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How Will Repeal Of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” Affect San Diego’s Military Community?


President Obama signs historic legislation that overturns the military's "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy. How will the new law affect San Diego's military community? Will openly-gay servicemembers face backlash? How will the military implement the legislation?

President Obama signs historic legislation that overturns the military's "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy. How will the new law affect San Diego's military community? Will openly-gay servicemembers face backlash? How will the military implement the legislation?


Joseph Rocha, a senior at University of San Diego, honorably discharged from the Navy under the "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy.

Ari Waldman, teaches sexuality and the law at California Western School of Law. He is an expert in military law and LGBT law.

Tony Perry, San Diego Bureau Chief for the Los Angeles Times.

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, you're listening to These Days on KPBS. When it was first introduced 17 years ago, the don't ask don't tell policy was seen as a step forward for gays and lesbians in the U.S. military. But attitudes quickly began to change as thousands of qualified personnel were dismissed from the military when their sexual orientation was revealed of public opinion poles reflected America's support for repeal, and president Barack Obama made a campaign promise to repeal the raw and allow gays to seven openly in the U.S. military. Yesterday that promise became a reality. Although the implementation of the repeal may be delayed for a couple months, the policy has been officially overturned and people around the country and here in San Diego who worked to see the end of don't ask don't tell are celebrating. I'd like to introduce my guests on the show, we're going to hear from Joseph Rocha, a senior at university of San Diego. Ari Waldmann teaches sexuality and law at California western school of law, and Tony Perry, San Diego bureau chief for the LA Times. And we're inviting our listeners to join the conversation. If you supported the repeal of don't ask don't tell, are you revealed it's finally been accomplished in how do you think the repeal may change the military? You can give us a call with your questions and comments our number is 1-888-955-5727. Right now on the line with us, congresswoman Susan Davis -- oh, okay, perhaps Susan Davis is not with us right now. So we'll move on and perhaps go to our first guest, who is Joseph Rocha. Joseph Rocha on the line with us right now.

ROCHA: Hi, good morning.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Hi, Joseph. I want to let everybody know that you were on the show with us earlier this year to talk about your Navy service, your discharge because of don't ask don't tell, and your participation in a lawsuit challenging that policy. And you met president Obama AT&T don't ask don't tell signing yesterday. Tell us about that.

ROCHA: You know, it's just unbelievable. I really, really was incredibly honored to be -- just to be in that same room because so many people who are deserving and especially our men and women who are out in the fleet who I really wish could have been there that day. But it was overwhelming because not only did I just get to be in that room and just shake his happened, but I got the opportunity to have a quick one-on-one with the president and the vice president.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And what was your reaction, Joseph, when you heard that the law had been repealed oaf the weekend.

ROCHA: You know, it was numbness. I mean, when I saw the first clincher vote, then when I saw the senate vote, it was numbness, because a lot of us have -- we have gone through a lot of pain in this policy, and we've seen a lot of others experience a lot of pain. And it's just been such a great amount of loss, it's hard to just go from one minute to the next from being unequal to being equal of it's kind of hard to make sense of. And really when congresswoman Davis said my name the enrollment ceremony, that is made it real to me. And I just -- that's when I broke down.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, you want to continue your career in the military. You were telling us about that when you were on our show, and I know that president Obama made a specific appeal for people who had been discharged from the military under don't ask don't tell to come back if they felt motivated to do so. Do you still want to do that 1234.

ROCHA: Oh, absolutely. I mean, my life has never been right outside the military. I've been blessed to be able to go to school. And I'm blessed that my graduation lines up where the policy change. So in May, when I do graduate from the university of San Diego, I have my sight set on hopefully going straight to Oxford candidate school for the marine corps.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, when you were on the program with us, Joseph, you told us stories about how you had been the subject of some abuse at the hands of your colleagues in the military because you were gay. Do you think that would change now because this don't ask don't tell regulation has been repealed?

