British Blinded Veterans To Join American Counterparts At Annual California Memorial Golf Event

Five blinded American veterans and three British Army war-blinded comrades will share rehabilitation experiences that tell the story of their personal adjustment to blindness at the Major Charles R. Soltes, Jr. O.D. 11th Memorial Charitable Golf event October 12 in Irvine, California.

The group will then join dozens of other golfers registered for the annual competition at the Oak Creek Golf Club, site of the day’s activities.

Range practice and competition begins at 11 a.m., followed by lunch and a full tournament round, a silent auction, a live auction, and an evening awards program. Proceeds of the event go to the Blinded Veterans Association’s (BVA) Operation Peer Support and Project Gemini initiatives.

Major Charles Robert (Rob) Soltes, Jr., O.D. served as a Public Health Commander with the 426th Civil Affairs Battalion, U.S. Army Reserves, in Mosul, Iraq, with the critical mission of assessing and restoring medical infrastructure to improve the lives of ordinary Iraqi citizens. On October 13, 2004, his convoy was attacked by a vehicle-borne Improvised Explosive Device (IED) that resulted in his offering of the ultimate sacrifice for his country. Dr. Soltes was the first optometrist killed in action while on active duty in the United States Army.

During the course of the day veterans and other golfer attendee donors will honor Soltes’ memory by furthering his personal desire to help veterans. Members of his family, friends, and colleagues will also be present.

BVA shares in the spirit and passion of helping fellow veterans, in particular blinded veterans, through its Operation Peer Support and Project Gemini initiatives.

Operation Peer Support, begun in 2006, brings together veterans of recent conflicts with those who have lost their sight during the Vietnam, Korea, and World War II eras. The objective of the program is to provide veterans who have lost their sight most recently with opportunities to interact with men and women who can, as a result of their experience, serve as natural role models and mentors.

Project Gemini, an outgrowth of Operation Peer Support, brings together veterans and service members from the U.S. and the United Kingdom, heightens public awareness within the two countries of the issues facing veterans with vision loss, resulting in improvements in services, vision research, and benefits for both them and their families. Project Gemini is highlighted by a weeklong exchange in England every year in early June.

Veterans participating in the golf event are Operation Iraqi Freedom vets Lieutenant Brian “Ski” Dornaski, First Sergeant Daniel Wallace, and Specialist Steve Baskis. President BVA Dale Stamper, blinded in the Vietnam War, and Major Tom Zampieri (Ret.), a legally blind veteran himself and member of the BVA National Board of Directors, will accompany the veterans.

The UK Army veterans include Corporal Billy Drinkwater and Ken Facal both injured together in Afghanistan in 2011 by an IED blast, and Gunny Colin Williamson, injured in Northern Ireland.

Blind Veterans UK, formerly St. Dunstan’s, is the British national charity for visually impaired ex-servicemen and women. Tracing its founding back to 1915 during World War I, the organization now offers free and comprehensive support to all UK blinded veterans and this year commemorates its 100th anniversary. BVA’s earliest beginnings occurred March 28, 1945 when a group of World War II blinded servicemen convened in a formal meeting at Avon Old Farms Convalescent Hospital near Avon, Connecticut, for the purpose of establishing the Association to represent blinded veterans and their caregivers.

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Retirement Announcement Brings BVA Praise of Augusto AFB Leadership

The Blinded Veterans Association (BVA) today recognized the 25 years of leadership and service to people with disabilities provided by Carl R. Augusto, who this week announced his retirement from the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), effective in the spring of 2016 to ensure a smooth transition for his successor.

“The effective partnership that BVA has continued to enjoy with AFB over the years is due not only to Carl’s remarkable leadership and dedication but his willingness to place veterans with vision loss and their families among his highest priorities and greatest concerns,” said BVA Executive Director Al Avina. “We are forever grateful for his service and wish him the very best in both his final months at the AFB helm and in his upcoming retirement.”

