Quest for the summit of Mount Rainier with wounded Special Operations soldiers evokes memories of fallen comrades

Alex Quade | Freelance War Reporter

Editor’s note: Freelance War Reporter Alex Quade covers U.S. Special Operations forces. She is the recipient of a national Edward R. Murrow Award and the Congressional Medal of Honor Society’s “Tex McCreary Award for Excellence In Journalism.”  Ms. Quade’s documentary on Special Operations forces and Other Government Agencies in Afghanistan, “Horse Soldiers of 9/11,” narrated by actor Gary Sinise, is currently in film festivals nationwide.

(MOUNT RAINIER, WASHINGTON) – There is an old saying in the mountaineering world.  When asked why you climb a mountain, the proper response is, ‘Because it’s there!’

But for some wounded and injured United States Special Operations forces soldiers, the response is, “Because I must:  for my country, my teammates and myself.”

This week, another group of wounded warriors gunned for the summit of Washington State’s awe-inspiring Mount Rainier.  They succeeded.

This was the sixth annual climb organized by the nonprofit veterans group Camp Patriot, which promotes positive, life-changing experiences for wounded troops through outdoor “recreational therapy” adventures.

Mount Rainier is the highest mountain in the Pacific Northwest, at 14,411 feet tall.  It is a volcano that takes the lives of climbers every year. As recently as June, a veteran Mount Rainier National Park climbing ranger perished during a mission to rescue a party of climbers who had fallen into a crevasse.

Many try to reach Rainier’s tantalizing summit, but many turn back or are forced back by quickly changing weather conditions.  In fact, of those climbers who make the attempt every year, only about half ever make it to the top.

That challenge makes Special Operators salivate — wounded or not.

Wounded soldiers and war correspondent Alex Quade trek up Mount Rainier on the third day of their journey. COURTESY MARK SEACAT (JULY 2008)

“I wish I were young enough to go up there to do it,” former CIA Paramilitary Operations officer and retired Green Beret Sgt. Maj. Billy Waugh said at the Camp Patriot Summit Challenge kickoff dinner at the beginning of the week.  The Seahawks football team hosted the event July 8 in Seattle.

Retired Lt. Gen. Gerald Boykin, who has served as head of the Joint Special Operations Forces Command and undersecretary of defense for intelligence, joined Waugh in delivering motivational speeches focused on letting this year’s climbing wounded veterans know that their service and sacrifice are appreciated.

“We need to be proud to be Americans because there are many men and women who have, throughout our history, given us the right to be proud,” Boykin said.  “We have done more for the world than any other nation in history, and it is the men and women who have sacrificed for this nation that have ensured that we can be proud of our nation.  Too many Americans are losing their pride, and it is killing us as a nation.”

Though it may seem focused exclusively on the Special Operations community, Camp Patriot adventures are open to all veterans of all wars. Micah Clarke, a former Navy corpsman and the founder of Camp Patriot, has helped train special forces and police units in both the U.S. and Afghanistan.

Clarke’s goal is to help wounded veterans transition to life in society by focusing on their unique abilities through outdoor challenges.

“We get asked a lot regarding the Post Traumatic Stress —[if these activities will help, or if they might trigger a PTS episode] — so we really try to select the vet with the outdoor activity,” Clarke said at Sunday’s event.

Retired Special Operations Reconnaissance Marine Sgt. Keith Zeier, who suffered a severe head injury and lost his left leg after an improvised explosive blast in Iraq, is one of the two wounded soldiers who climbed Rainier earlier this week with Camp Patriot.

“The guides helped make a special ice crampon foot for the prosthetics.  I’m not going to use the [prosthetic] foot that I walk around with everyday because it’s too bulky [in the snow],” Zeier said.

Expert guides Curtis Fawley and Art Rausch began preparing Zeier and another wounded soldier, Army Capt. Victor Munos, for their climb back in May in Colorado Springs. Fawley and Rausch, who started volunteering to help military veterans after 9/11, have climbed Mount Rainier more than 275 times between the two of them.

NEXT: The team completes its journey to the top of Mount Rainier >> 

“The guides [also taught] us how to successfully not kill yourself, basically,” laughed Munos, who still serves on active duty.  Munos has worn leg braces ever since a drunk driver in Germany crushed both his legs.

