Military Bratology
December 30, 2009 7:05 PM   Subscribe

Military Brat Filter: Explain a military brat childhood to someone who grew up in a touchy-feely liberal household that never moved once. I’m looking for either long-form articles or personal stories. How often did you move? What were the things you learned? Did you have coping mechanisms? What were the bases like? How has it affected you as an adult?

I’ve just started dating a bona fide military brat who has lived all over the world (Osan, Izmir, Taif, Aviano, etc), and her stories have tickled my interest. I’ll definitely ask my new lady many questions if dating pans out, but in the meantime my curiosity must be sated and I fear she'll be scared off if I spend the whole date grilling her. She says the Air Force bases were dreadfully anonymous and boring, and that her schooling was mainly meant to instill a sense of American-ness in kids who had few roots in the motherland. She declines to be associated with Third Culture Kids because, in her experience, children of military parents didn't engage much with the host country.

I'd love to hear accounts, minor details, anything you've got. Apologies if this sounds stalk-y. I like this woman and all, but I'm really more interested in a culture I know nothing about.
posted by anonymous to Society & Culture (20 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
You HAVE to buy and watch the documentary BRATS: Our Journey Home. My mom is a military brat (as are her siblings) and we heard a lot of stories growing up. My mom attends brats reunions and stuff and reads newsletters emailed by brats organizations. I definitely did not "get it" until I saw this wonderful documentary, and when I did, it really explained a lot of values and ideas and emotional landscapes that I inherited along with my family. I can't recommend it highly enough for giving a succinct and powerful description of the good and bad in the brat experience, and how it shapes people's families and worldview.
posted by Miko at 7:11 PM on December 30, 2009

I know two British women who attended US Department of Defense schools in Izmir, Turkey. Their parents had them go to this school because of its English-language instruction, which was (correctly) viewed as giving them an entree into American/British colleges that one could not have if one had a Turkish-language education.
posted by dfriedman at 7:20 PM on December 30, 2009

My father is a Marine. We moved every 3-5 years (one tour overseas). He retired when I was in middle school (and we moved right after that, too). The moves were hard- I spent many nights crying, missing the old place with the old friends. And then, as I made new friends and built a new life, the pain lessened. I learned that anyone can reinvent themselves, if you give it enough time. I can't imagine having lived in the same place all my life. I would hear friends talk about "that time so-and-so did that awful thing back when they were 12", and I would laugh to myself, knowing that my terrible growing up stories were safe from my current social circle.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 7:33 PM on December 30, 2009 [3 favorites]

I was a military brat (Navy), but we never went overseas. I guess having five kids prevented that or something, I dunno. We did, however, travel all over the US of A. Anyway, Mom divorced Dad when we were about nine and married stepdad (another Navy man) when we were eleven. I think moving hit my sibs harder than it hit me.

I still move around every 2 years or so. My mom says that I have itchy feet. My sibs on the other hand, they stay put. I like moving; it's exciting to see what the next town will hold. The only downside is that I have to leave friends behind 'cause they won't fit in my trunk. However, in this day and age, it's easier to stay in touch than it was in years past.

I guess my military brat childhood is what led to my "live in the now" worldview. I never get attached to any place, or anything really, because I realized very young that nothing lasts for long and crying over spilled milk won't get me anywhere.
posted by patheral at 7:46 PM on December 30, 2009

Guy and I are both children of officers, and we had extremely different childhoods. So I would be extremely cautious trying to understand your girlfriend from some "military kid" template. In my experience, which in addition to my own childhood (Dad retired from active duty the year I graduated from college) includes lifelong friendships with other kids whose parents served, there really isn't much of a common theme. In fact, I don't even know anyone who refers to himself as a "BRAT" or uses jargon or grew up conservative or Republican because Dad was in the military. I would suggest you talk to her about her experiences and draw your conclusions about her nature from that--not from approaching her like a specimen from an alien culture. I knew kids my whole life who treated me that way, and I spent as little time as possible with them. I've never met an adult who approached the "culture" of my childhood as anything other than you would approach the "culture" of a person raised by parents different than your own.

I could tell you what aspects of my personality I attribute to growing up moving every other year, but that's me: not your girl. My advice: drop this "help me understand my special lady's alien culture" and just get to know her. You may be very sincere, but you sound condescending to me.

