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Bayonet 95

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The 5th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division Commander, Col. Harry D. Tunnell IV, prepares for an aerial reconnaissance mission in an OH-58 Kiowa helicopter over the Kandahar region of Afghanistan, Jan. 16. (U.S. Army Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Shannon Wright, 82nd Airborne CAB.)

03 November 2013
Written by: John DiPaola and James Pope

“Bayonet 95, Shamus 22.”  No response.
“Bayonet 95, Shamus 22.”  A single click noise sounded over the radio, but no voice transmission.
“Bayonet 95, Shamus 22.  If you can hear me, please key the hand mike twice.”

Click, click.

“Ok, Bayonet 95, I understand you can hear me.  We are a flight of two OH 58D’s with fourteen rockets, one thousand rounds of .50 cal, and approximately one hour of station time.  Once Spectre is done firing in your vicinity, we will move closer so we can get an update.”

Click, click.

“Shamus 22, this is Spectre 11.  I am the aircraft overhead.  I am mission complete with my fires and am outbound at this time.  You may continue inbound to link up with Bayonet 95.”
“Spectre 11, thanks for the help.”

Our team moved in closer so we can get the ground units transmissions.

“Bayonet 95, Shamus 22, request update.”

image002-1000UH 60 “Dustoff” MEDEVAC (Photo: Michael Yon)

It was early August, 2009, when 1-17 Infantry had just completed preparations at Kandahar Airfield to move out for their first combat missions.  This was a hasty deployment and timing was critical—they had to be in place in time to support the first ever Presidential elections for the people of Afghanistan.

Due to the urgency attached to the impending elections, Captain Pope, the B Co, Commander, and his team, who made up of elements from B Company and the 562d Engineers, did not get the chance to conduct normal Left Seat / Right Seat Rides to familiarize themselves in with Arghandab River Valley.  Left Seat/Right Seat ride is a crucial part of the transition between the current unit and the new unit taking over the mission so that they would understand “what right looks like.”   Without it, you end up at a disadvantage right from the start.

The first real mission began on 10 August and ended with the immobilization of a 562d Engineer Stryker that struck an IED while clearing a route and on the same day.  Pope, with elements of 2nd and 3rd platoons, walked into an L-Shaped near Ambush in Shuyen Sofla.  
The series of events that followed would dictate their actions for the next five months as B Company learned the hard way about dealing with pressure plate improvised explosive devices (PPIEDs,) chokepoints, the enemy, and the terrain.  Their learning curve just became vertical.

A few days later, Lieutenant Bershiniski, fresh out of West Point, was in command of his first dismounted patrol that was planned on the evening of 16 August to the COP at Tabin Sofla.  The platoon’s mission was to lay in ambush in support of ground elements. This was the platoon’s first exposure to how brutal the land really was.  On top of facing the task of navigating the unforgiving land, the basic task of identifying the ambush points became much more difficult due to the maze of buildings in the built up areas of the town.   Even the most simple of tasks would become borderline overwhelming in a short period of time.  The mission planning challenges faced by Lieutenant Berschinski, a respected platoon leader, would ominously represent the experiences of the unit at large in the lead up to the national elections on 20 August 2009.

On the evening of August 18th, 2009, (a day and a half before the official Afghanistan Elections,) our team of four pilots stepped out of an old, white van that had picked us up from our living quarters and drove us two and a half miles from one end of Kandahar Airbase to Mustang Ramp, where our aircraft and Headquarters were located. We walked into the Troop area and divided up our duties between the crewmembers, as per standard operating procedures.  The Left-Seaters (aka, Co-Pilots) would grab their flight gear and head out to the helicopters to begin the preflight process while the Right-Seaters (aka, Pilots in Command, or PICs) screened the maintenance logbooks of our respective aircraft to ensure there were no overdue inspections or anything else that would hinder our mission time.

Once we were satisfied with the maintenance status of the aircraft, we hauled our flying gear, personal weapons, and body armor to the aircraft and assisted crewmembers with the completion of the preflight.  Once the aircraft met the standards for mission and were prepared for departure, we moved back to the Squadron Tactical Operations Center (TOC) to file our flight plan, get the weather information, and various other paperwork necessary for flight.  Once everything was complete, we met the Battle Captain in the Briefing Room for our official mission brief.

“It’s been a very busy day today, guys.  1-17 Infantry has taken 2 killed in action and 3-4 wounded in action over the last eight hours. They just recently started occupying a series of COPs (Combat Outposts) around the Arghandab River Valley.  The last three teams have been in support of them non-stop. Now than the sun has set, the Team on cycle has reported that things have settled down and as of right now no one is being engaged.  You guys are to do a battle handover with Shamus 32’s Team after you test fire. Any questions?”

We didn’t have any questions and were clear that we needed to get moving.  Even though it was only 2000 and our mission window didn’t start until around 2200, we decided to depart as early as possible and since I was the Air Mission Commander for the flight, it was ultimately up to me on when we would depart.