“The braces are like a plate that holds my foot in place.  I can’t articulate my ankle up and down, and because of that, when I go up the mountain, I won’t be able to flex [my foot].  I’ll basically be planting my toe [with the] crampon attached to the boot to support my weight [and virtually tip-toeing up Rainier],” Munos explained.

“These guys are great,” former Special Operator Billy Waugh, author of “Hunting The Jackal,” declared as the wounded warriors departed for this week’s extreme challenge.

Their pace was blistering. On July 9, the group geared up in Ashford, Washington.  The next day, they hiked to Camp Muir, and on Wednesday they trained on the glacier. On July 12, the two rope teams successfully reached Mount Rainier’s summit.  By July 13,  the Camp Patriot group of wounded warriors, guides and volunteers had finished their descent and began heading home.

Because the team’s ability to communicate with the outside world was limited to sporadic radio updates, the details of the soldiers’ entire adventure will not be known until long after they have had a chance to unwind.  Based on my experiences during a previous Camp Patriot climb, the entire team will have amazing stories to tell.

Because I had covered Special Operations forces on combat missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, Camp Patriot founder Micah Clarke called me in 2008 to join the organization’s climb that year. I had the opportunity to cover a medically retired Navy SEAL from my hometown, a Special Operations Reconnaissance Marine and an amputee Soldier as they journeyed to the top of Mount Rainier.

Clarke knew I had trekked and back-country packed the Himalayas almost to Mount Everest’s base camp, the Alps, the Andes, the Atlas Mountains, around Mount Cook, New Zealand and Patagonia.  He figured I wouldn’t hold back the teams.

I’d been back from battlefield Iraq a few months, recovering from an injury during a combat mission with 10th Special Forces Group and Air Force Special Operations forces in dangerous Diyala Province.  While mending, I reported on Special Operations forces on the home front, focusing on how their community or service branch supported them and their families — or not — after they had been wounded in battle or injured during their intense training.

Mount Rainier would be the ultimate test for the wounded veterans, but it would also be a comeback mission of sorts for this war reporter.

Retired Navy SEAL Special Operator 2nd Class Ryan Job and I would be teammates on the same rope.  We both grew up in the shadows of Mount Rainier, and had both attended the University of Washington.

Retired SEAL Ryan Job follows guide Curtis Fawley on the rope team after daylight on Day 3. COURTESY: MARK SEACAT (JULY 2008)

While assigned to SEAL Team 3, Ryan suffered severe head injuries and lost his sight on a rooftop in Ramadi after an enemy sniper shot him in the face during an intense firefight.

The other intrepid wounded warriors on this challenge included retired Special Operations Reconnaissance Marine Sgt. Jose “Joey” Martinez III, who was 98 percent blind from an improvised explosive blast while on patrol with his sniper team in Al Anbar Province; and retired Army Reserve Staff Sgt. Chad Jukes, whose leg was amputated after his armored truck hit an anti-tank mine during an ambush in Northern Iraq.

NEXT: Day one brings adversity and realization that someone might not make it back >>

Each wounded warrior was assigned his own rope team of expert guides and support volunteers.  Our 21-member expedition took four days.

DAY ONE

Boots on the ground — make that volcano.  Instead of “sea legs,” we get our “snow legs” by learning proper foot placement and rest-steps during the four-mile long, 4,500 foot incline from Paradise up the Muir Snowfield to our base camp.  Think about Ryan doing this blind.  How do you tackle something as overwhelming as a 14,441-foot volcano?  As a team.

“I will never quit.  I persevere and thrive on adversity …” – SEAL creed.

Watching Ryan navigating obstacles up ahead motivated me to stay mentally tough during this endurance test.  I tried to remember lines from various Special Operations creeds, which my late mentor, Medal of Honor recipient Col. Robert L. Howard (“Ranger Bob”), had tried to teach me before I went to Iraq and got hurt.  Warrior creeds are codes of conduct for Special Operations units on and off the battlefield.

Our rope team’s climbing experts closely monitored each wounded warrior, but let them do their jobs on their own.  To help Ryan gauge distance as he climbed blind, volunteer guides Fawley and Rausch regularly tapped their Leki hiking poles.

“Think outside the box.  Go over, under, around, through every obstacle to get the job done….” – Special Forces mantra.