ROCHA: Absolutely. I've always held that it was the policy that did not protect us and that put us in harm's way because it compromised our ability to report that kind of abuse, and it really protected those kind of abusers. And I -- you know, I'm just as confident as ever in the professionalism of our service members issue I've always said that that unit was, you know, called it a rogue unit. And it really was. It wasn't a demonstration of our military, of the Navy, of the Marine Corps, of our country. And I think that a lot of people specifically said, you know, the Marine Corps, they're the ones that least supported repeal, why did you join that branch in and I don't believe that at all. I think what we saw was an environmental response, an institutional response issue not a personal response. These marines will honor whoever can earn their uniform.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And just my last question to, Joseph, what are your plans now?

ROCHA: My plans now are just to -- to have one last excellent semester of my under graduate year, dedicate myself as president of the pride alliance to gay and lesbian bisexual transgender alliance and allied alliance at the university of San Diego, and graduate in May and go on to continue my career, that is unfinished.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Joseph, thank you so much.

ROCHA: Excellent. Thank you.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Joseph Rocha is a senior at the university of San Diego. He was honorably discharged from the Navy under the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy and now plans hopefully to reenlist. First of all, I'd like to clear that up in the beginning, we had to talk to congresswoman Susan Davis. She had to get on a plane, so she had to stop that phone call and make a run to get on a plane. But I want to reintroduce my guests, Ari Waldmann, he is an expert in military law and LBGT law. And Ari, good morning.

WALDMANN: Good morning, thank you for having me.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Tony Perry, our friend, San Diego bureau chief for the LA Times. Good morning.

PERRY: Good morning.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to remind even issue we're taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. So Ari, give us -- because you're the guy who can do it, give us a little background on the efforts to get this law overturned. When did the pressure really start to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell?

WALDMANN: Well, I think the pressure started -- the pressure to repeal don't ask don't tell started shortly after it was passed in 1993. Of but what made repeal possible was the election of president Barack Obama, and the Democratic majority two years ago. And as you know, President Obama had long has that his preference to overturn Don't Ask, Don' tell was to do it through the legislature, through Congress. And senator Carl Levin's first proposal to do that was added as an amendment to the defense reauthorization bill, a huge omnibus bill that paid for every defense program. That got -- that hit a snag because of Republican opposition to a shortened time frame to discuss it. And proposals to -- to limit the number of amendments that could be added to the defense reauthorization bill. And that's a lot of Washington beltway speak for political fighting between Republicans and Democrats. But as soon as the lame duck congress came back, there was a renewed push to make sure that this happened. And that was when president Obama got actively involved by calling senators, and calls representatives, where president Clinton got involved, and where senator Lieberman worked with senator Collins toward a standalone bill to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell. And because of the overwhelming support among the public, some poles had an upward of 65, 66, 67 percent of the public said that gays and lesbians should be allowed to serve openly. Of it was difficult for especially moderate Republicans to oppose it, in spite of the filibuster from senator McCain. So it was due to, you know -- as politics became less important after the November elections, those that had been committed to repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell from the beginning were able to rise above the muck and get it done very quickly.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Did you think this Congress was gonna be able to get this done.

ROCHA: Absolutely I had faith from the beginning simply because -- it was a commitment of so many people. And though many people -- many people in the gay and lesbian community were frustrated with president Obama and certain Democrats in Congress and their inability to get it going, their inability to over come Republican opposition, there was always a commitment there. And once president Obama got involved and started speaking with senators and made sure that the stand alone amendment went through -- stand alone bill went through, then it was gonna be a done deal. What was amazing was how quickly it worked. It was hymn a surprise to so many people watching that this -- it hymn seemed as if it was manna from heaven or kind of a gift.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Tony, did you think this Congress was gonna be able to get this done?

