Editors’ Blog

Back Home from Iraq with Tomas Young

Sunday, April 6th, 2008

By Michael Slenske

Body of Evidence

Tomas Young

” Talking to my ex-wife about my erectile issues, having my mom stick the catheter in—those are all very intense things to watch. But the more people see about my daily life the more they know: 1) not to make impetuous decisions; 2) this war has personal consequences and ramifications that aren’t shown on the nightly news. “

On April 4, 2004, just his fifth day in Sadr City, Tomas Young got called outside the wire on a security detail. Though the Missouri native had been raring to hunt down Osama Bin Laden in his Afghan cave after joining the Army in a post-9/11 rush of patriotism, Young was strongly opposed to his deployment in Iraq. “Going to Canada wasn’t as in vogue amongst dissenting soldiers at that time, so I transferred into a job in the company clerk’s position from the infantry line platoon. I thought I was going to put myself in the safest position possible,” says Young. “It was a horrible plan.”

While riding in the back of a crowded, open-top water truck through a throng of armed Iraqi protesters, Young was hit with two rounds from an AK-47—the first severed his spine; the second shattered his left knee. “The silver lining there is that it wasn’t the other way around—at least this way I lost all feeling before I got shot in the knee,” he says. After being medevac’d to Kuwait, then Germany, Young eventually ended up at Walter Reed Hospital, where he requested and received a visit from Ralph Nader. The then-presidential hopeful brought along his friend Phil Donahue, who was so impressed with the young soldier that he visited him a few months later at his home in Liberty. There the ex-talk show host asked Young if he could make a documentary about him. “We spent [the next] three years working on it,” says Donahue, who alongside co-director Ellen Spiro, took cameras into every aspect of Young’s life—from his wedding to his first foray into the anti-war movement with Iraq Veterans Against the War (during his honeymoon at Cindy Sheehan’s Camp Casey rally in Crawford, Texas) to his younger brother’s emotional send-off for his own tour in Iraq. “I guess fortunately for the film, the first two years following an injury is the most difficult transition time for a body after a new paralysis,” says Young. “Everyday there were new things and new encounters.”

The result is the overwhelming Body of War, which has torn through the festival circuit snagging awards and raves along the way. It even drew a rare round of tears from a pack of New York film critics during our screening. “If you make anyone cry, I guess you want it to be the critics,” joked Young, who sat down with SMITH for a recent interview in Manhattan, where the film will make its theatrical debut April 9, followed by a national release. “Hopefully this movie will get people involved so they will take action.”

You just came from The Today Show. Most war documentaries don’t get that kind of coverage. How do you feel about that?
I’m ecstatic—to a point. I’m happy that it’s getting all this coverage, but only if it works. If five million people see this film but none of them are moved to action, while it may be a commercial success and it may put money in peoples’ pockets, I’ll still consider it a flop. But if only five or ten people see it but if a majority of them do something to enact a change in their community—be it to stop the war or help veterans’ issues—then I’ll consider the movie a giant success.

You don’t seem like a guy moved to what you’ve called “an impetuous decision” to go to war. Were you that way when you were younger?
When I saw the President stand on top of the World Trade Center rubble and make his megaphone declaration I was moved in a way. Yeah, I’m normally not that type of guy, but I sat there like everybody else did on September 11 for that whole day watching the coverage. I’m sure there are a lot of people who weren’t that type of guy in December of 1941 when the Japanese attached Pearl Harbor, but yet they felt moved to act in that way because of events that just unfolded.

Was there any pressure within your family to join?
No, not at all. There was no pressure from my family to join or not to join. My mom was worried of course, as a mother would be, but she understood my reasoning.

Why did you want to participate in this film?
If I had been shot and paralyzed in Afghanistan there would be no Body of War. I wouldn’t be doing interviews or anything of that sort, but I was shot and paralyzed, I lost my ability to not only walk, I lost control of bowel and bladder function, I lost sexual function and all sorts of other things in a war that I considered unjust and unnecessary. There was no, as we’ve seen, connection to 9/11, no WMD. I want this film to serve as a counter recruitment tool. I want people to realize that yes, if they do plan to join the military they can wait until after January of 2009.