Numerous other volunteers helped our team get the job done.  Off-duty Green Berets from the 1st Special Forces Group, “Night Stalkers” from 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment and members of the Oregon Air National Guard all schlepped extra food and gear to our base camp at 10,000 feet.

“Their help and great attitudes were indispensible in assisting us climbers,” Fawley later reflected.

The team participates in glacier training day at Camp Muir. COURTESY SFC EDWARD GRONDIN, 1st Special Forces Group (JULY 2008)

 

DAY TWO

We trained seriously as a group on the Cowlitz Glacier for our summit attempt that night.

We practiced cramponing, team rope techniques, clipping and harnessing, ice axe self arrest, team arrest and even rope knots. The military members excelled at the latter; this reporter did not.

All the same, these would be the skills that hopefully would keep us alive in the event a team member fell into a crevasse, an avalanche struck or a melting glacier suddenly gave way.

The training was sobering.  No longer was this merely a lovely hike amongst stunning vistas.  This was for real.  Like war, someone might not make it back. It was during this “train-like-you-fight” scenario that Ryan excelled.  Over and over again, he threw himself into the snow practicing self-arrest.

“My training is never complete …” – SEAL creed.

It was also during this training that country singer and climbing team volunteer Keni Thomas stood out as a leader.  Keni was a former Ranger who had served in Mogadishu in what later became known as the “Black Hawk Down” mission.  This was his first Mount Rainier climb, too.  Without being asked, he stepped up to help teach those of us with little rope experience.

Each one of us believed that more sweat during training would hopefully mean less blood on the battlefield — or, in this case, snowfield.

Quietly contemplating the mission ahead, the three teams tucked in and attempted to catch a wink of sleep.

NEXT: Daybreak melts the snow, bringing new risks as team approaches the top >>

DAY TWO: LATE NIGHT

We silently don our headlamps, rope ourselves together and set out in the dark.  The summit looms.

Anyone watching the three teams in the night would be hard pressed to pick out who the wounded warriors were — unless, perhaps, a headlamp caught a metal glint from Chad Juke’s prosthetic leg.  The war veterans are that “dialed in.”

Each of us concentrates on the immediate task at hand.  Step, breathe. Step, breathe … methodical … rhythm.  One cramponed boot in front of the other, slowly we ascend.  Watch your teammate ahead of you.  Keep up.  Don’t leave too much slack for your teammate behind you.  Maintain situational awareness. Step, place ice axe and breathe … step, place ice axe and breathe.  Don’t let your brothers on the rope down; don’t be the weak link.  Nothing else matters.

“I will not fail; failure is not an option …” – Special Forces mantra.

 

DAY THREE: SHORTLY AFTER MIDNIGHT

The three teams have been climbing for hours in the dark.

The grit and determination of wounded warriors Ryan, Joey and Chad is what keeps all of us slogging upwards.

My mind wanders to the last time I was on a night operation.  It was in Iraq.  For Special Operators, working in the dark is second nature.  But there are no night-vision goggles, nor M4 weapons on this night op. We had only Petzl headlamps and ice-axes at the ready.

“A special breed of warrior. … A common man with uncommon desire to succeed …” – SEAL creed.

Up, up in the dark, switch-backing around the crevasses and over Cathedral Gap …

Steep, rocky outcrops are especially challenging for Ryan and Joey, our two blind veterans.  Amputee Chad’s prosthetic foot gets temporarily wedged between the rocks.

“…My debt is to those who depend on me. … I will not fail those with whom I serve.” – Special Forces creed.

Nobody whines.  Nobody complains.

Up through the aptly-named Disappointment Cleaver, the solitude broken by our ice axes and crampons.

“I know I will be called upon to perform tasks in isolation … “ – Special Forces creed.

 

Amputee retired Army Staff Sgt. Chad Jukes fights to the top on Day 3. COURTESY: MARK SEACAT (JULY 2008)

 

DAY THREE: DAYBREAK

We have not yet reached the summit.

It gets dicey once the sun comes up and starts melting the glacier snow.  We continue the mission regardless.  Step, breathe. Step, breathe.

During the most dangerous parts of our climb, blind SEAL Ryan was roped to as many as three guides.