I also took Flight Lead that night, as I always did.  It was, at least in my eyes, an honor-thing.  I have always believed that a person should strive to be the one to lead people into the fight; not take the easy road and just be a follower.  I felt even more confident on this day because my Left-Seater was a young pilot named John Harper.

John was Infantry before being accepted to flight school.  He was a tall, lanky kid, all skin and bones.  John was very smart and wanted to excel and one day become a Pilot in Command himself.  Even though John was relatively new to flying, his Infantry experience was invaluable.

The rest of my team consisted of the B Troop Standardization Instructor pilot, Bernd, and his Left Seater, Jordan, who himself was fresh out of flight school.

After we finished our mission brief, we executed our team brief.  I had John brief us on the current weather forecast for our flight window and my other crew informed me of the overall status and armament configuration of their helicopter.

I then began divvying up the particular duties for the crews after departure and for the duration of the mission; we would call for departure from Kandahar Airfield, they would call departure with the TOC.  We would change frequency and conduct our check-in with the ground force that “owned” the area, and they would take care of any traffic advisory calls or other radio calls that were not part of the mission profile.

Because of all the hostile activity throughout the day I decided we would depart to the north of the airfield, execute a test fire of our weapons, and immediately do a battle handover with Shamus 32 who was already flying in the mission area.  After the brief, we split up for our specific crew briefs. “See you on the radios.” I said, as John and I headed out to our aircraft. And with a quick nod of acknowledgement from my wingman, we were off.

John and I had flown together before, so our crew brief was quick. We pulled on our body armor, flight helmets, and survival gear and crawled into the cockpit.  We cranked the engine and were mission ready in ten minutes.  We completed radio checks with our trail aircraft, made the radio calls and departed north.

The sun had set about an hour and a half before. The dark sky was dotted with a few stars and a thin layer of smoke from the clay ovens that were scattered throughout the outskirts of Kandahar City.

We flew towards our designated test fire area and made a clearing pass to make sure there were no civilians.  We tested our .50 caliber machinegun and our 2.75 inch rockets one at a time. Our boresite was on and the systems were nominal.

We flew toward Shamus 32, staying just under the smoke layer so that we could use the contrast of the city and its structures for navigation.  Our night vision goggles need ambient light, so we used every trick we could to see better; especially since the moon was not with us tonight. The amplified lights of Kandahar City turned the world into a cartoon land of green and shades of green.

At about 2240, we flew into an opening in the steep ravine to the northwest side of the city, crossing paths with Shamus 32.  We called 32 on their internal radio frequency for an update.

“Yea, 22 this is 32.  Bayonet 95 is set up in their patrol base for the night.  They had a pretty hard time today since the unit lost a few of their guys on patrol due to IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) along their respective routes. They only had company radios working and the platoon’s batteries were almost dead. Since their resupply won’t arrive until sometime tomorrow, you guys may want to see if you can get to Frontnac (1-17 Infantry’s Headquarters Fixed Operation Base) and get some batteries and drop them off to them.  As of right now there hasn’t been any real activity; we’ve just been providing a little security and relaying back to Frontnac for them as they needed. That’s about it.”

“Thanks 32. See you back at the room.”  32 was one of my roommates, Scott. After we crossed paths and did our “radio high-five,” my team continued to the area where Bayonet 95 was bedded down. As we got closer to the area, we saw rounds from an Air Force gunship firing a series of 105 millimeter cannon shots on the fields northwest of Bayonet 95s position.   In order to avoid the fire, we orbited about three kilometers to the southwest, just outside the city lights of Kandahar.

Trail made contact with the gunship on the CTAF (Common Traffic Aerial Frequency) to let him know we were in the area.  As they were making the alert call, I tried to get the initial radio call to Bayonet 95.

Around 2300, CPT Pope called a huddle in the compound they were occupying to talk with his Platoon Leaders about the plan for the next day.   The men were shaken by the deaths of two comrades early that day. 1SG Holcomb was busy looking for a lost set of Night Vision Devices, which he found before the enemy got hold of them.

LT Bershiniski’s 2nd Platoon was located in the northern compound, 1st platoon (from A Troop) and 3rd platoon were in the southern compounds, along with CPT Pope.

LT Bershinski left the meeting and walked outside of the compound. He took a right, and took 5 or 6 steps to enter the compound and rejoin his platoon.  They had all walked that path upon entry into the compound numerous times, so they were not cautious when using it.  For years during the Afghanistan war, it has been common for troops to step on a bomb dozens of times before someone draws the unlucky number.  The person who is hit often is not point man, but man 10, 20, or even 30.  Our special gear often misses the bombs, and dogs are unreliable.  Much of this is just luck.

When 1LT Bershinski was about 8-10 feet in front of the entrance, he stepped on a pressure plate IED.  BOOM.  The mushroom cloud lifted into the darkness as debris began to rain down.  A boot with a foot flew 150 meters into the darkness.