I also want the government to understand that they cannot engage in a prolonged occupation of Iraq and continue to keep my fellow soldiers, Marines, and sailors over there for a fifth, sixth time. That disrupts not only the military personnel themselves but also their families. In the movie I get married but I also go through a divorce. Divorce is one of the many unforeseen casualties of war. Thanks to this government you don’t see the coffins, but you see the amputees, the paraplegics that this war has created. I want them to realize that if they want to continue that occupation they’re going to have to draft soldiers because not enough people are feeling the sting and the sacrifice of this war. I don’t necessarily endorse a draft, but I do feel that’s the way you need to spurn the American populace into action to get this war ended.

We’re five years in now, did you think you’d be talking about this war in 2008?
I was only there about a week. The optimist in me had hoped that we wouldn’t, but I guess the more pragmatic or pessimistic side of my brain kept saying, “No things are gonna go on for a while out there.” You heard a lot of talk for a while about those of us in the anti-war movement emboldening the enemy with our anti-war statements, but what emboldens a country like Iraq more than seeing 160,000 troops descend on the country for reasons that end up being false? What emboldens an enemy more than hearing a song by the likes of Toby Keith reach such great heights and status that says, “We’ll stick a boot in your ass because it’s the American way”?

To make the film, cameras were there when you were sleeping, they were there in the bathroom, they were there when your mother’s inserting a catheter for you. Was there a process you had to go through to let them get that close up?
Initially, I was a bit mindful of the cameras, I wanted to watch my Ps and Qs but eventually it got to the point where it dawned on me that the more people see the day-to-day workings of my life—talking to my ex-wife about my erectile issues and my blood thinners—that’s very personal, heady stuff; having my mom stick the catheter in inside the van—these are all very intense things to watch, I’m sure, but the more people saw about my daily life the more they’d know: 1) not to make impetuous decisions; 2) this war has personal consequences and ramifications that aren’t shown on the nightly news.

In the film you had to wear ice packs and take rests because you couldn’t regulate your body temperature, are you having better success with that now?
Yeah, I am actually. I still have dizzy spells. I fell back in my wheelchair and cracked my head on the concrete a few months ago and since then I’ve had some trouble with focus and concentration and I fall asleep at inopportune times, but it’s been four years since the injury, and I’ve gotten much more adjusted to a daily cycle and things aren’t quite as tough anymore.

Your brother Nathan’s been in Iraq since the fall. How’s he doing?
He’s doing as good as can be expected. He’s on his second deployment right now. He’ll be coming home around December, he’ll be getting out of the Army shortly after that. He’s not at all interested in re-enlisting.

Really? It seems like there was a point in the film where you had two guys in the same family, in the same army, in the same war, with differing viewpoints of what is actually happening in that war? What’s that dynamic like?
That may be my brother’s first deployment. While he was on his first deployment a lot of his fellow soldiers were on their second, so their attitudes and perceptions may have become a bit more jaded. And now, on his second deployment, he understands that he’s there for self-preservation. He’s there to do what they tell him to do because that’s what he signed up for, whether he agrees with it or not. He’s to do as he’s told and come home. He’s not interested in going in and kicking in doors as much anymore. We’re finding that there are a lot of soldiers who are understanding this. The New York Times recently ran a front-page article of six soldiers with their emails back home, saying they were just there for self-preservation. They were worried about their buddy to the right and to the left of them but they were just there to get home safe.

Ralph Nader and Phil Donahue came to see you at Walter Reed. What was that like?
A bunch of doctors showed up to talk to Ralph Nader. I had trouble getting care before that, but that day I could have had cancer because there was an oncologist present, I could have been a pregnant woman because I think there was someone from obstetrics there, just to talk to Ralph Nader.

What’s been your overall experience with the VA?
Hit or miss. The VA staff is amazing. They do the best with what they can. Unfortunately, what they can do and what they get is lacking because we have veterans from Vietnam, Korea, the first Gulf War, even some from World War II that are still around and still need care, plus an influx of other soldiers. We have almost 29,000 people that are seriously injured. That doesn’t count the tens of thousands more that are kind of injured, who need psychiatric care, who are mentally injured. And that’s going to cost money. They’re estimating due to veterans costs this war will roughly cost between $3 and $4 trillion and that money needs to come from somewhere. The government will be quick to point out there has been increased VA spending but not enough, it’s still criminally under-funded. I’ll admit though right now my care at the VA has gotten pretty good. I don’t know if it’s because people are able to watch a documentary about me and my recovery or what.

