[MUSIC PLAYING] Hi and welcome to the podcast Making Cents, brought to you by Navy Federal Credit Union. I'm your host, Emily Bigham, and each week, I'll be taking your questions to the experts, to help you make cents of your money. Pun intended.
This May, during Military Appreciation Month, Navy Federal partnered with Operation Homefront on a special social media campaign asking members to share pictures or stories of themselves or their family members who served. But most importantly, we asked them to share how many numbers of years that they served, because we donated $5 for every year of service shared. And I'm happy to say that after receiving over 1,000 messages and a cumulative total of 14,000 years of service, we were able to reach our $50,000 donation goal.
And today on the podcast we have a very special guest, Robert Thomas. He is the chief operating officer at Operation Homefront, formerly in the US Air Force. Thanks so much, Bob for being on the podcast. How are you today?
ROBERT THOMAS: Hi, Emily. Thanks for the invitation.
EMILY BIGHAM: No problem, glad to have you on. So can you tell me a little bit about Operation Homefront and how you started with the organization?
ROBERT THOMAS: Well, Operation Homefront's mission is to build strong, stable, secure military families, so they thrive, not just struggle to get by, but thrive in those communities they work so hard to protect. So what makes us a little different than some other organizations serving military veterans is we serve the family. And, of course, the veteran, or veterans, that wear a uniform to work every day are key members of the family, but our focus is really on family programs. And if you help a family by paying rent or a mortgage, you're really helping everyone in the family, so that makes us a little bit different.
EMILY BIGHAM: So when it comes to military appreciation, I think you guys are definitely making a well-rounded effort, right? Because like you said, it's not just about those who are serving, it's also about the family. And so you mentioned financial assistance and mortgages. Can you get into a little bit about Operation Homefront and what makes you guys different?
ROBERT THOMAS: Well, we have a whole portfolio of relief resiliency and recurring family support programs that help us accomplish our mission. And each of those programs are targeted on a specific area where military families perhaps need a little help. And by military families, I mean both those on active duty and veteran families.
EMILY BIGHAM: You spoke about the different programs, I think you said relief and resiliency. How many programs do you guys have?
ROBERT THOMAS: Boy, we've got-- we've got about a dozen total programs. We have a handful that are our flagship program. You know perhaps our biggest program is our critical financial assistance program. And that's where we help families who are just in a tough spot financially. And all you have to do is think about what your top bills are every month, and for me, like millions of other Americans, it's I got to pay my mortgage or I got to pay rent, utilities, a car payment, an insurance payment, and perhaps some unexpected bill that pops up out of nowhere, like a home repair. And a lot of families, a lot of military families in particular, don't have a lot of savings. And so when something unexpected happens, whatever that might be, it can really put them in a tough spot very quickly. So what we want to do is we want to be there for those families, provide the assistance that they need, so they get over the tough spot, and they move on to a bright future, rather than doing something crazy like take out a payday loan or run the credit cards way up, and now, it's a downward spiral if you're not careful. So we want to be there for the families. Our military families have been there for us in our time of need, and we want to be there for them.
EMILY BIGHAM: Just the responsible assistance that you guys provide, I think it's really incredible and it's setting service members up for success as well, and their families. And I know you mentioned the critical financial assistance program, but Operation Homefront caught my eye a few years ago. And I live in the area where you guys have some of your transitional housing programs. I want to talk a little bit about that, because that to me is just incredible, the things that you do to actually-- like talk about setting people up for success and the families and taking care of them. Can you talk a little bit about those housing programs?
ROBERT THOMAS: Yes, we have a three transitional housing program. Let's just step through them real quick. The first is our transitional homes for veterans. And for those of us who have been in the military, I kind of think of it like base housing. So Operation Homefront has purchased a portfolio of homes. By 2026, we'll be up to 27 total homes. And what we do is we select families to live in those homes for two to three years, and while they're living in the homes, they'll do all the things that we all should be doing every day, work to pay down debt, increase savings, work on a personal goal. In many cases, those families, their goal is completing some kind of academic degree or technical training program. And then ultimately for most, it's getting that great civilian job.
What we find is a lot of military veterans after they get out, they actually go through two or three jobs before they find that one that becomes their second career. And so we want to provide stable, secure housing for the families. It takes the number one bill they have every month off the plate so they can save dollars and focus on other family priorities without having to worry about housing.
