, and existing regulations and laws prohibit trading on insider knowledge already.

Their disclosures are also available to the public, although via a formal request process, which serves to help safeguard their privacy and ensure that bad actors are not trying to access their information for untoward purposes. Ryan’s letter concluded: “given the enormous impact that the Internet posting requirement will have on our national security and senior military officers, we urge Congress to permanently repeal the Internet posting requirement.”

The Military Officers Association of America, which has over 380,000 members, also initiated a letter and email campaign to target members of Congress.

Sex Assault Victims No Longer Need Report Counseling on Security Clearance Forms

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

military sexual assaultVictims of sex crimes no longer need to report receiving counseling on security clearance applications. The Director of National Intelligence announced the new policy on April 5th.  Previously, any federal employee or contractor who sought a secret or top-secret security clearance had to report any mental health counseling.

“I believe that this interim policy guidance will positively impact national security,” said Director of National Intelligence James Clapper in a statement. “The U.S. Government recognizes the critical importance of mental health and supports proactive management of mental health conditions, wellness and recovery.” 

Specifically, the new guidance authorizes victims of sexual assaults to answer “no” on Question 21 on Standard Form 86, Questionnaire for National Security Positions. That question asks if you have in the last seven years consulted a health care professional regarding an emotional or mental health condition or if you were similarly hospitalized. The only exceptions were for matters related to grief, or for marriage or family counseling where violence was not a factor.

In the past, victims of sexual assault who expected to seek security clearances or renewals were hesitant to seek counseling, for fear that the fact that they were in counseling could result in a denial of their security clearance. For many of these individuals, loss of a security clearance would be a severe black mark on their careers. However, if they lied about it, that could also cause them to lose their clearances. Some victims may have left the military and intelligence services altogether, rather than answer “yes” on Question 21.

In the future, pending a final revision to the policy, the Director of National Security has ordered federal officials to alter SF 86, adding the following passage: “Please respond to this question with the following additional instruction: Victims of sexual assault who have consulted with a health care professional regarding an emotional or mental health condition during this period strictly in relation to the sexual assault are instructed to answer No.”

Director Clapper singled out the Servicewomen’s Action Network (SWAN) for their advocacy on behalf of sex assault victims and for their help in formulating the new policy.

As the Director of National Intelligence, Clapper leads intelligence integration across the 17 federal organizations that comprise the Intelligence Community. In that role, Clapper also serves as the principal adviser to the president and the National Security Council on intelligence issues related to national security.

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