PERRY: No, I guess I bought into the punditry that said Barack Obama was hanging onto the ropes and breathing through his mouth, and then suddenly boom, he's winning all sorts of things, compromise, etc, in Congress. I didn't see this happening. I thought senator McCain, who usually is deferred to on military matters, would succeed in blocking or slowing it. So I was caught unawares like all the rest of the reporters.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, Ari described the impact of American public opinion when it came to the time to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell. I know, Tony, you spent plenty of time with San Diego based marines both at home and over seas. How would you describe their public know approximate, their attitudes when it comes to the gays in the military?

PERRY: Well, that's difficult to answer because of the way it was teed up by their leadership. And it was teed up as don't what do you think of gays, but rather, are you concerned about unit cohesion? Well, the answer to that is of course. I'm worried about that all day every day on all sorts of levels. So you've got a high percentage of folks and young men and women who said, yes, I'm concerned about unit cohesion if we have openly serving gays and lesbians. So it's kind of hard to determine. Now, on Saturday like the rest of the press, I grabbed out every marine I could and got their viewpoints, and these were young men, 19, 20, 22, older folks had been warned not to talk to the press, so we got the young ones and they were grumbling, and they were worried etc. Etc. But I guess my thinking is, when general officers step out as the commandant already has, or the sergeant major steps out and says the Congress and the commander and chief have spoken. This is now the policy, we're gonna implement that policy. That kind of grumbling will fade away. I think in a couple of years, and I'm not an expert on this, but in a couple of years, we're gonna look back, including at the Marine Corps and say, what was all that about? Don't forget the Marine Corps in the late 1940s when the then president of the United States , commander in chief harry Truman, said we really out to integrate racially, lots of opposition. Particularly in the Marine Corps. My goodness, we can't have whites serving with those Negroes. Lots of opposition. And the commander in chief said, thank you very much for your opinion, we're gonna do it anyway. They did it. And by Korea, they had an integrated force that fought well and bravely, not without some problems, request social problems, you're gonna have a jack ass who isn't with the program and has to be dealt with. Of but maybe today, and maybe my coguest will agree, the United States military is the most integrated and equal opportunity branch of American society. Not without some problems, but they led once, they're not quite leading on this, but they will follow very quickly and very well.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to remind our listeners that we are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Let's get in Ia call right now. Andy is calling us from San Diego. Good morning, Andy, welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Hi, good morning. My comment is, I have a friend who is a Marine Corps infantry officer who had a senior NCO who was a marine's marine, and one of the most respected combat troops he knew, leading his marines, get out because he was gay, and nobody knew he was gay. But it just goes to show that even gay military members can be effective combat troops. And I'll take the comment off the air. Thank you.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Thank you for that, Andy. I think that we have heard from officer and service member on and on all through throughout all the corpses, the Marine Corps, the army, the air force, people basically, rather bravely coming out and saying, I'm here, I'm serving, and I'm doing a great job. In fact the first man who was injured at the Iraq war was at the signing ceremony as a proud representative of a gay man who used to be in the military. I don't believe he is in the military anymore. So Ari, how would you respond to Andy's story.

WALDMANN: Well, Andy is telling a story that is being repeated all throughout the country. Tony wrings 134 great perspective about marines in particular. But if you look at not only the surveys of marines but surveys of any service member, active for service, former impending service member in the schools, they will say that, sure, they might be worried about unit cohesion because this is it all new to them. But for those who know, those who have served, we have gay and lesbian -- those have who served, we have gays and lesbians in their unit, overwhelmingly will say, that, well, I've already served with them am they were great, they were great leaders, they were great comrades. I would trust my life to them. So when you look at those people who have known gays and lesbians in the military and have served with them, they are overwhelmingly in support of repeal of don't ask don't tell, and open service. Which is why comments from people like senator John McCain who said that -- and other people in the house and senator, who have said that this will destroy the military is anathematic to us and those people who have had the opportunity to serve with gay and lesbian marines, air men, and soldiers.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We have to take a short break. When we return we will continue our conversation about the repeat of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Of and taking your calls, our number is 1-888-895-5727. You're listening to These Days on KPBS.