FWIW: Dad was USAF and I disagree about 200% with this statement "Air Force bases were dreadfully anonymous and boring, and that her schooling was mainly meant to instill a sense of American-ness in kids who had few roots in the motherland", although I went to high school stateside. Guy, who went to high school in the American schools abroad, disagrees that children of military parents did not engage with the host country, as do I, although--as noted--I went to a US high school. Personally, I found bases fascinating, each with an interesting story, each with individual architecture, and was often shocked by how much freedom we had, running around the bases, compared to the experiences of kids I knew in neighborhoods off-base.
posted by crush-onastick at 7:50 PM on December 30, 2009 [4 favorites]

Seconding The Pink Superhero's comment about moving after retirement. Even when servicemembers leave the military, the habit of moving, established early in adulthood/marriage seems to frequently stick around.

Something else to keep in mind: military life is somewhat different in different eras. The Army in the 1980's, for instance had fewer deployments than it does today.
posted by Jahaza at 7:50 PM on December 30, 2009

My dad was in the Army growing up. I don't consider myself an Army "brat" since he wasn't an officer. The Officer's kids were the real brats.

We usually moved every 2-3 years, although once it was only a year between moves. My mom had a saying "Home is where the Army sends you." I was never a shy kid, but I had to learn to be very out going. The first day at a new school if nobody asked me to sit with them at lunch I'd just pick a person from my class and ask to sit at their table. I always went to American schools, and from what I can tell they were pretty much like any school in the states. I lived in Germany, so we were given German lessons. Most elementary schools stateside didn't offer language courses. Field trips were way better.

My mom was thrilled to be in Europe, and we were poor but we took advantage of the travel opportunities. I went to more places before I was 8 than most people get to in their whole lifetime. Except the Iron Curtain countries. My dad had a security clearance so we had to stay away from those places. There seemed to be two kinds of families, the ones who stayed on base and kept to the American stuff, and the ones who went off base and explored. The ones who explored usually had a better experience. Yes, Army Posts and Air Force Bases are incredibly bland and one pretty much looks like the next.

I was also introduced to more minorities than I would have been in the States. My school was a pretty even mix of White, Hispanic, African American, and Asian. In fact there were more mixed race kids than any other. I think that taught me early that even though we may look different we're pretty much the same underneath.

When we lived overseas it was actually easier than living stateside. There were a lot of stereotypes about military families in the States. My parents were actually told by one group that they (my parents) would be invited to social events, but that the group wouldn't consider them friends because "You'll just move away." Going to a school that had mostly military kids was easier because at my stateside schools people had been friends since Kindergarten and didn't necessarily want to include new people in their groups.

I spent a lot of the 80's in Germany, and we only got one channel in English. It was the Armed Forces Network, and the only commercials it showed were military in nature. I was almost nine before I remember seeing a commercial for Cheerios. There was a lot of Pop Culture stuff that I had to learn when I got back to the States. There was a movie theater on base, but it took a long time for new releases to get to us. Kids who came from the States would tell us about a great movie and then six months later we'd get to see it.

If you have any more questions, you can memail me.
posted by TooFewShoes at 7:51 PM on December 30, 2009 [2 favorites]

Some of the things my mom and dad point out as results of growing up in a military family are listed below. I didn't experience most of these directly but, because my grandparents were also career Army and because we did a lot of stuff on base with them, did observe them and participate to some degree growing up. We moved a lot when I was a kid, even after my father was discharged, in part because my parents were so used to moving from their own experiences and thought little of it, so some of the part about social bonds is also familiar to me.