And we pick families that want to reside long term in the locations where the homes are. So for example, we have three homes here in San Antonio, Texas. A lot of folks in the military, especially the Air Force come through San Antonio, very popular place to retire or to start that second career. And the thinking is, we'll put you up in our home for two to three years. You can put down roots, your kids can enroll in school, you can find that great job, you can start that academic degree. And at the end of that period, you don't have to rip it all up like a PCS in the military, when you move across country, lose all your friends, lose your job, start over with a new school, find new doctors in the specialties you and your family need, because the families want to live in these cities already long term. So we pick them families that have a genuine desire to live in those locations. We put them up in the home, and we work to set them up for the future.
Now the best part about this program, I think, is the families are asked to pay a stipend of about $500 a month to get them used to budgeting for housing. And even when you own your home outright, you still have to budget for the escrows, the insurance, all those kind of things, the home warranty we highly recommend. So we ask them to do that. But at the end of the program, let's say at the end of three years, 36 months, we'll give them all the dollars that they contributed to that area back in cash. And so that is a great lump sum that they can use to put down on a house or to service some other family priorities.
But it's a great program. We want to set that families up for success. And anyone who has been in the military knows that that first day when you wake up and you are retired for real and you don't put on a uniform to go to work, it feels completely different. And a lot of folks I know, I'll add my name to the list, you work until the last day, and you try not to think about it, because it's out there in the future, and then all of a sudden it's right on top of you, and you really don't have a great plan. So we want to be there for those families and set them up for success long term. And so I think that's a wonderful program.
We've got houses in about six or seven cities now. We're growing very, very rapidly, trying to find cities where the housing is affordable and military families can live. So for example, we don't have any houses in San Diego, California, because the houses there are unbelievably expensive. So most folks that leave the military cannot afford to live in San Diego, at least not initially. So we try to find locations like San Antonio that are still affordable, because we love for the families to buy their own home when they graduate. It's not a requirement, but we'd like for them to be in a position to buy their own home if they chose to do so. And buying your own home is not the right answer for everyone, but if it is, we want the families to be well-positioned to take that next step.
So that's one of our programs. And of course, all of these programs have the same common themes which are, you're assigned a caseworker, you meet with them on a monthly basis. When COVID is over, we will meet in person three or four times a year, but right now, we're meeting on video calls. Look over your finances, you'll establish a budget, work to pay down debt. All those themes in this program are the same as the other housing programs.
EMILY BIGHAM: I wanted to commend you guys on all the work that you're doing. And coming from the military background, I've lived overseas. I have three siblings, and I know that every time that we had to move, every couple of years, it was always a really big burden on my mom. Even having to move to Japan, you have to figure out, OK in three months we're leaving, so we send half our stuff now and half our stuff later. You know, you have a two-year-old and a 12-year-old, and the two kids in between, you're trying to figure out schools. There's so much that goes on while you are serving in the military that I feel like once you're out, it's kind of like, whoa, what have I done to prepare for this transition? You know the military take such good care of people who are in the military and all the families. To me, the security and the comfort that you guys provide for these military families is something that you cannot even measure. They probably don't even really know how much you're doing for them until maybe they look back, and they're like, whoa, you changed my life. Do you get any of those stories from people who have gone through your program?
ROBERT THOMAS: Yeah, we absolutely do. And like you said, a lot of families-- there's so much going on right around discharge time, you know, your head's swimming. And it takes some time to look back and realize what a challenging time it was for you and your family. So we absolutely want to be there. A lot of our programs are focused on veterans within seven years of discharge.
What we find is, if we can really double-down on those veterans right around discharge time and take care of them and make sure they're off to a bright future, we don't see them again 10 or 15 years down the road in some kind of terrible economic situation. We really want to get everyone started on the right foot.
I get it, I was a military kid myself, just like you were, so I absolutely understand all the challenges. And you know, my dad had just retired when I turned 18, and I joined the Air Force right away. So for me, when I finally retired retired it was completely different. And I still to this day feel like I'm a military guy not wearing a uniform to work every day, because it is different. And I think I'll always be used to the military way of approaching things. But we want to be there and help those families in that transition period, very difficult time.