Strange Christmas music choice there. Of we are talking about the repeal of the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy, and taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. My guests are Ari Waldmann, he teaches military wall and LGBT law at California western school of law, and Tony Perry San Diego bureau chief for the LA Times. One last question I'd like to pose about the Marines in particular, Tony, and that is the commandant James ems on, seems to have gone out of his way lately to say the repeal should be delayed. Can you understand why?

PERRY: Because, because general Amos on is a man of a certain age and a certain cultural background, and he has a certain view of the world. And he is also very, very concerned about those 19 and 22-year-olds who as we speak are doing a very, very difficult job under arduous circumstances in Afghanistan. And anything, as he sees it, that distracts from that worries him dreadfully. Now, he made his commends and they are what they are, within hours of the Congress and senate passing the bill, he stepped right up and said, the legislative branch and commander and chief have spoken, here's what we're gonna do. We're gonna lead. We're gonna be a leader. So he's a smart boy, and he put that aside, and said we're moving on, we're implementing we're not foot dragging one iota.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Okay. So even as the president signed this law, he made the point that it's not going to take effect immediately. So what does that mean, Ari?

WALDMANN: Well, it means a number of things for various different constituents. First, for people like commandant Amos, and others who are concerned about immediate implementation, they will have -- the military will have a significant amount of time to implement this policy. And that was the whole point behind getting legislative repeal. That's what president Obama wanted, rather than a court decision that forced them to make the change over night. Of which would have frightened the military conservative institution even more. For gay and lesbian service members issue the fact that Don't Ask, Don't Tell while the president signed the repeal is still on the books means that they should use their judgment in coming out, and probably should not come out until the policy has been certified, until it has been certified and the policy is completely gone. And for those who would like to enlist, until the policy is completely gone, it's probably not -- it's probably not a good idea to be openly gay and enlist right now. So for those of you who are concerned about it, the policy is still on the books so we should wait until certification to come out. However, there are a couple of things to note about that. One, we know that of the gay and lesbian service numbers serving right now, fewer than one in six plan oncoming out when Don't Ask, Don't Tell is fully repealed. Which means that this is hardly gonna be a change. Most people in their regular work place don't scream about their sexual orientation or anything else in their lives. They just go about their work. And that suggests that this is going to be a minor change. In addition, we should also note that even no the policy is on its way out, and it's not gone, discharges have effectively stopped due to change -- administrative changes that president Obama and secretary gates have imposed, raiding the requirements for a discharge, and while certain hearings are still in the pipeline, discharges have effectively stopped, which is a good thing. As it should, because Congress has spoken. But given that, gay and lesbian service members should wait until the policy is completely gone, and completely dead for coming out.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Still in a gray area there. Of.

WALDMANN: Absolutely.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That's interesting. Of 1-888-895-5727 is the number to call if you'd like to join the conversation. Gunnery sergeant Michael Bob is on the line, and good morning, what's your question?

NEW SPEAKER: Hi, good morning. It was actually just a kind of a comment about the last speaker, previous was talking about unit cohesion and the Marine Corps. The concern that was presented to us was that the living quarters that we live in, when we're out in the field, we're pressure living on top of each other, and sometimes we'll go 40 days or 30 days without a shower, then we'll bring the showers out to us, and we'll all go outside and take showers together. So the issue was, you have a young, 19, 20-year-old boy, young man, actually who's from the farmlands or whoever, is introduced to, hey, this is so-and-so, who's a homosexual preference, the issue is this gonna cause an issue in those kind of living quarters in and then some Mariners in the Navy came up with the same question, it's like, well, how are we gonna separate each other? Because maybe I'm not comfortable getting undressed or taking close showers with each other. Or in some instances, it's so cold, or, you know, it's such bad can be conditions that you got two guys in a focus hole, [CHECK] you're like, hey, man, let's huddle and get warm, you know and that kid might be like, you know what? I really don't want to. Of it wasn't like oh, we're not gonna -- it wasn't like, oh, you know, unit cohesion, it's how you look or how you fight, 'cause you could be homosexual or lesbian, gay and lesbian and still be a great fighter. But what it came down to was, hey, I'm not gonna be undressing in front of a female, and a female is not gonna get undressed in front of me, how does it work with somebody with the same sex. [CHECK] that was the issue that came up with the Marine Corps.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for coming in and explaining that. And that comes I guess, under the category of training and education.