-an ethic of duty, service, pervading everything you do. Both of my parents still approach most moral problems from a service ethic: "what's best for all, how can I help, what's my part to do"
-a more progressive and meritocratic attitude toward race/ethnicity than civilian peers of the same age; emphasis on fairness and earning one's station
-moving frequently, with all that implies - learning to forge new bonds more quickly, learning to make one's own way socially, regretting/fearing the loss of friends, working hard to maintain social bonds across distance
-profound awareness that one's actions in the environment of the base reflected on one's entire family and the adults' professional prospects in a way that is not common in civilian life. Self-consciousness in the whole family about presenting well and working as a team.
-marking the year in a series of patriotic ritual observances and military traditions not always shared with civilians; having events like base holiday dinners and parties for religious holidays, as well as celebrating patriotic holidays with more wreath-laying and gun salutes than picnics and beach outings
-spending most of one's time with other kids in military families who also lived on base: scouts, schools, church youth groups, recreation programs, swimming lessons, music lessons, etc - all on base. Most of daily life conducted within base environment
-awareness of respective rank of peer children and their parents
-emphasis on structure and discipline. And not to overstate this, but there's a definitestrain of interfamily stress (due to the obvious - moving a lot, need to put on a good front for reasons of promotion) needing to be suppressed, and the kinds of difficulties that arise from suppressed stress: strict family rules and roles, sometimes alcoholism, sometimes abuse.
-fear and uncertainty, especially in wartime when parents were in combat areas.
posted by Miko at 8:09 PM on December 30, 2009

I came in here to recommend the same documentary that Miko did in her first comment, so do check out the site she linked to, because it gives a bit of an overview of the topics discussed in the film, which may be helpful to you as well.

But as you can see from the comments already made, military dependents' experiences are as varied as any other sampling of people you might happen to group together. While we can share common themes we've encountered in our lives, there's no telling if your ladyfriend will have had those similar experiences. Good luck!
posted by shannonm at 8:57 PM on December 30, 2009

Thirding the Kris Kristofferson movie. Though he talks mostly to kids who were about 5-10 years older than my years as a "brat," a lot of the themes rang true to me.

We moved a lot, every three years. From 4th grade to Junior year of high school I was in a different school each year which was due in part to how the school systems worked where we were living at those times. My facebook friends kind of crack me up -- little pods of friends all connected by just a couple years at a time. Sometimes I get confused about who knows who.

I lived both on base and off. I have very fond memories of living on base. It's a great place for kids - very safe, with some built-in recreation and most of the other kids know where you're coming from so you're not an "outsider."

Very multicultural environment. My friends when I lived on base were every color from all kinds of backgrounds with the common thread of military life and uncertain trajectories.

My family also was very into interacting with the local culture and so we traveled a lot and I had a ton of wonderful travel experiences before I even graduated high school. When I went to college on the West coast, my parents were still stationed in England. That kind of distance wasn't really a big deal.

As a young child, I spoke fluent German though I don't remember much now. I got lost on the Vatican square. We went through Checkpoint Charlie. I bartered for Russian military coats on the train between Moscow and St. Petersburg. I played in abandoned bunkers. I wore a huge hoop skirt and gave tours of Mississippi antebellum homes. I sat in my cousin's jet – he was a Blue Angel. Right after 9/11, when fighter jets were scrambling over Portland, I realized that I missed the sound of jets a lot.

It can be both a rich and lonely experience. It's tough on families. I also get the itch to move but it's really waned. I still love to travel. I'm really sad I won't be able to do the same kind of travel with my future family.

Do a search for "You know you're a military brat when...." in google. You'll find plenty of lists that are kind of funny though not everyone will check off every single one.
posted by amanda at 10:01 PM on December 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

I was a Navy brat. I went to ten different schools before the 4th grade. I'm just sharing my experience, which obviously is different for each person. I do feel it affected my adulthood in several ways. First of all, I don't have or want many friends. I think this is a defense mechanism from moving all the time and having to leave friends behind. I also moved house every two or three years until I finally settled in my 40s. The house I live in now is the longest I ever lived in one place. Conversely, even though I moved from house to house, I stayed in the same town because I wanted my own kids to grow up in one place. Even though my dad retired when I was in the 7th grade and we moved back to his hometown, I always felt like an outsider in high school.

I just thought a lot of these things we just my own personality until one day I incidently fell to chatting with a young man who turned out to be a Navy recruiter. When I told him I had been a Navy brat, he told me that he bet he could describe my personality, which he preceeded to do with an astonishing degree of accuracy. He said that there has been quite a bit of research on how growing up in the service affected your personality. I have no idea what research he was referencing, but you may be able to locate some online.
posted by tamitang at 10:39 PM on December 30, 2009

I'm a military brat (my dad served 20 years in the Navy), though I never lived overseas. We moved four times when I was growing up, which actually isn't that much but it still sucked. Frequent moving makes it very difficult to maintain long-lasting friendships.