The wounded warriors refuse to quit.  The word “inspiring” does not do justice to their show of will.  Each dug deep into his warrior psyche and mentally kicked the butts of his teammates up the final incline.

“Readily will I display the intestinal fortitude required to fight on to the Ranger objective and complete the mission …” – Ranger creed.

After nine hours of grueling climbing, all three teams reached Mount Rainier’s 14,411-foot high summit about 8:30 a.m. on Day Three.

It was  an exhilarating moment for the wounded warriors.  Rejuvenated, they immediately set off to explore the snowy crater at the top.

It was an emotional moment for former Ranger Keni Thomas, who dedicated his climb to his fallen comrades in the Battle of Mogadishu.

It was a peaceful moment of realization for me, a cognitive switch of putting the past behind and moving forward with my life.

“…For I volunteered to be up front where the fighting is hard…” – Night Stalker Creed.

Then, back to work.  Though out-of-breath and dizzy from the high altitude, this reporter chased after the wounded warriors around the top of the mountain conducting interviews. I wasn’t along as a tourist; I had a job to do.

“It feels like we’re on top of everything,” Ryan, my blind rope teammate, said. “Everything feels bigger.”

After about thirty minutes of revelry at the top, it’s time to go.  The clock is ticking against us now.

It’s scarier going down Mount Rainier because with daylight comes realization.  Now you can see the environment that had been dark. With daylight comes the visual sense of steepness, pitch and vertigo. Rising temperatures can turn the snow mushy.  Snow bridges over crevasses become unstable.

“The snow in general becomes less stable, making footing on steeper slopes more difficult,”  Fawley says.

 “I fear no foe’s ability, nor underestimate his will to fight …” – Night Stalker creed.  

We are tired from our ascent and are starting to get sloppy.  We need to focus harder.  This is when the warrior training and ethos of our wounded teammates kicks in.  With a reminder from our expert guides about rope rules and self-arrest, we hustle across glacier fields.  Quickly, quickly now — as quick as is possible, past crevasses, ice and rock falls that were not there just a few hours ago during our ascent.  I marvel at Ryan ahead of me on our rope, as well as our other wounded warriors.

Imagine doing all this with your eyes closed. Imagine doing all this with only one leg.

“God grant that I may not be found wanting, that I will not fail this sacred trust…” – Special Forces creed.

And then, on a steep rocky outcrop, my crampon catches, and I fall face-first down the steep rocks.

“Falling!  Falling!” I yell as I slide forward so my rope teammates can brace themselves. It’s difficult to self-arrest with an ice axe in slippery scree. They grab the rope tight and pull me up.  My chin, nose and knees are bleeding a bit; my sunglasses and eye protection are scratched and dented.

“It’s only a flesh-wound,” I laugh, while our guides sort us back into formation and help get Ryan reoriented.  I am embarrassed: The reporter is the only member of our wounded warrior expedition to eat dirt.  Talk about a good attitude adjustment.  I joke that in different cultures throughout history, there’s always been a female sacrifice to the Volcano God.  It’s the same dark humor we share in war.  That familiar adrenaline fight-or-flight has kicked in.

“If knocked down, I will get back up, every time.  I will draw on every remaining ounce of strength to protect my teammates and to accomplish our mission …” – SEAL creed.

“Our strong team rallied, maintaining our focus and concentration,” Fawley later reflected. “After exactly 15 hours on the mountain, the last rope team of our group returned back to Camp Muir successful.”

 NEXT: ‘We awaken to rumbling,’ and the team loses a fighting spirit >>

DAY FOUR

We awaken to rumbling.  No, Mount Rainier is not erupting.  No, it’s not an avalanche.  Two F-15s from the Oregon Air National Guard are flying by, right above us, in special tribute to the wounded warriors.

I ask the combat veterans if it reminds them of being downrange.  All three say it’s another example of brothers-in-arms watching out for each other.  Ryan is smiling, his face pointed in the direction of the F-15s.  He says he really likes the feel of that close-range rumble.  The last time he heard aircraft like that, he confides, they were providing close air support for his SEAL Team on an operation in Iraq.  It is a familiar and comforting sound, he tells me, which makes him feel like he’s come full circle since being wounded.

“What a great salute to our vets’ successes – not only on this trip, but in life,” Fawley said, recalling the jets.