EMILY BIGHAM: I was in DC a couple of years ago, and I ran into an old family friend in the Metro, and I didn't even recognize him, because he was in civilian clothing. Like someone that I've known my entire life, like very close with this family friends. We lived all over together, and I didn't even recognize. Because I'm like, you're not in uniform! You're completely changed. And you know, he said he had a hard time figuring out what he was supposed to wear in the civilian world, and he had to go to Nordstrom's and get some help.
But you know, it's those little things. It's like you wouldn't even think that those little things are such stressors, but they are. And so I just think it's wonderful what you guys are doing. You mentioned within in seven years of discharge. What are the other parameters, and how can people apply and get in contact with Operation Homefront?
ROBERT THOMAS: Well, each program is a little different. So the transitional housing program, we want to catch families within one year of discharge. We're very much focused on that transition. Our other transitional housing programs are transitional homes for veterans or are transitional housing villages. That's for families going through the medical discharge process. And this, again, is a very tough transition, even more so, because a lot of these veterans were planning on a military career, everything was good, and boom. They're in a training accident, or they go for their annual physical, and the doctor says, Oh, I got your lab results back, we need to do some follow-on tests. And all of a sudden, it's some life-changing news coming out of nowhere.
So we have three of these. We have one in Gaithersburg, Maryland, one in San Antonio, Texas, one in San Diego. They're co-located with the big medical facility. So Balboa, Fort Sam, and Walter Reed in Washington DC. And it allows families to stay together while the service member is going through the medical discharge process.
A lot of times it's very stressful, there may be some follow-on medical treatments that are very demanding, and it allows the families to be together. And in that program, we've got 30 total units, so 10 client units at each location. We pay the rent, we pay the cable, we pay the utilities, and we take that burden off the families. A lot of them have no savings, and it's a very tough time, and it allows families to stay together.
And the families stay there as long as they need to. We want to see their medical discharge process complete. We want to see their VA benefits in place for six months. And we'll work with them to make sure they have a good, solid follow-on housing program. So there's no hard stop to that program.
But that one is just anyone going through the medical discharge process. And every once in a while we have someone that's got a very unique and compelling situation in which case, which is the same in all of our programs, we can kind of provide-- I can approve an exception to policy for really compelling situations that are very unique.
And the last one is transitional housing apartments. This is different yet again. This is for veterans within one to four years of discharge. It's very similar to transitional housing. Right now we're in a beta test. We have two apartments in Delaware. We provide one year of rent and utility-free housing, and we also pay the cable for veterans that are just discharging, and they just need a little stability. They need to be relieved of that big bill every month, paying the rent, paying the mortgage. We put them up for a year, and we provide this a little extra stability, a little debt relief, in the form of them not having to pay rent. And we help them get off to a bright future. So we're hoping to expand that program to other locations in the near future.
Each program targets a slightly different segment of the military population, so the qualifications are slightly different. Now, the best way to know what they are, because I'm certain no one will remember, is go to the website, operationhomefront.org, all the programs are listed there, all the criteria is listed there. And then the best way to know is to apply for the program, and then the caseworker will reach out to you and explain it. So I wouldn't think about it too hard, I would go to the website and apply. I mean that's the best way to know, and then off you go.
EMILY BIGHAM: Great. Yeah, I think that's definitely a good point to make, because sometimes, people are a little bit nervous about applying for things, because they're not sure if it's going to be the right thing, or if they'll hear back, so we'll make sure to put that in the show notes so people know where to go.
So switching gears a little bit, I want to read some of these numbers that I'm seeing here about how much assistance you guys have given, because it is so impressive. So for your critical financial assistance program, you fulfilled 40,000 requests, totaling over $31 million since 2011. That's amazing. And then since the onset of the pandemic, the COVID-19 pandemic, you've seen an increase in requests. And that time you fulfilled over 2,000 requests, providing over $1.3 million in assistance. That's incredible.
And then looking at your housing programs as well, you've provided over $95 million for the permanent homes for veterans. That is a huge number. That's incredible. If people wanted to donate or provide assistance to Operation Homefront, how can they-- how can they get Involved?
