Monday, January 31, 2005

Election Day, Iraq

Election Day, Iraq Woke up to two loud booms followed by a bunker call each. A little smoke rising the city. And it looked like one of our guard towers had a fire or a BBQ going in it, but it was just smoking out a window. Helicopters are often seen cruising the border wire or heading out into the city. Despite all that early this morning, it has been 5 very quiet hours so far, the day half through now.
I had a special skateboard shipped over to me here in Iraq. It has 6 inch wheels instead of 2 in wheels to smooth the gravel and cracks. Riding it to church today brought many a stare. Probably the only skateboard on an army base in Iraq. I passed one older gentlemen, obviously of local descent. He stuck one finger in the air and smilingly said, with thick Arabic accent, “That is a very smart thing!” They seem faintly amused by what must be eccentric Americanisms to them. Actually, the Americans seemed amused too. Actually, I was amused, that’s why I got it.
OK, it is now past 4pm, it appears the election turn out has exceeded expectations. And it still is a very quiet day and is almost done. The nay-sayers appear to have been wrong--AGAIN! They have almost a perfect record going. Shows you why Faith is stronger than fear. I pray the day will end as well as it has begun. So on this quiet day, I have found a very cool website, I think you will really love it if you go to this website and in the first part of the second paragraph, click on the “interactive slide show with photos.” You will really dig it! Little 60’s lingo there. Anyway, the very last slide you will see some Iraqi children putting on new shoes. They go out even in this winter weather without because they simply have none. The link is:

http://www.iraqischools.com/

Ok, that is the latest. Sorry for the barrage of emails, but it’s a significant time and place in history. There are two pics below, the first is the helicopters I saw this morning watching over the city. Some Election Protection, if you will. It has been quiet since. The second is the funny guy that went through the base earlier today on his way to church. Even though near empty on base, the church meeting was well attended.
The lesson I prepared was on Joseph Smith, being the right man at the right place at the right time. I suggested that we play a part in God’s Plan too and that I believed they were here in Iraq now, the right men at the right time at the right place. (no sisters in that meeting today) Me? I’m just here to watch ‘em do their thing and have a good time! Go good guys!
This is Ernie, skateboarding, I mean, REPORTING from Iraq.

pic Posted by Hello

pic Posted by Hello

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Great Success!

Please read this article, and check out the great pictures!

http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,145825,00.html

You are probably reading these letters in reverse order, but you might as well know the ending. The polls have closed, the election appears to have been a great success!! The people of Iraq were brave, un-intimidated, and excited, even dancing in the streets. The article above catches several moving scenarios from the day's events. The pictures tell great stories as well. Quick, before the negative versions come out! Ernie

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Boom! Boom! Boom!

Now I get it. Every now and then over the last few weeks the boys inside the wire here would fire a mortar-like flare out over the city. I thought it was target practice and there was probably someone out there telling them how close they got.
But then tonight, it’s one right after the other. Yes, it is Election Eve. And let me tell you that those things are LOUD. It just dawned on me, after the 5th or 6th room-shaking BOOM-shaking that those flares are “keeping the lights on” over the city, probably over polling places.
Today I notice the turrets on the HumVees going out the gate and TWO weapons on them--I have never seen that before. We could see smoke coming out of one part of the city. Harsh days. Dang! Those BOOMs really grab you! Your skin just jumps and you remind yourself that it is out-going. I will probably be able to stay awake as I “study” the scriptures tonight, but sleep may not be equally facilitated by the fireworks.
Dodge-ball was cancelled because no teams showed up. The internet café is closed until further notice because there is no one to man it. It seems every able body is out there doing double duty. All to make it as safe as possible for these people to have a simple vote. Americans dying and prepared to die for those of another race, another religion, to transfer the gift of self-rule, self-determination, and the torch of freedom. God bless this effort, is my hope and my prayer.
Yes, it is Saturday night here. Friday is the Sabbath here I think, as the stock market is closed but open on Sunday. This time tomorrow night, I hope the worst will be over. That will be Sunday morning for you. If Friday is the Sabbath, that would make Sunday kind of like Tuesday to us--the day we vote as well. Hmmm. Those Americans think everything has to be done their way. Right now, their way is BOOMing me (not) to sleep.
Ernie