 

Oregon Air National Guard F15s fly by the group on Mount Rainier, with Mount Adams in the distance. COURTESY: MARK SEACAT (JULY 2008)

 

We pack up our tents, take down camp and descend to Paradise — our starting point for this climb.

“This was tough,” Ryan admitted to our group later, “but BUDs was tougher,” he added, referring to his SEAL training.

“My goal is to succeed in any mission – and live to succeed again …” – Special Forces creed.

“Chad, Ryan, and Joey lived up to the spirit of that statement [about why do you climb a mountain] better than anyone I have ever been on that mountain with,” Sgt. 1st Class Edward Grondin told me.  Grondin, with 1st Special Forces Group, volunteered on our Mount Rainier mission, along with other off-duty military members.  He has volunteered on every Camp Patriot climb since.

“We were here to share with my fellow soldiers, as well as the world, that we will stand by our brothers until the day comes that groups like Camp Patriot are no longer needed,” Grondin said.

I asked him why he’s speaking up in public, a rarity for any active-duty Special Forces member.

“I only want to see that word is spread about the things that the guys accomplished on the mountain,” Grondin replied.  “It was also refreshing to be up there with people [volunteers from the climbing world, local community, and fellow Special Operations soldiers] who just instinctively understood the message we were there to share.”

That message to wounded veterans: There is life after war injuries, and there are nonprofit groups of volunteers like Camp Patriot that have your back.

“I am a volunteer, knowing well the hazards of my profession … I will strive always to excel …” – Special Forces creed.

In 2009, Ryan, then a retired Navy SEAL, returned as a Camp Patriot volunteer.  He was, after all, an expert now.  Though blind, he helped his injured or wounded soldiers.  Heeding the SEAL creed of “Leave No Man Behind,” Ryan pulled Sherpa duty and schlepped gear up the mountain.

“When the impossible has been accomplished, the only reward is another mission that no one else will try …” – Night Stalker creed.

Ryan’s fellow wounded warriors on that climb included Sgt. 1st Class Mario Barragan, Green Beret with the 7th Special Forces Group, who was wounded by an IED in Afghanistan; Capt. Reinaldo Gonzalez, paralyzed from the neck down after falling 35 feet while at the Army’s Ranger School; and Sgt. 1st Class Jesse Yandell, a Ranger with the 1/75th Ranger Regiment, who was wounded by a rocket-propelled grenade in the upper chest during a mission.

Joining Ryan once again to help out were former Ranger and country singer Keni Thomas, Sgt. 1st Class Ed Grondin and a handful of his Green Beret brothers from the 1st Special Forces Group.  It was, again, a tough climb.

“… A calling only a few will answer for the mission is constantly demanding and hard …” – Night Stalker creed.

Grondin wrote later of wounded Ranger Jesse Yandell:  “Jesse was unsure, due to his injury, if he had the cardiac strength to make it to the summit of [Mount] Rainier.  But he summoned the fortitude that is required of a U.S. Army Ranger, and with the confidence he gained from his guides, Curtis Fawley and Art Rausch, Jesse made the summit.”

“I lead by example in all situations …” – SEAL creed.

Ryan became a national spokesman for Camp Patriot. he helped raise awareness of the group’s goal of helping wounded troops mend with outdoor adventures.  Though blind, he managed to bag an elk on one such excursion.  In his role, Ryan helped other injured war veterans realize that life goes on, and that they may thrive under new challenges during their recovery.

Just two months after that climb, Ryan was dead.  A mistake in an Arizona hospital, after another reconstructive surgery, did what that enemy sniper didn’t.  Ryan Job was 28 years old.  The hospital paid his family $4 million in a legal settlement following a lawsuit over his wrongful death and medical malpractice.

NEXT: Ryan Job’s legacy inspires fellow soldiers, military leaders and ‘all Americans’ >>

It was a gut-wrenching blow to his family, his SEAL team, the Special Operations and wounded warrior communities, Camp Patriot and his fellow climbers on Mount Rainier.

It was a blow, too, for Gold Star Mom Debbie Lee, whose son Marc Lee became the first Navy SEAL killed in action in Iraq. Lee had provided cover fire for Ryan’s medical evacuation from that Ramadi rooftop.  As he pursued the Iraqi sniper who had shot Ryan, Lee was shot and killed that very same day.