Augusto joined AFB in 1991. During his tenure he has become a longtime champion of people with disabilities and a pre-eminent leader in the field of blindness. Under his leadership, AFB has made significant strides in helping to level the playing field for people with vision loss, especially in the areas of public policy, advocacy, education, technology, aging, and employment. His contributions have helped improve the quality of life and access to services for blinded veterans.

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BLINDED VETERANS ANNOUNCE NEWLY ELECTED DISTRICT DIRECTORS

Members of the Blinded Veterans Association (BVA) residing in Districts 1 and 2 have elected fellow blinded veterans Dennis O’ Connell of Long Beach, New York, and David Fox of Dayton, Ohio, to national office as Directors of their two respective districts. As such, the two become voting members of the Association’s National Board of Directors.

O’Connell and Fox will officially assume their duties following a swearing-in ceremony August 16 at the BVA 70th National Convention in Louisville, Kentucky. O’Connell succeeds David VanLoan of Moosup, Connecticut, in District 1 while Fox replaces Freddie Edwards of Indianapolis, Indiana, in District 2.

A member of BVA’s New York Regional Group, O’Connell is a Navy veteran who served during the Vietnam era. He joined BVA in 1987. Since then, he has served his regional group as president two different times, as the regional group newsletter editor continuously since 1996, and as the current treasurer.

O’Connell has served as a national representative for BVA on VA initiatives and committees and has been a regular participant in VA-sponsored sports and fitness events. He was appointed by two New York State governors to consecutive terms on the State Rehabilitation Council. He attended VA residential Blind Rehabilitation Training and Computer Access Training in at the Eastern Blind Rehabilitation Center in West Haven, Connecticut, in the early 1990s.

An Air Force retiree and later a retiree from Civil Service after 29 years, Fox has been a member of BVA since the late 1990s. He is a member of the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana (O-K-I) Regional Group, having served as its sergeant-at-arms, chaplain, and secretary. For the last three years Fox has served as the group’s president. He is also a past commander for a local post of AMVETS.

More recently, Fox has volunteered at the Dayton VA Medical Center and works closely with the low-vision clinic staff there. He attended Blind Rehabilitation Training at the Central Blind Rehabilitation Center at Hines, Illinois, and at the recently inaugurated Cleveland Rehabilitation Center. He attended a BVA leadership training program in Kansas City, Missouri, in 2006. Fox began losing his sight at age 25, a challenge that he asserts became less complex after discovering the support system that BVA provided to him.

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New BVA Membership Application!

BVA has updated and re-designed our membership application to be more accurate and easier to use. Below you can find the application in a variety of formats: .PDF, a modern Word document, and an old-format Word document. If you have any questions about this application, please email us at bva@bva.org, or call 1-800-669-7079.

BVA Membership Application PDF

BVA Membership Application Word 97-2003

BVA Membership Application Word 2010

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Upcoming Changes to the Field Service Program

The Field Service Program is entering a period of transition to increase efficiency of services provided to blinded veterans.  The Blinded Veterans Association is creating a Field Service Program Resource Center to be a one stop shop for services provided by BVA.  The new FSP Resource Center will feature a dedicated toll free number which any blind veteran across the nation can call and receive services from any BVA National Field Service Officer regardless of where they live.  This will streamline services and provide consistency to all veterans.

Starting September 01, 2015 all Field service calls will be routed through the new Field Service Program Resource Center.  As part of this transformation, all of BVA’s National Field service Regional Offices will be relocating to the new Field Service Program Resource Center.  All Volunteer Offices will remain open.  The new Field Service Program Resource Center will be located in BVA Headquarters at 125 N West Street, Alexandria VA. To ensure all veterans have access, the toll free number 844-250-5180 is active and will be temporarily routed through the Headquarters receptionist until the resource opens.

As Volunteer National Service Officers (VSNO) are a valuable asset to the FSP program, BVA will begin offering VNSO specific Training at conventions starting August 2016.  The new VNSO specific training will be dedicated to provide training and support to VNSO’s whom are accredited with BVA and dedicating 1000 hours annually to help veterans with claims.