Do you think that’s just the case for you personally?
I’ve been told by people in the VA that’s not the case, but I have been lied to by the VA before but as of right now they do not allow news cameras into their facilities. So my question would be if the care has gotten so substantially better across the board for all veterans and not just the ones who have documentaries coming out, why are they still unwilling to lift their veil of secrecy over the whole thing?

Do you feel there’s a vet’s candidate out there right now?
Well, it’s certainly not the current veteran candidate. I believe his voting record would show he’s the poorest in voting for veterans’ benefits. I can see where he wouldn’t understand veterans care because he’s on the Senate health plan, not going through the VA like a lot of other Vietnam vets have to do. At this point I would have to say Barack Obama is my candidate. Again, we’re going on election year promises, but he has pushed for better veterans’ care, he came through for those of us who were at Walter Reed and had to pay for our own meals and phone calls.

On the anti-war front you don’t really see a mass of people protesting like you did during Vietnam. What in your mind would or could change that?
A draft. Absolutely. Go back to World War II and we had war bonds, rations, we converted factories into places to make bombers and people felt the sting, added to the fact that we were attacked by a country and we attacked that country back. We didn’t go after China because they looked sort of similar to the Japanese so we had a great deal of patriotism. In Vietnam we had a draft because we had a very unpopular war. That draft angered people so they took to the streets, 50,000-plus American soldiers were drafted, saw what they saw and decided not to fight.

There’s no draft. We have five percent of the population serving in the armed forces, and .5 percent of the American population serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those numbers are not just bad or reprehensible they’re criminal. What you have is an overwhelming majority of American citizens opposing the war but that involves taking a phone call, going, “Oh yeah, I don’t like the war” and hanging up and that’s the end of your day. Or you see a bunch of yellow ribbon magnets that say, “Support Our Troops.” That involves a $3.99 investment at a gas station, but hey you did your part. Not enough people are feeling the sting and sacrifice to really want to get involved. This year you have three percent of the news cycle devoted to Iraq down from 15 percent in 2007, people are tuning out, and as that’s happening it can only be bad for business if the American people aren’t interested and involved.

How long will you stay on this tack?
Until I start to see some changes enacted. I do have a desire to just go back to being one of the people in the middle and just getting by living my life because being an antiwar activist in this day and age is pretty frustrating. You work so hard and don’t see any of your thoughts and ideas come to fruition; to do it with the things I go through on a daily basis—just to get out of bed and get through the day—it’s tough. So the answer to the question is: however long it takes to get something positive done.

Michael Slenske’s last Back Home From Iraq piece was an interview with Cpl Jacob Schick, featured in HBO’s Alive Day Memories.

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19 responses

  1. Donna Moreau says:

    I am so apalled by what Tomas has had to, and, will continue to have to, go through…..because he is a patriot. I want to be one of many, I pray, to help end this war. I, unfortunately, do not know how. Can someone, anyone, please help me, so I can help Tomas with his intentions. Any information would be appreciated. Thank you in advance, and I Pray for God’s blessings over you!

  2. rose says:

    Dear Donna,
    I saw a screening of Body of War in Chicago. Phil Donahue was there to present the film and to answer questions afterward. Many people asked the same question, “What can I do?” The answer is really quite simple. Do something. Join a local group that supports veterans (Iraq Veterans Against the War), protest the war, join a local chapter of moveon.org, just one of many groups you can find online that will be more than happy to have your participation. Write your representatives in congress. There’s something that everyone can do. The point is to make our voices heard, to stop this illegal occuaption, to bring our troops home and to take back our country.

  3. Carol Alexander says:

    I just viewed Body of War yesterday–I have been against the war long before it began. On 9/11 I spent the whole day in prayer–to be a voice of the reconciling word–because it was clear that the wrong people would be blamed for what happened on that day.

    Thanks to Tomas Young — and Phil Donahue and all who made this powerful film a reality — it is so necessary that the United States gets on the right track and stops trying to eradicate instead of facilitate and negotiate. And this film states a truth about war that must be heard in order to stop the lunacy of war. War is obsolete–and it is time to create peaceful solutions to the world’s problems.