But the worst part about it was my dad spent most of his time away from us, serving on aircraft carriers, until I was about 10 years old. Then it was like having a stranger in the house. I feel like I was raised by a single mom. I still have a strained relationship with him, don't know much about him. I'm much closer with my mom and it's kind of awkward interacting with both of them.

My dad's been through a lot of shit for this country so it makes me really appreciate those who serve in the military, even though I strongly disagree with, for example, the war in Iraq. My dad is a workaholic, still works 50 hours a week despite being retired military, and I think his value of hard work has influenced me too. He also has a strong sense of duty to others, particularly his family, which I really admire.

My family is all agnostic/atheist liberals, so there's no zealous, gun-toting, flag-waving, conservative-stereotype patriotism going on. I actually feel very uncomfortable in the extremely conservative state I happen to live in at the moment and I never like having to go on base.

Despite the bad things, I feel privileged to be a military brat. We never had to worry about medical expenses or unemployment, or other things that many families have to deal with at some point, because of military benefits. So in that sense I guess I've been insulated from the world until my adult life.

But as others have said, individual military brats' experiences vary tremendously and it won't necessarily help you understand your girlfriend. I'm sure she has many interesting things to say that will be a lot different from any answers you get on Metafilter.
posted by Lobster Garden at 10:46 PM on December 30, 2009

Maybe things have changed, but her experiences as you describe them aren't normal or standard USAF-brat experiences. Turkey and Korea are/were generally unaccompanied assignments. I wonder if her sense that military families didn't have much to do with the host countries has to do with her being on sort of oddball assignments, instead of being sent to the UK or Germany.

Military family experiences vary strongly between the services, and vary even more strongly between families. There is no single military brat experience. For example, probably most of the military brats I know were never stationed outside the US at all. Also for example, most of the things Miko lists seem very alien to me.

I moved about ten times before I was 18, during almost all of which my mom was married to a couple of USAF types. DC, Florida, Spangdahlem AB, Zweibrucken AB, Florida, Phoenix, Luke AFB, Hahn AB, Ramstein AB, MacDill AB / Brandon, then current-dad retired and we moved to Gainesville.

I have some fond memories of different places, but I'd usually describe the moving as "scarring," but then I am an introvert. The extroverts seem to do a lot better. Even moving every 18 months to two years doesn't tell the whole story, because when you're on base everyone else is moving every couple-three years and so you have a friend for a few months to a year and then, odds are, someone moves. To this day -- I turn 40 this weekend -- I find it extremely difficult to stay in touch with people from my past, since for so long when I or they moved it meant I was never going to see them again, so move on. And, contrary to others, I don't want to ever move again. Well, I wouldn't mind moving to a wee spread in the country around here, but the next house I get I want to get moved out of horizontally.

I'd agree that on the one hand, life on base is generally safe and affords kids some freedom, but I don't know how much of the difference I see between my childhood and other people's is growing up mostly on USAF installations versus growing up in the 70s and 80s.

I would also agree that bases tend to be anonymous and dull. Contrary to crushonastick's experiences, my own experiences of life on base boils down to "Everything was built out of cinder blocks between 1950 and 1960, and everything is basic and functional." But that's because most of the bases I was sent to really were that way, and even Luke seemed to have mostly sprung up post-Cold War. Unless you're on a base adjacent to a major city, then life on base is pretty much life on base, and the only difference between being in some rural part of the US or another rural part of the US or Germany is the weather. You're still going to get your food at the commissary, you're still going to do almost all your shopping at the BX, you're still going to get your books from the Stars and Stripes, etc.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:49 PM on December 30, 2009

Off to War: Voices of Soldiers' Children' by Deborah Ellis is a great introduction to military bratdom. It tells the stories of military kids from the US, Canada and Australia.
posted by embrangled at 2:51 AM on December 31, 2009

Funny to read all these comments about moving around -- today I was just mentioning to my sister that I have been living in my present house longer than I had in any other in my life -- seven years (and I am 59 years old). Brat-habits are deep.

I would add one thing (perhaps in relation to tamitang's comment about 'brat personality'): forging relationships is pretty challenging for brats. We had to introduce ourselves to new groups and 'form and norm' quickly. But (as in my case) we were aware that the new friends would (quickly) disappear. Real deep connections were rare. For instance, I now know no one who knew me as a child (other than my immediate family).