BVA Field Service Resource Center

125 N. West St, 3rd Floor

Alexandria, VA 22314

Phone: 844-250-5180 (Toll Free)

Fax: 202-371-8258

Email: fieldservice@bva.org

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BVA SEEKS CANDIDATES FOR GOVERNMENT RELATIONS DIRECTOR

Applicants Sought for immediate opening. BVA is looking for a self-directed and highly effective veteran to fill an immediate opening for a full-time position in our DC office. The Director of Government Relations will be a major part of BVA’s advocacy presence in Washington, DC and engages media on relevant Veteran Affairs (VA) and blindness issues.

Duties and responsibilities include but are not limited to the following:

Review federal laws, programs, and policies concerning individuals with disabilities.

Advise and assist in the development, administration, coordination, and execution of plans, policies, resolutions, and BVA procedures.

Participate in rulemaking and other activities in partnership with various federal agencies.

Possess a broad knowledge of, and serve as a key communicator of, BVA policies and programs and is a link between BVA, Congress, and other veterans’ and military service organizations.

Develop legislative initiatives, coordinate sponsors and co-sponsors of bills introduced in congress and educate BVA officers and membership on the status of legislation, regulations, and policy development.

Qualifications:

  • Disabled veteran preference, some experience in advocacy, communications, working on Capitol Hill, or with/within the federal government, or in a related field.
  • Strong writing skills.
  • Blinded or visually impaired war veteran strongly preferred.
  • Excellent organization and leadership skills, ability to work on multiple tasks under pressure and tight deadlines
  • Ability to plan and execute successfully with limited oversight.
  • Commitment to the goals of BVA and able to communicate those effectively.
  • A background with public speaking and media experience are a plus.
  • Ability to travel

BVA is an equal opportunity employer.

Send the resume & cover letter by postal mail or email to:
Blinded Veterans Association
Attention: Mr. Al Avina
125 N. West St, 3rd Floor
Alexandria, VA 22314

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Staff Emergency Physician Honors Fallen Friend by Dedicating Ironman Participation to Blinded Veterans

Dr. Robert Chen, a Staff Emergency Physician at the Carolinas Medical Center and a partner of Cabarrus Emergency Medicine Associates, will run, swim, and ride his bicycle in the renowned 140-mile Cairns, Australia, Ironman triathlon on June 14.

A retired U.S. Air Force Officer and a longtime avid runner, Dr. Chen is dedicating his efforts in memory of his close friend, U.S. Army Major Charles Robert (Rob) Soltes, O.D., the first Army optometrist to lose his life in action in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Major Soltes was killed by a vehicle-borne Improvised Explosive Device in northeastern Mosul in October 2004.

As an additional motivation for his Ironman challenge, Dr. Chen has already donated $1,400 to the Operation Peer Support initiative of the Blinded Veterans Association (BVA), a commitment of $10 for each mile. He challenges all interested parties to commit any possible amount per mile for the 140 miles he plans to complete.

The “Chen Challenge” seeks to heighten public awareness of the issues facing vision loss by supporting BVA’s efforts to assist newly blinded veterans. The organization began Operation Peer Support in 2006, bringing together veterans of recent conflicts who have lost their sight during the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts with those of the Vietnam, Korea, and World War II eras.

“Physical and emotional isolation can be a huge issue for those who have only recently lost their eyesight,” said BVA Director of District 6 Dr. Tom Zampieri, who has provided much of the impetus for Operation Peer Support during the past nine years. “Opportunities to connect with and mentor those who have faced these obstacles and overcome them, both at our conventions and in other settings, have brought some wonderfully positive results.”

Dr. Chen has been training for the Cairns Ironman for 18 months. He swam 2.5 miles on a lake two times during the past two weeks and within four days he completed two rides of more than 100 miles each.

Headquartered in Alexandria, Virginia, BVA is an educational, charitable nonprofit (501c3) organization. The tax identification number for BVA is 530214281. The Association’s earliest beginnings occurred March 28, 1945 when a group of World War II blinded servicemen convened in a formal meeting at Avon Old Farms U.S. Army Convalescent Hospital near Avon, Connecticut, for the purpose of establishing an organization that would advocate on behalf of veterans who had lost their sight.