PERRY: And leadership. And those are legitimate concerns. Although any of us who have ever been a member of an athletic chub or took a PE course in high school and college, have probably been seen and been seen by people of different sexual orientations and you live with it. Of that's where leadership comes in. Of it will take sergeants, majors, that's the top on the list to step out and say here's what it is, it's not an issue. Move on. We have serious business. We have people out there trying to kill us. Let's see if we can't kill them before they kill us and not worry about peripheral items such as sexual gender.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Yeah, go ahead, Ari, I'm sorry.

WALDMANN: That kind of concern is certainly out there. As Tony mentioned, lots of people have these kind of legitimate concerns of however, a lot of them are based, I'm not saying this is necessarily true of the previous caller, but a lot of those kind of concerns are based on a lack of recognition that they may have already served with a gay and lesbian service member, that they have changed in a shower with gay and lesbian individuals or that they just don't know that there are gays and lesbians out there with them. It's based on a stereotype that gays cannot control themselves in a shower, which is of course not true. That these kinds of -- and these kind of things will change just as people become more comfortable, as the policy is implemented, and with leadership, it's a cultural change that will -- that is required, but when you cut down to it, a lot of those concerns are based on unfounded stereotypes that you put a gay man in a shower and he's not gonna be able to control himself. And that's not fair.

PERRY: I do think, though, looking back on the experience when women started, particularly, to go to sea and on ships. There were all sorts of stories about pregnancies, and large ships being referred to as love boats. And the Navy has struggled with that. There will have to be leadership that says, yes, you can be openly gay, but we're not gonna act on that like we're at's, is just like you can be a flaming heterosexual and we're in the gonna act on that at sea. You put young men and young women together, or young men and young men together, there can be issues, it has to be dealt with on the sort of command level. It can't be dealt with on the floor of the U.S. senate. This is where chief officer, sergeants, majors, have to step up and enforce the rules.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let's take another call. Catherine is calling from Pacific Beach. . Good morning, Catherine, welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Good morning, thank you very much. I just wanted to salute the gay and lesbian service people who actually came out and told their story, who told in a Don't Ask, Don't Tell environment. They're the ones who made the difference, they took a huge personal risk coming out, had enormous courage but by coming forth and telling the truth about themselves, they made the difference. So I salute them.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for the call Catherine. I'm wondering, Ari, you said -- you made the point that you were expecting about 1 sixth of gay and lesbian military to come out and tell people that they are gay. I'm wondering though, there are changes that are going to happen for gay members that have partners and health policy and all of that. Tell us a lot bit about those sort of changes.

WALDMANN: Well, issue the devil is in the details, right?


WALDMANN: This is where the implementation period is really gonna -- this is what the implementation period is for. And when it comes to legal issues associated with this, there are numerous. What does the effect of DOMA, the defense of marriage act, have on the ability of the military to recognize same sex partners? Where what happens if those same sex partners are married in a marriage equality state? Or what happens if you have a domestic partnership in a state that doesn't have same sex marriage. There are a lot of questions. But there are a lot of things that are already possible. [CHECK] but the military also has the ability to, just like the State Department under secretary Clinton recently, to change certain rules that, allowed for full health benefits and other benefits for domestic partners and those who have civil unions short of marriage, the military can make those changes as well absent an act of Congress of it's a different policy -- it's a different form, it's a different policy, some of the requirements associated with marriage and partnerships are statutory that would require a change in the defense of marriage act, and a change in marriage law. But the military can take steps on its own to extend health benefits and other benefits that are unique to the military to domestic partnerships just like the State Department, and just like other elements of the federal government. Those are gonna be the details that lawyers are going to have to work out. And we are all working, we all want to see that happen, and we're all working together to try to make this -- try to make those changes as clear and as quickly as possible so we can implement the changes. One of the necessary things about this implementation is that we want clear rulings. We want rules that haven't going to be subject to any kind of gray area but can change with federal law as it changes. And one of the complicating factors is the defense of marriage act, which is a -- this is a discriminator policy in and of itself that not only affects those who want to get married and those who want federal benefits, but it affects -- it now affects military service members, it affects people with international partners. It's an incredibly discriminator law that is going to have to be the next step in fixing this culture of discrimination against gays and lesbians.