In effect, brats are often seen as precocious and outspoken (and extroverted), when, in fact, they are just adhering to their pattern of quick, smooth social integration -- often at the expense of real connection. A friend once pointed this out to me when I was in college, "You treat people you meet like you will never see them again." It took me years to figure out why this bothered her.
posted by Surfurrus at 3:50 AM on December 31, 2009

My father was in the service (USAF). Grandfather and uncle were in the Navy (subs for grandpa during WW2, Koreans for my uncle).

What were the bases like?
We've always lived off-base, and the times I went on-base were extremely rare. After the AF, he worked at a NASA sub-contractor, then moved on to related nav/gyro equipment in the private sector (all military contracts). I don't actually have any recollection of ever seeing my father's office. Like, his real desk with papers on it and a phone and, I'm guessing, a computer. None. Too many badges required that I didn't have.

How often did you move?
Well, I was born in Texas (Lackland AFB), lived there for a few years, then moved to Tampa, FL (McGill AFB). We stayed in FL until well-after my father had already moved on to the private sector. So, not much traveling actually. It's always been my general understanding that it's the Navy guys that are the ones that really get to/have to move around. Dad was in cryptography, so no way were they gonna send him anywhere.

What were the things you learned?
The big one, the one that "gets" people the most, and the one that would always instantly take people aback when they heard it when I was a kid:

Yes, Sir.
Yes, Ma'am.

Always. Never "yeah" or "uh-huh" or "nah" or other variation. In all other respects it was normal. I called my mom, "Mom" and my dad, "Dad." But when answering a question or responding to a command, I always had to append a Sir and Ma'am to the Yes or No.

I learned nearly fuck-all about the work my father's done. I know only that it required extremely high clearance levels (Q) and that there aren't too many things that require that kind of level. Everything else has been fairly deliberately kept from me, my mother and anyone else my father cares about.

How has it affected you as an adult?
Hasn't, really. At least, not that I can recognize.

Did you have coping mechanisms?
I always thought it was pretty cool, actually.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:09 AM on December 31, 2009

My dad was an enlisted man in the USAF.

What were the bases like?

For me, growing up on military bases provided a Norman Rockwell-esque childhood. Given that the base was surrounded by barbed wire and the entrances were guarded, I think we had a lot more freedom than our peers in civilian life. I certainly had way more freedom than my kids get! As young as 5 or 6 I simply went "out" with a promise to be home in time for lunch or dinner. My mother didn't know exactly where I was, other than somewhere on base, and she wasn't worried. I also got to tour Europe as a kid, and spend my final two years on a South Pacific island. Life definately could have been worse growing up.

How often did you move?
If you want me to be very specific...

Born in NY.
Moved to Germany at age 1
Moved to Montana at 2.
Moved to Mississippi at 3
Moved to NH at 4.
Moved to Spain at 5.
Moved to Indiana at 8
Moved to FL at 10
Moved to Utah at 14
Moved to Massachusetts for 8 weeks while we waited for housing to open out overseas.
Moved to the Marshall Islands at 15 and graduated high school there.

What were the things you learned?

One thing military kids deal with that our civilian counterparts don't is the fear that bad grades or getting into trouble on base will negatively impact their father's career. I suspect that angle was exaggerated by our parents, but we all thought getting into trouble at school could get our father called into the Colonel's office.

How has it affected you as an adult?
I don't think it's had any real significant affect on me.

Did you have coping mechanisms?

I'm not sure what I'm supposed to coping from? I moved a lot as a kid and got to see some cool parts of the world that most people don't. It wasn't like it was torture or something.

As several others have alluded to, I think you are way over thinking this. Kids are kids. Kids are bouncy. They adapt. Moving every two years doesn't screw most of us up. My wife moved around just as much as I did as her dad climbed the corporate ladder. Nobody ever asks her how it impacted her life. For the most part, the military stuff does not impact kids. We were just kids with a pretty damn good life growing up.
posted by COD at 6:24 AM on December 31, 2009

Ih, I don't know, COD. I think a lot of people says it affected them pretty significantly. However, that varies with the kids' personality, their experiences at various assignments and how their families coped with it as well. I think if I had not had the last two years of my high school in England, I'd be quite bitter about the life of a military brat. I went from public and private schools in the deep South with serious high school cliques to a DoDS school run by the government where we were all brats. Suddenly, there were no real cliques. I was popular enough but it wasn't integral to my high school experience like it would have been back in the states.