Epiphany…

…at least, for me.
Attn: This has nothing to do with Iraq, it’s just a personal philosophical eruption and the heated gases are heading your way…duck out now if you will! I was at lunch staring at my peas, TV screen in thebackground, when suddenly it hit me. Religion and church are two different things. Now, stick with me here.
The TV had a rodeo on and the thought occurred to me, “I’ve been to a rodeo.” In Idaho. Nothing interesting so far. Then I remembered that they opened with the national anthem, and then (gasp!), TheCowboy’s Prayer. That’s what it was called, The Cowboy’s Prayer. In public. I thought it was cool.
Now there is all this talk of separation of Church and State being the law of the land, but I’m telling you, as I stared at those peas, I realized we have all been duped by the switching of the meaning of one word for another. Those two words, church and religion, seem the same but really are different things. I can’t believe it took me ten years to figure this out, some of you probably had this revelation years ago.
A church is a church, an organization; but religion is a practice, a freedom, a “Right“. The founders wanted to keep government from melding with an organized church, like say the Catholic church or the Protestant church, or to keep say, the Baptists from running the government. But never to keep RELIGION out of government. They thought the combination was good!
That’s why prayers open congress and were used to open the school day, and bibles are sworn upon in court. Yes, Churches are kept out, not religion. Don’t we still pledge to be “one nation, under God?” That’s why on coins, printed by the government, it says IN GOD WE TRUST. That’s why the Ten commandments are found in many court houses, including the Supreme Court. Because the Ten C‘s, along with being the foundation of law in America, are religious, but are not an institute of religion.
When a city has a memorial in the shape of a cross, it isn‘t because the Catholic Church has co-opted the city council. It’s because religion is allowed, even encouraged. Or used to be. I keep repeating it because it‘s so simple and I missed the conniving in the wording. But we bought the clever switch from those such as the ACLU. They say you can’t pray in school because of separation of church and state. Did you see the clever switch? Prayer at school isn‘t combining church and state, it is simply living one’s beliefs. I wanna bless the cafeteria food! I NEED to bless the cafeteria food, is that so wrong!?
No Church became one with the school. The wording is subtly, but irrefutably, different in meaning. Alas, the situation has already progressed to “the right not to be offended,” now also mysteriously found somewhere in the Constitution. Maybe I can outthink this one quicker…hmmm. Sorry! I just never saw it in that light before. You know how when you discover late in life something that everyone else caught on to when they were two? That would be me. So, why didn’t they catch that in the courts…???
Hopefully this won’t happen again. A long-winded,self-centered letter, I mean.
Ernie

pic Posted by Hello

This Weekend

This morning the whole warehouse shook and the explosion resonated like the echo of a sonic boom. Then we heard the heavy-caliber gun-fire, sporadic reports that also seemed to be close. Quite exciting. I wondered if a car-bomb made it to the gate. Upon inquiry, it appears the local Iraqi Police Headquarters outside may have been attacked. And at night, after the quietest three weeks ever, we finally got another mortar attack. Just one, so far.
In the news there was briefly the story of the capture of 4 of Al-Zarqawi’s lieutenants, but the story was spiked very quickly and I couldn’t find it again on the internet. The President of Iraq also had “no comment as of yet” on the rumors that Al-Zarqawi himself was captured. Seems Zarqawi was detained by the Iraqi National Guard near Fallujah but released because they didn’t recognize him. But the whole down-playing of such news is very interesting. Indeed, it should be a very interesting weekend.
After the big Boom this morning, the base has been closed off until after the election. That is, the nationals that come into work are not-allowed until next week. Since they do a lot of the trash, sewage work, and cleaning along with construction building, it may be a stinky week. We also had a bad batch of fuel last week and quite a few vehicles wouldn’t start, including our unit’s bus. Being mechanics, we were back up and going the next day, but it certainly is a different world over here.
It certainly will be an interesting weekend…

P.S. Since I wrote this email, different news articles finally appeared claiming anywhere from 3-6 of Zarqawi’s men have been arrested. I think as the insurgents become desperate to disrupt the election, they will take more and more chances, which will result in many of them being caught. So in a way, this is good. Also, an IED went off and just about totally demolished this HumVee. You may notice it was one of the up-armored. It burned after they got out so it looks even worse now, but it is true: All four soldiers escaped, some with busted eardrums, but that was the worst of it. I always like to hear about it when they walk away.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

The Old Man is Snoring...