ROBERT THOMAS: OK, well, the best way to get involved is go to the website. We've worked really hard to make the website one stop shopping. So if you go to operationhomefront.org, you can learn all about Operation Homefront, you can get the details on all of our programs, you can learn about the leadership of the organization, and you can see who our donors are. 97% of the homes that we deeded, and we deeded 624 homes, and that's where that $95 million number comes from, because that's a deeded value of all the homes. 97% of the families that are in homes are in that home that we deeded to them, or they use the equity from that home by selling it to buy another home. And so it could be, hey, I got a great job 100 miles away, I got to move. My family got bigger, I need a bigger house. Or my favorite one is, I've been working really hard, and I want to live the American Dream, and I want a nicer house with a bigger yard and a two-car garage.
And these are starter homes. The median value of the homes is about $154,000. So these are not crystal palaces by any means, but they're great homes. They're in good shape, they're in good locations, and we want to set the families up for success long term.
EMILY BIGHAM: Well, and the important thing there too, is that you're teaching them the value of investment and the value of assets. You know what I mean?
ROBERT THOMAS: That's right.
EMILY BIGHAM: And it's tough to ever get ahead or ever feel like you're really secure where you are if you're always paying rent, always having to think about the next bill, and if you're putting money towards a home. Not everyone can afford a home right now, but with your assistance, they're able to do that. But just learning the importance of investing and then being able to see that non-equity and being able to graduate to another house, I think not everyone learns that. But I think with military housing, and again it goes back to the military always taking really good care of people and living overseas and living on bases and providing assistance for housing, that's a piece of the puzzle that is probably missing for a lot of people when they're transitioning.
ROBERT THOMAS: It is. The way I like to think about it is you can have this great job, you can be in a great city, close to friends and family, you can find the perfect medical care that you and your family need, the perfect school, but until you have safe, stable, secure housing, none of your dreams can really come true. So housing, and the way I think about it, it's a foundational requirement.
And part of the program, that two years, is teaching the families how to be homeowners. The last thing we want to do is deed them home, and then they don't pay their taxes and their home-- and they lose it. So a lot of our families have never owned a home, no one in their family has owned a home, so a lot of the time is spent teaching, providing some training on, hey, what are your escrows? What are your taxes? How does a tax assessment work? When do I have to pay it? What's the difference between home insurance and a home warranty? What's a homeowner association, and why do I have to comply with that? All those little things, and then part of it is upkeep. If you don't reinvest in your home, like you said, if you don't keep it up, pretty soon something bad's going to happen.
So that two year period, a lot of that is spent coaching the families on how to be homeowners, because once we pass the deed to them, it's theirs free and clear, and they've got to take care of it.
EMILY BIGHAM: That's great. I love that. I want to talk a little bit about you, because you have a very interesting career. You spent 31 years in the Air Force. Thank you so much for serving. That is my life.
But I want to talk a little bit about the Air Force and what you did in the Air Force and how you got into Operation Homefront and what drew you to this community.
ROBERT THOMAS: Well, I was a pilot in the Air Force. My father was in the Air Force, and he was a pilot. So growing up, I had one goal, and that was to be an Air Force pilot, just like dad. And I feel very comfortable in the Air Force. To this day, when I'm on a base, I just feel a level of comfort I don't feel in my own neighborhood. It just feels like home, no matter where I'm at.
And after a while, like any military person will tell you, you can't do your primary specialty, you got to-- you got to go up the food chain and have bigger jobs and different responsibilities. So I was really fortunate. I got to fly for a very, very long time. I had six command tours. I ended up, and a great way to finish, which was in charge of the Air Force Officer Training School and ROTC programs, making sure the next generation is ready to go at 145 colleges and universities and deciding who gets scholarships, for example. Unbelievable, because all these young people are so smart and so capable.
I was really-- one of my last briefings I gave. It was fun. I was briefing the four star and the three stars at the table, and I was at one star at the time, and I said, hey, sir. Truth be told, I know what your GPA was in school, because I've heard you talk about it numerous times in speeches. I know what the three star's GPA was, because I was his roommate. I know what mine was, and truth is, none of us would be competitive for commission today, because the kids are so smart.
Anyway, I really enjoyed my time in the military. And then I think, at the end, I ran into my old boss who is the CEO of Operation Homefront, at a big meeting and asked me what I was up to, and, ultimately, he asked me if I was interested. But as you think about it as a commander, at times, you're talking about the big plan, and you're talking about some military stuff like you might see in the movies, but that's a very small percentage of the time.