PERRY: There are going to be issues. You're right. A staff sergeant who lives on base, can he have his male partner living with him? Or a woman, can she have her female? That's gonna be difficult. Then the social is gonna be touchy and difficult. How are they gonna integrate same sex partners into the readiness groups? These are the groups that hang together while the forces are deployed for emotional support. What are they gonna do on that? Are they gonna really out reach and say, okay, sailor, marine, if you have a same sex partner, have them come to the family readiness groups just like the marriage partners of other serving personnel. They're just as much a apart. That will be difficult. That starts to -- the thing you can't really legislate.


PERRY: Again, leadership. If somebody steps forward and says we're gonna do it, let's get it done.

WALDMANN: Tony bringing up a good point. There is a difference between legislative change and rule changes and changes that lawyers can make with a pen, and social change that's going to take time. That takes time outside of the military as well. When we come out to our parents, our parent vs to adjust in their minds their expectations for their children. And that's a social change that takings time and adjusting. And we have to accept it. So while we can tell, we can say right here, it's not going to be much of a change. Millions of people aren't gonna start coming out. It's not gonna be a huge deal. But this for better or worse is a hot button cultural issue that's going to take some adjustment. And what's going to make that cultural adjustment easier, clear rules, clear strong leadership in the military.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We have time for another short call, Joe is culling from San Diego. Good morning, Joe, welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Hi, good morning. I just wanted to point out, one of the clear things that you could show where there was a discrepancy was during the height of the Iraq war, when they needed people, they were pulling reserves and needed more people, they allowed felons to join the military with certain waivers. Obviously I'm sure it wasn't felons in the sense of very serious violations. But there are felons that were allowed to join. And at the exact same time, they were kicking out people for being no more than gay or lesbian out of the military in critical areas, in linguists, in defense. I mean, and that showed the difference. It was that oh, well, we'll take a felon but we're gonna kick out a gay.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right, right Joe, thank you for the call. You know, Ari, along the same lines of what Joe was saying, about change attitudes and how much discrimination gay members of the military have had to deal with throughout the years, I saw a Korean war veteran on television tear up as he was talking about this repeal and about how he didn't have to lie about his life anymore to feel patriotic, and I wonder if the very short time that we have left, if you can just encapsulate what this victory means to gay service men and women.

WALDMANN: I think tearing up sums it up quite well. Of it was a where were you when, moment. My generation this year has had a few of them. The decision on the prop eight-case from judge walker. But this seems much more grand. A legislative repeal of one of the last lest I believes of acceptable discrimination. Homophobia in this country. It made me tear up. And although, you know, I'm certainly in touch with my emotions, don't cry that often. And it was -- it was a wonderful experience even just sitting on my friend's couch in Los Angeles, which is where I was when it happened of I will never forget that moment. And to say in my 30 years that this one moment was -- will never be forgotten is I think sums it up.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That has to be the last word. I want to thank you both, Ari Waldmann, Tony Perry, happy holidays.

WALDMANN: Thank you.

PERRY: Thank you.

WALDMANN: Merry Christmas, happy new year.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: If you would like to comment, please go on-line, Days. Sty with us for hour two of These Days, coming up in just a few minutes right here on KPBS.

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