I am so lucky to be in Iraq!!! Ok, technically, that is BLESSED to be here. Let me tell you why. First mention is the rain coming down steadily for a day and a half. So much water, I was afraid we would have to row to get to work. But somewhere early Sunday morning, the sound of the cascading pelting went to a whisper and at dawn's rays the sun shown down through the clouds. It occurred to me that it’s not that Iraq doesn’t get much water, it’s just that it comes all at once. If they had aqueducts and reservoirs…Anyway, today started out slow enough, even a tad late getting to church. Sacrament was good, then, in the break before Sunday School I burned a baptism picture-disk for the Group Leader before he had to split for work.
We were standing around waiting for someone to start Sunday School when it was ascertained that no one had been asked to teach. Then one soldier pointed and said “that guy was supposed to.” I looked around but it appeared the only one in range of that finger was…yours truly.
Every week random assignments were given out for the lesson and talks the following week and since I had given the lesson the week before, I was done. But today the soldier came up to me and said he asked the group leader who was teaching and the group leader identified myself (unbeknownst to me) and told him that “that guy is the Sunday School teacher.”
My favorite calling, can it be true? I’m glad it apparently is a calling now, I’m just curious when they planned on officially letting me know. But that is SMALL news compared to what I learned after church.
I talked to the very same soldier and I casually mentioned (ok, not so casually) that it sure has been quiet here for awhile. Out came the news,and I inquired and requested more and more info and I heard the COOLEST stuff. The following are paraphrases of what I learned from this guy and his buddy.
The guy shooting the mortars into the camp, sorry to say, was setting one up when it went off and blew him and the 2 guys with him…out of existence and therefore, out of business. The military followed another guy who was financing him back to a meeting and they arrested all six people there. Now the bad guys (apparently this is being financed from Iran)will probably eventually get in replacements, but it may be quiet for some time! That is so cool.
Then, last night in the heavy downpour I remember seeing the patrols go out and the guy in the turret with the gun was getting drenched. I felt so bad for all of these guys going out in the weather like that. Very cold and wet and wary. So I asked these guys after church today, what’s up with that? They go on patrols constantly.
The purpose? It gives a presence so the bad guys know they are there. It gives the people a presence so they know they are still protected. It gives the IP (Iraqi Police) security that they are backed up. Very cool. The good news? The military is on these patrols around the clock so that means around Iraq thousands of patrols over time. That much exposure and so few casualties? Amazing. In fact one of the guys said he feels totally safe outside the wire.
He told me about the people. He says the kids love the Americans, and they really like the kids. The kids always are waving and coming up to talk and they say most often, “Mister pen! Misterpen!” They are taught the address of respect is Mister and they love ball-point pens to write with. Love ‘em! The favorite two items are pens and chocolate or candy.
The soldier says he just loves interacting with the children and apparently they are taught English in the schools because one child wanted him to write his English essay for him. Interestingly, my friend also said that he loves the Iraqi people because they are so generous. When they go over to talk with the people they are invited(everyone sits on the floor with crossed legs) and the Iraqis spread all kinds of food in front of them, even though some are quite poor.
They meet in city council meetings with the Iraqis and meet with police officers. My friend also reports that the police chiefs and one in particular “is such a stud!” He says about this one in particular and many in general that they are intelligent, full of purpose and ideas, and I got the impression that they are indeed motivated to create a new Iraq. The military is teaching them government and leadership skills. The military also oversees, hires contractors, and secures the development of infrastructure, making Iraq better than it ever was.