Most of the time, in my case, I was in the Air Force, you spend your time taking care of your airmen. And the way I look at it is if you take care of your airmen, you give them decent housing, their paycheck, good medical care, take care of the family, good on-base schools, you know they're going to be able to focus on the mission. And there's nothing worse than being downrange on a deployment and a young airman is worried about the safety of their family back home or the medical care their kids are getting, they can't focus on their jobs.
What worked for me and what works for a lot of successful commanders is you focus on your airmen, and they'll take care of you. And so this job was just a natural extension of that. I'm doing the same exact things I did on active duty in many cases, taking care of airmen that have hit a bump in the road, they just need a little bit of help, and we want to work to make sure they can take care of themselves. I mean this isn't charity outright where I'm just going to give you this cash stipend. No, I'm going to help you out. I'm going to make sure that I give you the assistance you need so you don't get in this situation again. And I'm going to applaud you when you have that bright future and the house on top of the hill later on.
EMILY BIGHAM: And I think that's where it goes. And when you're providing a little bit of assistance, and you're like, OK, well, you know I'm going to give you this, but then I need to see that you're making the right choices with it. And I think that's another important part of what you guys do is not only do you provide the assistance, but you know you're also like, hey, I want to see the documentation. I want to see that you have your VA benefits all ready to go, because people can say they do, but then maybe they don't. And I think you're looking out for their best interest when they're maybe on a very emotional point in their life. I don't know if you guys have certain things in the Air Force, but it's one of those like teaching moments I feel like. And something that I try to also do at Navy Federal.
Back to the transition from the Air Force to Operation Homefront, did you do anything in between those two? When you were transitioning out of the Air Force, was there a time in between that, or how did you go for you?
ROBERT THOMAS: No, this is my first civilian job. So I think that if it all works out, when I'm said and done, I'll have had two jobs in my life, Operation Homefront and the US Air Force. But it was a difficult time. Like a lot of military families, I was going to-- I retired on the 31st of December, because it had to do with a calendar year, and strength issue, but I didn't want my kids to have to change schools again.
I mean, your military listeners will get it. So I sent the family to Delaware so the kids could start school on time and wouldn't have to change schools yet again. My little boy had been, by the time he was in sixth grade, he had been to five different elementary schools. So the poor guy, you know the last thing I wanted to do was to do that to him one more time. So I finished up at Maxwell Air Force base, and then I joined the family in Delaware.
We got a small condo to live in, because I wanted to be able to say yes to any opportunity that popped up. And so I didn't want to buy a house and be anchored to a certain location. I wanted to be able to move if I needed to. I didn't want to burn my last military move.
And I was applying for jobs all over the place. I applied for a job in Alaska, which I thought would be just fantastic. I was looking at possibly going downrange again as a contractor. And then, fortunately, I ran into my old boss, who was very familiar with me, I had two tours with him, and asked me if I was interested in the nonprofit space. And, of course, I said, you know, absolutely. I'm actually ready to go and do just about anything. But when I heard more about the position, I thought, man, I think I could really do a good job in that position.
So I ended up at Operation Homefront and moved back to San Antonio seven miles from where I was born at Fort Sam Houston. You know, I never thought that would happen, but here I am, right back where I started and working with military families every day. So it's just a wonderful job.
EMILY BIGHAM: It probably makes you feel good, right? You're continuing to give back to the military. I love working at Navy Federal, because I just love helping the military. And if I'm not going to be in the Navy or in the military, then I think the second best is Navy Federal.
But also remind me, I need to introduce you to my dad, because he would definitely move to Alaska if he had the choice. He's actually going on a fishing trip next month. He does this like big fishing trip in Alaska with all of his friends, and they just, I don't know, fish for like 10 days, and he doesn't even eat fish, but has the best time. So we'll have to connect on that.
Yeah, two jobs. That's pretty amazing. And your former boss is very smart, because you are the perfect person for this role. Again, thank you for your service, and thank you for everything you're doing for the families.
So I know we talked a lot about Operation Homefront, a lot about how you got into Operation Homefront. What are the plans for the future for Operation Homefront?
ROBERT THOMAS: We want to be there for the military families in the areas where they need help. So we've got to be flexible. I think families are going to always need some financial assistance. I can't see the day when there's no longer a need for that program.