  4. dawn says:

    I just watched your movie after a very long two days of heartache. You made me realize that though I am homeless, hungry, tired, and pissed, I’m still ok. I have always supported our troops though I didn’t agree with the war. Your movie has moved me in ways I cannot describe. I sincerely wish I could meet you face to face, you are my hero.

  5. James Crook says:

    what is iraq like?

  6. James Crook says:

    Tomas my addres is J_Crook_ 93@ live.com

  7. Nor says:

    I have always been against the war. I finally saw Body of War when it ran on the Sundance Channel, and I am agonized at what happened to Tomas. I completely support our veterans and don’t think they have been treated as well as they all deserve. I am hopeful that our new President-elect will find a way to end the war in Iraq, but I intend to write and do all I can to have veterans get all the care and benefits they need, since we will have more of them in Afghanistan. At least (and I still don’t like it) they have an actual purpose there, not just to support a president who wanted to be a ‘war president’ for his legacy. Which is in the toilet now, and I for one hope it stays there forever.

  8. Peggy says:

    I just had the honor of watching this fantatsic documentary via the sundance channel. I’m extremely upset that I had not heard of this film until stumbling across it myself. I have sent everyone, on my address list, an e-mail insisting they sit down and watch this. I cried, smiled, felt guilty and pissed all in a matter of an hour and half. Even though, I have to admit, I am not an anti war activist, I truly respect the view of someone who has been there and deserves for their opinion to be heard. My heart breaks that a veteran, in this day and age, is NOT given a priority in health care, employment, education, etc. So many family and friends are working minimum paying jobs and have no health insurance after making the sacrifice of serving this country, shame on us! I work for a county welfare office and hand out benefits on a daily basis to un-deserving citizens…Americans or not! God help us.

  9. Adrian Hauberg says:

    Hey Tomas, what’s up man. Just got through watching the documentary. Thank you for helping me see your side of things. I am not “for” war anywhere any time however, unfortunately in the world we live in today, it is hard to avoid. I just want you to know that we Americans support you and your comrades who have served our country with great honor. I am not a war vet and probably never will be. Instead, I choose to exercise the freedom that you helped to share with the people of Iraq. I understand your disagreement with the “reasons” in which we went to Iraq however, I ask you to keep in mind that you have played a part in securing a great possibility for so many other people (humans) to have an opportunity and freedom to make decisions as that tough decision you made September 13 2001. That in it’s self may not be enough for you to justify your sacrifice, however, I do believe it is enough for you to have peace in knowing that you did the best you could because you knew then what you still know to this very day, you did what you thought was right for this country, and that my friend is the essence of nobleness. My thoughts and prayers are with you and our troops still serving.

    God Bless America

    Sincerely,

    Adrian G. Hauberg

  10. Jan A says:

    Dear Tomas:

    I know you were very sick for a while there. How are you doing now?
    My admiration for you and your mom is huge. I know I am angry about the war . . . but had I lost as much as you have after being deliberately misled by idealogues who still have all their limbs and their pacemakers, I would be too angry and hurt to speak out. Thank you and your mom for allowing us to see your pain without flinching. And thank you both for doing so in such a calm, deliberative way without self-pity and with great dignity.

    Hang in there, Tomas. We need patriots like you in this country.

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  12. Buck R. says:

    Dear Tomas,

    i have a very basic question. When you joined the army, for what reasons ever, did you never occur the thought of beeing shot, getting killed or cribbled for life? An army is for going to war,meaning to kill enemy soldiers. Of course they will shoot back! WTF? I say you willingly took the risk - and you lost. How american society (including the army) deals with the war and you in the aftermath is a completely different question. You should try to prevent young dummsters from making the same mistake you did, instead of moralizing about the goverment or the state our nation is in.

  13. Lori says:

    I thought about responding to folk who think like Buck R. You wonder if it will do a bit of good. If it is just to assuage my own ego. You wonder if they have ever served. If they have ever read history. If they know anything other than what they are spoon fed. You wonder if the good lil Nazi’s thought the same. If, as their children were being taken into the military, they even batted an eye. You wonder.

    My sister was pro Bush. Pro war. Pro America’s-version-of-democracy. But, when I asked her why she didn’t send her daughter into the military (even the airforce) to support a war that her president authorized, she said, “She might get hurt.”