I’m sorry my friends, but this is the BEST NEWS and Ifeel so lucky to be here and get the “real story.” I hope this is of value and interest to you to. Now this Kirkuk area is one of the most agreeable and safe major cities in Iraq and I know other places have varying degrees of this kind of success, but I know it is going on. The reports of death and violence you hear in the news would seem to dominate the environment here, but you can see with this kind of interaction and patrols and meetings and building going on that the casualties reported are so small inrelation to the exposure and development of the new Iraq that is going on.
This is an unusually long report comparatively, Iknow. If I could give you a picture instead of a thousand words, you know I would. But if you caught all or part of the President’s Inaugural Speech, you can see how that vision is trickling down to the ranks here and that the primary goal of the military is to train, build, and protect these people until they can support and defend themselves, a true sacrifice of mercy and service. Not to conquer or vanquish at all, really.
This is so contrary to the public image ofthe military that it surprises me. In retrospect,with the Tsunami catastrophe, for example, it was the U.S. military that was first on the scene with food and water. Before the red cross and before the UN was even done meeting about what to do. I think that we know that perfection is not found, but that we can still be proud of the good things America does.

In other news, the Camino Ward of the El Dorado stake,actually the primary, did a very cool thing. They sent 15 bags or so with bags of candy, tissues, and Ensigns inside for the LDS soldiers here. As you know, you may recall that we got a National Guard unit from Utah, Idaho, and Montana, hence having a large amount of Mormons. So their gift was right on target, I would say. I’m using some of the tissues now because my nose was running during the lesson. OK, better let you go now. Here is a pic of the front of the shop now. The last sign I made for the building apparently impressed the bosses so that they commanded me to make a bigger one. Then they made me hang it up. OK, I actually liked doing it. Maybe it is dangerous here in Iraq after all…I would tell you about our new Dodge-ball league and how we are doing, but that seems trite in light of the previous notes. Keep the faith.
Ernie

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Friday, January 21, 2005

Not Separated

WOW
Did you hear/see/read the President’s Inaugural speech??? Find it at:
http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2005/01/20050120-1.html
Many parts were actually inspiring. The President is a daily reader of the bible and I guess you can’t read the scriptures every day and not have something like this come out.
And how about this manifestation of Christianity:
“In America's ideal of freedom, the exercise of rights is ennobled by service, and mercy, and a heart for the weak. Liberty for all does not mean independence from one another. Our nation relies on men and women who look after a neighbor and surround the lost with love. Americans, at our best, value the life we see in one another, and must always remember that even the unwanted have worth. And our country must abandon all the habits of racism, because we cannot carry the message of freedom and the baggage of bigotry at the same time. “
I hope that has whetted your appetite and you will read the rest of the speech. In history American Presidents acknowledged heavy reliance on the hand of God, especially in times of war. Today it seems strong to some. In fact, the speech caused a media pundit to accuse President Bush of proclaiming himself a prophet and a mouthpiece for God. Very interesting times, are they not?
That is far more interesting than what is going on here. We are out of armor kits, for the most part. We may be idle for up to 2 weeks, when the next ones arrive. Several shipping systems are being shut down until the election is over. The Air Force guys who worked here for the last 2 weeks or so “accidentally” left some of their older tool kits for us to use, a little kindness for use of our place. We are becoming better equipped and skilled for our work.
In addition, it has been eerily quiet here, no incoming for almost 2 weeks! I don’t think I’ve been through a longer quiet period. Maybe the bad guys have been focusing on Baghdad with all the increased car-bombing there. You won’t catch it in the news, but there has been no news about Fallujah lately because the latest actions there killed about 1500 terrorists and, probably, simply, there has not been much going on there. I think similar operations are being carried out in Mosul now. The success over here has been tremendous if you want to take my word for it.
Finally, here is a picture from the 2nd LDS baptism in Kirkuk (as far as we know). Behind the scenes, right next to the pepsi, is a gutted boom-boom. You can’t see it as well, but the wind-chime behind it is a rusted relic, a little hanging thing for large gun shells. Just a day in the life in…Iraq.
Ernie

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Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Wetter is Better