At Bethesda Naval Hospital, right after being injured, Ryan had told his fiancé Kelly (who would later become his wife) that, “If [I was] going to be blind, [I was] going to be the best blind man there is.”  And to all who had the privilege of knowing him, Ryan was just that.

“Both [Medal of Honor recipient and former SEAL] Mike Thornton and I knew Ryan and the injuries he suffered,” my friend Tom Norris, himself a Medal of Honor recipient and former SEAL, said.  “I spoke to Ryan when he was in Bethesda Naval Hospital receiving treatment, since I had received similar injuries.  His attitude was, as I expected, upbeat and positive.”

Norris, who suffered severe head trauma and loss of sight in one eye after being shot in the face during a combat mission in Vietnam, said Ryan was like all Special Operations soldiers:  quiet, unassuming and always looking forward.

“He readily accepted his injuries, but was not about to let them get the best of him.  He continually took on new challenges.  Ryan was not one to quit or be beaten.  Whatever challenges came his way he faced head on and was always creating new challenges for himself.  Ryan, like other Special Operators, was a model for others to follow.  Not because they seek or ask for it, but because of who they are and how they look at life and live it,” Norris said.

And fellow retired SEAL Marcus Luttrell, the author of “Lone Survivor,” wrote of his friend Ryan’s death: “With the help of Camp Patriot, Ryan summited Mount Rainier and bagged a magnificent elk in 2008.  He then returned to help other injured veterans climb Mount Rainier in 2009.  Ryan put others before himself, both in military service and in his personal life.”

Two weeks after his death, I handed then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen a photo of Ryan from our Mount Rainier climb and told him about Ryan being a role model for our entire group.  Mullen looked at the photo, paused and finally quietly said he had known Ryan well and that his death was a tragedy for all Americans.

 

Blind SEAL Ryan Job scales Mount Rainier. COURTESY MARK SEACAT (JULY 2008)

Since Ryan’s death, Camp Patriot has continued its mission, just as the Navy SEAL would expect.  Each year, the volunteers from within the Special Operations community have grown, supported primarily by a contingency from Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Tacoma.  Conventional forces, including the Oregon and Washington Air National Guards, have continued to assist, along with growing support from the local community, climbing world and sponsors like the Seattle Seahawks, TriWest Healthcare Alliance, Rainier Mountaineering Inc., Far West Log & Timber and Mystery Ranch Backpacks.

“We are honored to support these heroes who have sacrificed so much in defense of our freedom, yet continue to inspire each of us with their remarkable achievements,” David J. McIntyre, President and CEO of TriWest Healthcare Alliance, said.

During last year’s climb, Sgt. 1st Class Edward Grondin again perpetuated Ryan’s Sherpa tradition of volunteering.  Grondin and other off-duty friends from 1st Special Forces Group encouraged fellow Green Beret and retired Master Sgt. Gil “Mag” Magallanes Jr. in his quest for the summit.

Mag, of 5th Special Forces Group, was injured during a friendly fire incident in Afghanistan not long after 9/11.  A large “JDAM” bomb dropped close to his team’s position while they were guarding soon-to-be Afghan President Hamid Karzai.  Though Mag didn’t reach the summit during that attempt, his determination to come back from his traumatic brain injury made an impact on his Special Forces brothers.

“It’s inspirational on so many levels,” Grondin told U.S. Army Special Operations Command after last year’s mission.  “It inspires me to go back to my day-to-day life and appreciate the things I do have and to continue to push myself in my own personal life.”

This week, while many of us have been slogging away at our day jobs, this year’s Camp Patriot group of wounded warriors and volunteers has been slogging upward through Mount Rainier’s snowfields and glaciers.  They continued the legacy of those who’ve gone before them.  Not because the mountain was there, but because they must.  

“If the American people only knew a fraction of what our Special Forces soldiers do for us; if they knew the extent of their deeds … they would be amazed to know the level of human endurance, commitment and sacrifices one will endure for their country,” said my friend Medal of Honor recipient Staff Sgt. Drew Dix, who served with the 5th Special Forces Group.

SEAL Ryan Job may no longer be part of the Team, that brotherhood of the rope, as a volunteer Sherpa, but his indomitable spirit, the essence of what it means to be a Special Operator, is now engraved in Mount Rainier’s history.

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