    As if to say that other people’s children are okay to hurt…but not her own. My own sister is an elitist. Ugh.

    Buck R. I joined the ARMY too. I joined it knowing they would shoot back. No WTF. But…when you give your life or have it shattered from top to bottom, you have a right to scrutinize the reason behind those injuries. I am sure that if Tomas could find a reason to be proud…he would be…of every agony. But, he isn’t willing to be a poster hero…and that is his right as a man. A man. He who learns from mistakes. A dummster. One who does not protect and rally behind him in doing so.

  14. peculiarchiro says:

    Dear Tomas, Thank you for your service to our country first of all. I find the treatment of the VA in your situation disheartening and disgusting. Like you said the army is all about getting you to enlist but could give a rats ass about you after you are injured. I admire you and pray for peace to find you. I have written a song dedicated to you and would very much like to send it to you. I have hopes of raising money with this song to donate to wounded vets such as yourself. Please help in anyway that you can. My warmest regards to you and don’t stop fighting for what you believe in everyday. You make a difference. I was very touched by body of war and it is reflected in my song. God bless you and your family sir.

  15. The Old Man says:

    Although his writing skills leave something to be desired, Buck’s point should be viewed as an attempt to keep others from the proverbial “slippery slope”. Witness…
    After the tragedy of 9/11, I too wanted to rush over and dole out some whipass on those responsible. Problem is… I was too old. Just as Tomas’ parents are opposed politically, so it was in my own household - my wife the Liberal. Every nightly news broadcast seemed to spark confrontation, as she would lament “those poor boys” and curse the administration for trying to confuse the masses about Saddam’s “innocence” for 9/11 and his dis-association with terrorism and its adherents.
    My argument was that extremism - Muslim or otherwise - was (and still IS) a threat to the safety of the United States. The tactics used by Saddam against his own populace since 1979 is the true face of despicability, and demonstrated his own lack of compunction in using terrorist methods. The complete snubbing of UN mandate since 1994 was especially indicative of his laissez-faire attitude in compliance with world law. His possession of WMDs — the supposed “reason” that we went to oust him — were not a secret. The UN has a list of such weapons possessed by nations all over the world, and they have protocols for the safe storage and handling of such weapons. After waving the white flag in 1991, Hussein acquiesced to the UN for inspection and compliance with procedures that would provide a degree of safety for Iraq’s neighbors.
    In 1994, Saddam began his systematic drama, serving to escalate suspicion, and creating a sense of distrust within the world community. Rather than submit to proper international diplomacy, he chose instead to thumb his nose at UN sanctions and at the Resolutions passed to restrict his ability to wage war unprovoked (as he did in 1984 and again in 1990). He was a menace needing removed.
    In Spring of 2006, Congress passed a law increasing the age of military induction. I just passed the cut and hurried to join. This, coincidentally, after having served in the Navy in 1983-1984. It took several months to get all the documents and waivers in order, and not only did I go in as a lower enlisted soldier, but I joined in a combat arms branch… 19D. All through my training, there were many who doubted the “old man”, but it was clear to all that no one was going to tell THIS 40-something that he couldn’t do it.
    My unit happened to be part of the surge of 20,000 charged with quelling the sectarian violence wracking the Sunni Triangle (and the sporadic attacks near Baghdad’s Green Zone). Though not injured, I got to experience my own share of what it was like there. It is easy to see why Tomas would be inclined to speak out against the seeming injustices he feels he has been subjected to. I happen to know a few troops injured while serving, and my wife got to help with some of their rehab while working as a nurse as the Darnall Medical Hospital at Fort Hood. What a refreshing note that the injured soldiers I know are not weapy over their condition however, and are not full of self pity because they came back different…
    After watching Body of War, it was immediately apparent to me that this young fella probably would NOT have this bitterness had he came back whole. This “questioning” of the government’s motives is really sour grapes. I much preferred the attitude of his father and brother, and wish I could have been able to hear more about THEIR views and THEIR reactions to what Tomas and his mother are portraying. Undoubtedly our government tells us what it wants to tell us, true or not, yet even still there are young men and women (and some not-so-young) that are filling the ranks. Still, those that have deployed… and maybe deployed a couple of times… are staying in and returning overseas to do the nastiest of jobs. Tomas’ mother says he wanted to go to school (on the GI Bill, no doubt) and travel abroad. Did he think it was an all-expense paid travel package? It’s WAR dude, there ARE consequences and risks! Want to get your education? Ok… then quit feeling sorry for yourself and showing pride in being savvy about the drugs you are imbibing (bet the morphine was really kicking in when while speaking at that church). Going around the country trying to drum up support for anti-war sentiment is old hat and demeaning to those soldiers who sacrificed as Tomas. It denegrates the bravery of those that know what lies ahead - particularly now that there is no secret misinformation or misleading statements before Congress or the UN Security Council. I honor those who DO NOT feel sorry for themselves, pretending to be innocent little children who should have been told that they might get hurt, and that they would have come home fine if they “hadn’t been lied to”. BS.
    I certainly feel some sorrow for his family, especially his wife. There are always two sides, and I am sure that she was not perfect, yet the movie showed no evidence whatsoever that she did ANYTHING BUT support her man. Instead of chain-smoking cigarettes, and seeking the well-wishes of bleeding-hearts who are identifying with him as their own “lost child”, maybe Tomas could have put a bit more effort into being a better man. By now, 5 years later, he could have had a college degree and be pursuing a better life with a supportive wife and mother. Instead, he will dissolve into the landscape of bitter veterans who would rather draw attention to themselves with “woe is me” behavior in order to justify their unhappiness.