For more information about the Chen challenge or to make a pledge to support Dr. Chen, see the online flyer provided by the accompanying link or visit www.soltesmemorial.com.

A second event, also made possible by a close friend of Major Soltes and his family, will simultaneously honor the Army optometrist while helping blinded veterans in a fashion similar to that of the Chen Challenge. Tom Clarke of Irvine, California, annually organizes the Major Rob Soltes Memorial Golf Tournament. The event, to be held this year on October 12 in Irvine, also donates proceeds to Operation Peer Support. For more information about the Soltes Memorial Golf Tournament, call 949-438-0140 or again visit www.soltesmemorial.com.

Chen Challenge Flyer

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Intense BVA Week in Nation’s Capital Culminates in Wreath Laying

Flanked by the traditional guided assistance provided by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, BVA Executive Director Al Avina, National Field Service Director Ed Eckroth, and National Field Service Training Coordinator Wade Davis marched forward in unison toward Arlington National Cemetery’s Tomb of the Unknowns as they presented the Blinded Veterans Association’s wreath on May 25.

National Service Officer and Training Coordinator Wade Davis, left, and Field Service Director Ed Eckroth represented BVA in the Parade of Colors at the beginning of the amphitheater ceremony. Ed carried the U.S. flag in the procession while Wade marched with the BVA flag.

National Service Officer and Training Coordinator Wade Davis, left, and Field Service Director Ed Eckroth represented BVA in the Parade of Colors at the beginning of the amphitheater ceremony. Ed carried the U.S. flag in the procession while Wade marched with the BVA flag.

The Memorial Day event joined BVA with dozens of other service organizations with similarly decorated floral wreaths honoring men and women who have defended the United States in uniform and have ultimately given their last full measure of devotion as they gave of their lives in service.

The wreath laying followed the 147th annual Memorial Day Observance at the Cemetery, which for several decades has occurred in the Memorial Amphitheater situated immediately behind the Tomb of the Unknowns. The solemn observance ceremony featured a Memorial Day address by President Barack Obama and remarks by Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey. Musical selections were provided by the United States Marine Band.

As part of the ceremony, President Obama also laid a wreath at the Tomb prior to his address as dozens from his official party and heads of military and veterans organizations, including Al Avina, looked on.

“So on this day, we honor the sacrifice of the thousands of American service members—men and women—who gave their lives since 9/11, including more than 2,200 American patriots who made the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan,” he said as he referred to this Memorial Day as the first in 14 years that the United States was not involved in a major ground operation.

VFW Escort begins walk toward Tomb of the Unknowns with Wade Davis, Al Avina, and Ed Eckroth.

VFW Escort begins walk toward Tomb of the Unknowns with Wade Davis, Al Avina, and Ed Eckroth.

Al and Ed Eckroth were also invited guests at a White House breakfast hosted by the President immediately prior to the events at the cemetery.

Memorial Day in the Nation’s Capital fell just five days after BVA’s annual oral testimony before a joint session of the House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, hosted this year on the Senate side. Although National President Mark Cornell had remained in town five additional days following the midwinter Board meetings to represent the Association in the originally scheduled hearing March 5, a debilitating snowstorm postponed the hearing for more than 2½ months and Mark was forced to return to his native San Antonio, Texas, unable to deliver the testimony.

Busy with some of his own rehab training at the Biloxi, Mississippi, Blind Rehabilitation Center, Mark was unable to return in May to present the testimony. Director of Government Relations Glenn Minney filled in for him at the witness table on a Washington Day that could easily be labeled as the polar opposite of that of March 5. Not a cloud was visible in the sky as the BVA contingency reached the Senate Office Building. The high temperature for the day was 75 degrees.

Glenn Minney with Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Staff Director Eric Hannel.

Glenn Minney with Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Staff Director Eric Hannel.

Glenn shared his time in a panel format with the leaders of the Paralyzed Veterans of America, AMVETS, Military Officers Association of America, Military Order of the Purple Heart, Vietnam Veterans of America, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and the Non Commissioned Officers Association. He had only five minutes to present BVA’s most important legislative priorities and then take questions from members of the Committee.