A Wet Story: Eli, originally from Lebanon and living in the U.S.got a job in Baghdad as an interpreter for the Americans. In the whole group she was with, she discerned one person was different. That person didn’t use bad language, didn’t smoke or drink. You can see where this is going, can’t you? They talked about the gospel and the church. Then it became necessary for her to transfer…to Kirkuk. Nervous that she would be lost to the church, she was promised by her Mormon friend that she would be found. Upon her arrival in Kirkuk, the first person she met,her supervisor, introduced himself by name and then as a member of the church, not knowing about her promise. She found other warm friends and the usual lessons ensued: a date was set for today, Tuesday, January 18, 2005. It began raining steadily last night and continued until a little before the service. My prayers and I’m sure theprayers of others were answered when warm sunny beams sprinkled throughout the ceremony. But don’t worry,the ordinance was done by the proper authority, by immersion. The Air Force had cleverly hidden a Jacuzzi-type body of water (see 1st pic) but made it available for this occasion. Of note: The baptism was attended by a chaplain from Puerto Rico who didn’t speak English well, and his blonde assistant from CA (yes, we met). Also, a cigarette-toting supervisor from my company was there to secure the arrangements as well. The last pic is of Eli with her roommate and a good part of the group, gathered underneath the camouflage. Eli proudly wore her cross after the baptism. We are all young in the gospel in some way, aren’t we? Eli meets in the chapel on the other side of the base from where we meet (we’ve split into two groups) so I hadn’t met her before today. I was nervous about making her nervous with the camera, but my experience is they are grateful in the long run to see the people there supporting her and the feelings that come with remembering. Another thing I like about her is she just isn’t into the Mormon handshake thing, she required hugs all around instead. She seems to be of gentle and very kind disposition, and that is always good. We are in the Saudi Arabian Peninsula Stake, as I found out, but we are officially only in groups with “group leaders” on base and are supposed to continue to belong (and pay tithing, etc.) to our original homewards. This last Sunday I got to teach the lesson on how the D&C testifies of Christ (S.S. Lesson 2). My favorite topic of choice. Apparently the facilities of this base, especially the chapels, are booked-up so well that we only have 2 hours for church. Darn. We have Sacrament meeting, of course, and then alternate weekly Sunday School, then RS/PR. And that is your “spiritual bonus” letter this week…Ernie

pic Posted by Hello

pic Posted by Hello

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Repercussions

A dear friend of mine who’s known me for years wrote in after seeing that last picture of me and surmised that I had "not changed even one little bit!" Frankly, I concur, and sadly, that made me happy.
We have had a communications "brown-out" here recently and that is not uncommon. That means you may have sent emails I did not receive and visa-vera. If you sent an email recently and I did not answer, I probably did not get it. If then or in the future you have not received a reply, it may be that I am a slacker, but it may be because sometimes things don’t get through security.
I want you to know that I am not giving anyone the silent treatment on purpose or don’t care or any such thing. Simply, sometimes even emails get lost on their way to and from here. Please keep trying if it is important.
I say that simply because I have received so many wonderful, encouraging, kind, and communicative messages week after week and I want all to know that I am very grateful, even if the security gods snapped it up and I never got it or my reply never made it back to you--the things that get through are worth it and again, I heartily thank you.
What else? Iraq’s economy and employment are beginning to expand greatly. The growth in Iraq for the last 30 years under Saddam averaged something like .5 percent a year. This last year I think it was greater than 15 percent. In fact, the whole Mid-East is benefiting economically from the change here and ever greater interest in investments here shows great faith in the peace promised by this daring undertaking. That, admittedly, is my opinion, for what it is worth.
We are almost out of up-armor kits here, having burned through much of it here in the last month. It’s nice to relax a bit more but hopefully more will show up soon. The good news is maybe 100 or more vehicles are much better protected here now from our group alone. Our contract is with the army but we are giving space in our garage for the Air Force to come in and do their own vehicles. They have been provided a more complete wrap-around set of armor but not someone to do it for them. So it’s fun to come in and watch THEM work. Yes we help out, but they are actually more experienced in that particular kit. So far.
That’s it for now, more exciting news soon. Happy Sunday!
Ernie

Monday, January 10, 2005

Would You Believe

The other day I was walking over to the “dark side“ of the base, (I guess in the past they weren’t wired for electricity over there) and usually someone offers a ride before I get too far. But I didn’t mind, it was beautiful weather and I needed exercise. Then on the last leg of the trip, a soldier stopped to pick me up. We were soon there and I told him thanks and my name was Ernie. He said, “Ammon.” AMMON? Turns out, as he says, he was a member but now he’s “just Christian.” Works for me, he was the only one Christian enough to stop and give me ride.