We do want to be there in the housing space for the reasons I talked about, because that housing is so critically important to every single issue you do. I mean, try to think of a situation where you can be successful if you don't have safe, stable housing. It just doesn't happen. So we want to be in the housing space.
We want to be there in the recurring family support space. Our two big programs are Back to School Brigade, where we give backpacks full of school supplies to military kids. Our big partner there is Dollar Tree. And we want to be there in the holiday meal space, where we give families a holiday meal. And in those recurring family support programs, we focus on our junior enlisted pay grades. So pay grades E1 to E6, because they have the smallest paychecks in the Department of Defense, they tend to have young children in the house.
And those programs are really financial relief programs in a lot of ways, because the families are going to make sure the kids have the school supplies they need, even if it means cutting back in other parts of the budget. So we want to be there for the families, give the kids a backpack full of school supplies, provide some financial relief to the families, and just say thank you for your service.
EMILY BIGHAM: That's amazing. I was able to participate in the holiday meals with Operation Homefront a few years ago, and it was such an amazing experience just to see the happy kids and the families, and everyone coming in, and just take advantage of all the little games and the different activities that you guys had. And then being able to leave, you know the parents are walking out with a full holiday meal, all the things you could possibly need. So everyone comes in, and everyone leaves happy. And it was a really fun activity.
ROBERT THOMAS: A funny story, well not a funny story, but the program started way back at Fort Drum, and there was an executive from Beam Centauri, the makers of Jim Beam whiskey. He was standing in line behind a young military spouse at the grocery store, a couple of small kids, trying to keep the kids under control checking out, and you know, you've been there before, all of a sudden, the total of all the food you bought is way more than you realized. And this young mom, she didn't have enough money in her checking account to cover it. And so the exec from Beam stepped up and said, you know, I'm going to take care of this for this family.
And then he took that back to the boardroom and said, hey, there are military families out there that are really struggling, and they want to do something special around the holidays, we've got to get more involved. And so that's how the program started. And traditionally, it started out around the Christmastime, New Year's time, and now it's really covering all 12 months of the year. And we try not to have all the programs in the fourth quarter, but we try to have some in the summer, some around Mother's Day, we had a big Mother's Day program this year. But we want the military families be able to enjoy something a little bit special at certain times of the year. And for many families, they just don't have the budget to do that. So it allows us to step in and give them a little something extra.
EMILY BIGHAM: Yeah, it's really nice. I had a good time at that holiday meals activity, and I'd like to keep-- I would like to do it next year and in the future. We're going to wrap up here in a little bit, I know that I've had a lot of your time, and I really appreciate you coming on. We've covered a lot here, you guys do a lot. And I just wanted to mention one more time that the best place to apply for assistance or to help Operation-- or to get involved and provide assistance to you guys is on your website operationhomefront.org. Are you on social media as well? Facebook, Instagram?
ROBERT THOMAS: We are. You can find all the links right on the website. Once you register for the first program, any of our programs, now you're in the system, so to speak. So now when you come back, let's say you register for the back to school program, when you come back to register for the holiday meals program, you're already in the system. So now it's just one or two mouse clicks away. So the website is the key to success. Just go to the website, get in the system, see how we can help you out. I mean, we always would like to do more, but like every nonprofit out there, you know, we have to live within our means, so to speak, but we do want to help as many people as we can, and the website is the key.
EMILY BIGHAM: Well, and again, to tie it back to Military Appreciation Month, thank you again for all the things that you're doing. We appreciate Operation Homefront and everything you're doing for the military. Is there anything else that you would like to touch on or cover before we wrap this up?
ROBERT THOMAS: Well, I'd just like to thank Navy Federal Credit Union, and they've been a partner with ours since 2015. For a long time, they've contributed directly to our critical financial assistance program, they've contributed to back to school, they contributed to holiday meals, they're one of our partners that make all the other things possible. So I just want to give credit where credit's due and thank Navy Federal for all they're doing for our military families through Operation Homefront and through their normal business operations every day.
EMILY BIGHAM: Wonderful. Thank you so much, and thank you so much for being on the podcast today, Bob. And I hope you have a wonderful Memorial Day weekend.
ROBERT THOMAS: All right, you too, Emily. Thank you for giving us the opportunity to tell everyone a little bit more about our programs, and we hope they apply so we can give the families the help they need.
EMILY BIGHAM: Absolutely. Take care.
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