I was old enough to really travel on my own and I learned to drink like a grownup in the local pubs. I had a great experience there and it remains one of my richest life experiences. I don't think I would look back so fondly if I had graduated in Mississippi.

I do agree that kids are far more resilient than we give them credit for. The most important thing is still a stable family life. However, the military life does tax families and I wouldn't say that all military families are stable. The hierarchy and rigid structure helps hold people together but it's not always in the most humane way.
posted by amanda at 8:04 AM on December 31, 2009

My father served in the Army Air Corps and later the USAF for 32 years. He retired in the mid-1970s when I was a teenager. My experiences, and those of my brothers and sisters, will be different from that of the girl you're interested in. In fact, my experiences are different from my siblings, in that they were older and had the opportunity to spend most of the 1950s growing up in a couple SAC bases in Northern California, while my childhood was marked by moving every couple of years.

After my Dad left SAC, we kept going back to San Antonio, first as a tour at Kelly AFB, later staying there when he was on unaccompanied tour at Osan AFB, Korea, and later when my parents chose to return to SA to stay when he retired. With, at one time, five USAF bases including Lackland AFB (where most basic training takes place) I always think of SA as the Air Force's hometown, as well as my own. My brothers and sisters, however, did not live there as long as I did nor do they have the experience of really "growing up" there. I'm relating this to illustrate how much each person's story will really be different, even within the same family.

Otherwise, we moved every 2-3 years. Sometimes we lived on base, sometimes off base. We were overseas in Japan and Guam, and many places stateside.

On personality and coping and how it affects you as an adult, again, it really varies. One of my brothers is now an expat and is always moving and traveling. Others of my family have tended to settle in one place in adulthood, although three of us actually joined the military, too, for at least a few years. Some of us are very outgoing; others, myself included, tend to be more introverted and detached.

My bottom line is I agree with crush-onastick: Don't focus too much on the "military brat culture" and focus more your own special lady. Her experience will be different from mine, and different from the other people who respond in this thread.
posted by Robert Angelo at 8:18 AM on December 31, 2009

Marine Corps brat here...

How often did you move?
I moved once every 2-3 years, which is pretty typical. My family stayed in the US through the conscious efforts of my parents, and we lived in California, Georgia, Hawaii, Maryland, and Virginia.

What were the things you learned?
I'm not sure that I learned anything unusual from being a military brat. When I was a kid my Dad would bring grenade pins and spent brass home as cheap toys (you could get away with this back then), but I can't say that the experience was otherwise much different than normal childhood. Unlike the experience of some of the other comments, toys were all my dad ever brought home with him from work; he wasn't really strict and there were no 'yes sirs' or any of that sort of thing when I was a kid.

Did you have coping mechanisms?
I didn't find the experience terribly traumatic. My siblings and I probably grew up a lot closer than most and didn't fight too much because we didn't have other long-term friends. I really enjoyed moving, and still get restless if I live in one place for too long. I think the only real difference was that we didn't see much of the extended family until we moved to the East Coast, and I have a lot of relatives whose names I can't ever remember.

What were the bases like?
Late 80s early 90s base housing was pretty crappy, especially in Hawaii. Buggy, metal roofing, that sort of thing. On the other hand, you have free or low-cost access to gyms and swimming pools on base. There were probably a lot more military-related activities for kids on base-stuff like Young Marines and JROTC-but I wouldn't say that the base culture is much different from the rest of the US. For people who grew up on military bases overseas, things may be a bit different.

How has it affected you as an adult?
As I mentioned before, I do still like to move around a lot. As other posters have noted, long-term effects depend on the individual and family. I, my brother and sister, and the vast majority of our cousins, uncles, and grandparents served in the military--I looked at it as a respectable profession that got me out of our parent's house and into the real world. Since being in the military was one of the things that most of my family had in common and they talked about it a lot, it seems pretty natural that these things pass on from generation to generation. Not all families on base were like this, and a lot of my friends had no intention of ever joining up.
posted by _cave at 2:19 PM on January 20, 2010

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