Well, religion is rearing its lovely head everywhere. Last week I was in a 4-hour “Safety Meeting.” Did you know it costs a company at least $750,000 if an employee dies, and at least $250,000 if they lose a limb? So they are really interested in safety and have studied it. Turns out that many accidents happen when the employees are tired (no, really?) and they have us working 7 days a week, 12 hours a day. Except for me, of course, I take Sundays off. But what did their research find? 1 or 2 days a week off greatly reduces the number of injuries because the employees are rested. I’m always amazed when science catches up with God. But don’t worry, they will forget again.

Perhaps we had better talk about the weather. It has been wonderful. Occasional moisture keeps the dust down and temps are in the 50’s and 60’s, very comfortable if you are working hard cuz that makes you a little warm. And mostly sunny. It’s actually quite pleasant. And green things are growing here and there. I’m afraid I will be spoiled when the crazy heat and prolific dust returns. It sure has been nice. Probably cursed myself by saying that…it will probably rain for two months straight now. Actually, I have been told that will happen….

Which would be a shame, since they have almost finished my new skateboard path…I mean, the new asphalt road that runs through the middle of camp. Yes, I am looking forward to that new, hard, clear surface to traverse upon with those tiny wheels of happiness…

Today I was sequestered by the MP (Military Police) on that lengthy walk I mentioned earlier. I had grabbed my camera bag from work on the dark side and was returning blissfully ignorant of the circumstances…intel reported a suspicious person trying to get in the gate without proper credentials, intimating that he was a reporter. People around have said I look like a reporter, and even the guys at the baptism didn’t think I was a member since I was recording the event with such aplomb. I was promptly apologized to for the brief detainment after my ID checked out, but I thanked him for doing his job. I felt safer.

And that is blog enough for now.

The picture below? Myself, checking the position of the sun before I head out the gate to save the election…Ok, actually that isn’t mine and that’s not what I do. But it was fun loaner…

The real owners, of course, are pictured next. Kind of a parting shot for them, if you will. They ship out soon…

pic Posted by Hello

pic Posted by Hello

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Misc Musings

Sunday, my back needed a rest after lifting a little more armor than I should have yesterday. I will probably take an additional holiday tomorrow to help recover. Church was nice, we have moved to a new building thanks to some Air Force connections.
One soldier told about his convoy trip up from Kuwait and all the kids about 5 yrs of age that would come out and wave and make the sign also asking for food. One boy came out to the wire and pointed to an apple beside the road as his sister stood almost crying. He was very sad he could not stop to help. The children around here, according to a local interpreter, have no toys. They will gather up old ordinance (explosives, bullets, etc) and bring it to a dump hole by the wire (barbed-wire fence) in hopes just to receive a bottle of water in return.
Now I am more curious to know what happened to Operation Crayon, which was displaced from the building across the street from us by the new recruits. But I have a feeling that the young generation of Iraqis will remember the cheerfulness, kindness, and generosity of the American Soldier. Perhaps in 20 years, when this generation of Iraqi kids comes of age, it will truly be a new age in Iraq. I know it happened in Germany.
Sometimes I used to take an armored vehicle for a test drive out by the wire and the children will run along side and wave. They are living in the ruins next to the base. The funniest thing is you will see mis-matched colored cars, if any, laundry hanging out between blown-apart walls, and beautiful new satellite dishes. I know I mentioned this before, but it is remarkable, even to be said twice.
Finally, here is a new poem from my dear friend Maria to the troops:

‘Twas the night before New Years, and all through this nation
Kids were playing with toys and their brand new play stations
When half a world away a war is being fought
To give others a gift that cannot be bought
Soldiers are dressed from their head to their boots
In armor and camouflage – not business suits
You see, they are fighting to give others peace
And until that is accomplished, they will not cease
They leave behind loved ones; children, husbands and wives
To sacrifice their life so Freedom will strive
So, this New Years Eve, let us all pray
That those in Iraq, safely will stay
If we can’t be over there fighting on that land
Get on your knees and pray for His guiding hand
For Freedom and Peace is truly God’s way
And they are a step closer each and every day
God bless you all, who are on foreign soil
May He be with you as each day you toil
You’ve helped me realize more than ever
We are Americans, because we stick together
May this upcoming year bring much success
For those in Iraq, may there be happiness
You are truly doing what is right …
Peace to you all, sleep well and goodnite.
-Maria V. Cragun, 2005

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pic Posted by Hello