    Kevin Harrelson
    15-month Iraqi veteran (2007-2009)
    Son, Brother, Father, Grand-father
    Columbia, Missouri

  16. Jon says:

    The Old Man hit the nail square on the head.

  17. The Old Man says:

    Thanks Jon. I have been coming back to this site periodically to see what responses might appear from my little “speech”, and have been rather disgruntled that none were forthcoming.

    I lament Tomas’ injuries as I lament ALL injured servicemen and women, but I cannot and WILL NOT stand idly by and let the misfortunes of one become a rallying call to the woes of all who have been injured or killed in service to their country. This cagey piece of propoganda so cleverly disguised as a documentary showed me exactly the kind of attitude that has created the malaise currently afflicting our great nation. There is a reason — after all — why those that fought in WW II were known as the greatest generation.

    If we are going to heap a load of sympathy on injured vets, why not start with those of Vietnam and Korea? They were DRAFTED to do their jobs, not volunteers, and they were not told the whole story either. Our leaders had hidden agendas in those wars also, and what were the paybacks for our troops? “Forgotten” (as Korea is often called), while being demonstrated against, called “baby-killer”, and spit on when they arrived back in the US. (My own father, incidentally, being one that got THAT sort of treatment and “thanks” for HIS service.) Speaking out against our government’s involvement in foreign affairs is our right as US citizens, but assuming such a stance after the fact — particularly when deciding to be a part of that policy — is selfish and quite Un-American.

    “Being a man”, as Lori claims, surely means learning from mistakes. I’ll give her that. But to imply that such a statement applies to Tomas on equal terms with some other who has embraced their sacrifices with their chin up, and without looking for pity, is purely asinine. Entitlement to have your education funded and opportunities to travel abroad is NOT what military service is about. To point fingers when things don’t turn out as planned is childish and does not agree with the word “Honor”, nor does it go very far in determining one’s worth as “a man”.

    It is unfortunate that today’s “microwave” generation so unabashedly displays this sense of entitlement. Military service (and dare I say, SACRIFICE) is for ensuring that ALL of our fellow citizens are able to pursue the opportunities to prosper and enjoy life and liberty. An injured veteran is most valued for displaying qualities of giving without the guarantee of getting anything in return (other than the security of our American freedoms). When the day has come that all injured veterans and their loved ones behave as Tomas and his mother, I fear for the sanctity of our American doctrine of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

  18. dave says:

    hi tom
    just finished watchin your film and i was touched.i know our goverment is corrupt and i don’t trust none of them and due to alot of money and power ,there is nothing we can do.The good news is God loves you more than you can imagine.I urge you to,not to protest but forgive them and find the peace that God has to offer.God will be our vengence.Other than the bible ,there is good book that explains how to find Gods peace,titled/The Purpose Drivin Life. i pray you read this
    sincerely /with love
    Dave

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