“With my limited time before the Committees, we decided to emphasize our Beneficiary Travel bills (H.R. 288 and S. 171), our petition that VA websites become compliant with Section 508 of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the need for VA to begin implementation of the already legislated scholarship program to employ additional blind rehabilitation specialists,” Glenn said following the hearing. “I think it was a productive presentation as we put forth our major concerns as succinctly as possible in the time we had available.”

Glenn sets for presentation, now just moments away.

Glenn sets for presentation, now just moments away.

Other BVA priorities were presented in a document submitted for the Congressional record. They include lack of progress with the Vision Center of Excellence, the need for Information Accessibility Officers to help blinded veterans access Veterans Health Administration and Veterans Benefits Administration documents and websites, research funding in the area of battlefield eye injuries, and general funding for VA Blind Rehabilitation Service programs. Both the written document and a video of the hearing can be accessed at http://www.veterans.senate.gov/hearings/joint-hearing-multivso052013.

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Blind Veterans UK To Host American Veterans in England

Four Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) combat blinded American veterans will share knowledge, insights, and friendship with their British army war-blinded comrades in England May 30-June 7, 2015.

The seven-day exchange, now popularly known as Project Gemini, will be based at the Blind Veterans UK Brighton Centre outside London. Five members of Blinded Veterans UK and two South African war-blinded veterans will also join this year’s annual exchange.

Project Gemini, initiated in May 2011 and named for the transatlantic cable that connects the United States and the United Kingdom, is a joint initiative between the nonprofit organizations Blinded Veterans Association (BVA), headquartered in Alexandria, Virginia, and Blind Veterans UK. The initiative seeks to heighten public awareness within the two countries of the issues facing veterans with vision loss, resulting in improvements in services and benefits for both them and their families. This year’s international airfare from Washington Dulles International Airport to London Heathrow International was donated by British Airways.

Project Gemini’s original purpose was the sharing of vision rehabilitation information among the veterans themselves. The educational scope of the program later widened to include visits and training sessions with officials of the Department of Defense, Department of Veterans Affairs, and the National Alliance for Eye and Vision Research.

The 2015 exchange will again address the similarities and differences in vision research and the rehabilitation training programs offered to veterans within each of the three countries represented. Adaptive technology and sports for the blind will also be discussed and put to practical use during the week.

Other highlights are a tour of the Blind Veterans UK rehabilitation center, blind archery, and blind bowling competition. Visits to the Brighton Royal Pavilion, Hastings Castle, the Imperial War Museum, and other nearby sites will also be included. On June 4 the group will tour London, the focus of which will be a special Buckingham Palace Garden reception commemorating the 100th anniversary of Blind Veterans UK. That evening the group will meet the renowned Wellington Guards and share an official “mess” dinner.

During the exchange, both groups of veterans will also share helpful hints about coping with blindness and the “war stories” that are part of their personal adjustment to blindness and subsequent rehabilitation. OIF participants are Army Staff Sergeant Jason Pepper, Army Sergeant Adam Rowland, Staff Sergeant Aaron Hale, and Marine Corporal Chris Rader. Major Tom Zampieri (Ret.), a legally blind veteran himself and member of the BVA National Board of Directors, will accompany the veterans as trip coordinator. BVA National President and Air Force veteran Mark Cornell of San Antonio, Texas, will also make the trip and experience Project Gemini for the first time.

Project Gemini is an outgrowth of Operation Peer Support, a BVA program begun in 2006 that brings together veterans of recent conflicts with those who have lost their sight during the Vietnam, Korea, and World War II eras. The objective of the program is to provide veterans who have lost their sight most recently with opportunities to interact with men and women who can, as a result of their experience, serve as natural role models and mentors.

Blind Veterans UK, formerly St. Dunstan’s, is the British national charity for visually impaired ex-servicemen and women. Tracing its founding back to 1915 during World War I, the organization now offers free and comprehensive support to all UK blinded veterans.

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Blinded Veterans Revitalize at Georgia Ranger Training Camp

Five members of the Blinded Veterans Association with unusually high levels of strength, stamina, endurance, and perhaps even some extra doses of courage left over from their days in the military recently participated in a long weekend of rigorous U.S. Army Mountain Ranger training.

The site of the training, held April 22-26, was Camp Frank D. Merrill Military Base in Dahlonega, Georgia, located in the northern part of the state. The base is the general meeting point for the 5th Ranger Training Battalion and a school for rangers.

With travel sponsored by BVA and the idea brought to fruition by the Association’s National Sergeant-At-Arms Danny Wallace of Union, Missouri, the trip to Camp Merrill and the subsequent training to be an Army Ranger was for the blinded veterans much like it is for actual ranger trainee recruits.

“We displayed our unstoppable drive not only to ourselves but to the elite U.S. Army Rangers,” Danny declared as the five-day experience came to an end.

Danny was accompanied in the training, conducted by his fellow rangers and overseen by the U.S. Army Mountain Ranger Association, by veterans who were injured in combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan within the last ten years: Steve Baskis of Veronia, Wisconsin; Lonnie Bedwell of Dugger, Indiana; Aaron Hale of Santa Rosa Beach, Florida; and Michael Malarsie of South Jordan, Utah.

Blinded veteran Lonnie Bedwell, already known in BVA circles for his kayaking exploits in the Grand Canyon, scales synthetic rock wall during Army Ranger training April 24. The group performed mountaineering feats at both the camp and at nearby Mount Yonah in the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest of northern Georgia.

Blinded veteran Lonnie Bedwell, already known in BVA circles for his kayaking exploits in the Grand Canyon, scales synthetic rock wall during Army Ranger training April 24. The group performed mountaineering feats at both the camp and at nearby Mount Yonah in the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest of northern Georgia.

Activities consisted of mountaineering training that included hiking up a rock-strewn trail toward cliffs they would later climb and repel. At the cliffs the Ranger cadre and instructors set up eight climbing stations at which each trainee could prove himself on the vertical rock. The instructors assisted them in tying knots and ascending the rock face. Later in the day they moved back to a base camp and climbed a synthetic rock wall and performed additional repelling.

“The trip to Camp Merrill was truly amazing and something I will never forget,” said Steve Baskis. “I felt an overwhelming sense of pride for the chance to work again with fellow comrades who served in the same war as I did.”

The five ranger trainees also conducted both a 5K and a 15K run. In addition, they were invited to the Gainesville, Georgia Police Department, where they shot live fire using shotguns, assault rifles, and pistols.

The act of participating in physical fitness, recreation, and sports can be a great recovery tool,” said Steve. “Communication skills, confidence, trust, and independence are only a few attributes that can be gained and refined by participating in a program like this.”

Steve’s comments were echoed by Michael Malarsie, who also lauded the program and overall experience.

“When I retired from the military, I assumed I’d miss the people I served with and all of the exciting things I was able to do, but I had didn’t expect to miss it as much as I do,” he said. “Being at Ranger Camp was a boost and a reminder of the things I love.”

Michael was as emphatic about his associations with fellow comrades as he was about the activities themselves.

“Not only was the rappelling, rock climbing, and shooting an absolute blast but the chance to spend so much time with people just like me was revitalizing,” he said. “I made amazing new friends and we’re already planning to meet up later this year—can’t thank enough BVA and the rangers for making this opportunity happen and for letting me be a part of it.”

In addition to the rigorous physical activity, the veterans were treated to a barbecue, a fish fry, and a critter cookout in the evenings.

“When I’ve heard about ranger training in the past, I’ve heard about a lack of food,” Steve joked. “In this case food was in high abundance with a store even across the street so there was no way we were going to be allowed to starve!”

The experience was sufficiently memorable and impactful that the veterans urged BVA to make its support an annual occurrence.

“I’m motivated and excited to get back to normal life and take it head on!” stressed Michael. “I sincerely hope this sort of event starts become a regular one on the BVA calendar.”

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