LT Bershinski was flying fast and on his way out of the compound when he slammed into the compound wall, and landed back in the smoking crater.  The first 10 seconds, no one knew what happened.  It sounded like an RPG at close range with all the reverberations off the compound walls.

CPT Pope yelled to his troops to stay alert in their sector, as if everyone was not already doing it.  A voice came from the darkness, from 2nd platoon, saying that someone stepped on a PPIED, but no one knew who it was.

1SG Holcomb ran to the scene, and yelled that Bayonet 26 was hit.  (26 is the identifying callsign for a platoon leader, normally a Lieutenant, or more commonly known as an ‘LT’.)

CPT Pope stopped in his tracks. After a short pause of denial, he then ran out to see the young LT Bershinski lying face up in the crater that was about 2 feet deep and 4 feet wide.

Specialist Lucchetti and Specialist Fulton, the two platoon combat medics, dived in and began assessing the damage. They applied tourniquets on both legs; at least, what was left of them, since the blast took both his legs.

The trauma and blood loss put him into a serious state of shock, to the point where he started saying something like, “let me die.”   The medics ripped all clothing off and worked to stop the bleeding with HEMCON bandages, which are used to cauterize the wounds, in a sense.

Bershinski was fading fast.  As the medics worked, both CPT Pope and 1SG Holcomb stayed next to the injured LT.  CPT Pope held his hand and talked to him.  The medics stuck an IV and administered morphine and HEXTEND IV fluids, a volumizer to expand once in your veins.

While Bershinski  was fading, CPT Pope’s made it his job to keep him awake and not to let him slip away.  He did anything he could think of poking and prodding, pulling his eyes open, and anything else to keep him alert.  He even went as far as talking him through his anger about wanting to die.  CPT Pope begged him to stay with him.

Where there is one bomb, there often is another, and sometimes many.  The unit was told not to move and to begin white lighting the patrol base and their immediate vicinity.  Eventually the excessive blood loss was stopped and the HEXTEND put blood flowing back to his main organs.  LT Bershinski began to return to consciousness.

“Bayonet 95, Shamus 22.”  No response.
“Bayonet 95, Shamus 22.”

A single click sounded over the radio, but no voice transmission.  Hearing the click with no voice transmission, I knew that Bayonet 95 could hear us, but his radio wasn’t strong enough to transmit his voice to us.  Because of the high mountains and the limited capability of the ground radio systems, this was a common throughout Afghanistan.  I continued to call.

“Ok, Bayonet 95, I understand you can hear me.  We are a flight of two OH 58D’s with fourteen rockets, one thousand rounds of .50 cal, and approximately one hour of station time.  Once the aircraft was done firing in your vicinity, we will move closer so you we can get an update.”

Click, click.

“Shamus 22, this is Spectre 11.  I am the aircraft overhead.  I am mission complete with my fires and am outbound at this time.  You may continue inbound to link up with Bayonet 95.”
“Spectre 11, thanks for the help.”

Our team flew closer to get the transmissions.

“Bayonet 95, Shamus 22, request update.”
“Bayonet 95, what’s going on buddy?”  I said, with all the calmness I could muster.  Shamus 32 didn’t mention anything that was life threatening that was going on……..did I miss something?
“Shamus 22, our 26 element just stepped on an IED and lost both his legs.  We have him as stable as we can, but we need to get him out of here fast!”

My co-pilot immediately tried to radio back to our TOC and coordinate for the MEDEVAC aircraft to launch and head our way.  But we were too low and too far away from Kandahar Airfield for them to hear us.

My wingman climbed to see if that would get the transmission sent but that failed.

We had another option, the Blue Force Tracker.  The BFT is an over-the-horizon situational awareness tool.  A benefit of the system was that aircraft were able to be tracked visually by small, cartoonish symbols on a big screen TV located in the TOC.  The other benefit was the ability to send and receive text-messages.  Since the voice transmissions weren’t working, my wing-man started sending messages back to the TOC cueing them to get the MEDEVAC in the air ASAP.

image003-1000A Kiowa helicopter flies near Shadizi Kalay, Kandahar province, Afghanistan, Oct. 12, 2011. A new road and checkpoint have are under review to be placed in the area. (Photo by: Spc. Phil Kernisan)

While my wing-man was working with our TOC, we started getting radio call from the 1-17 Infantry TOC, callsign- Buffalo 44 requesting status updates. Between the frantic MEDEVAC update requests from Bayonet 95 and the calls from Buffalo 44, we passed the information as timely as we could, especially since their Commander was intently listening to every painstaking radio transmission.

A MEDEVAC aircraft, whenever called, is only launched because of a dire or potentially dire event that has taken place.  It can take 6 to 15 minutes before they can get off the ground.  However, the first thing that has to happen is that they need to be notified of the event.  Even though every MEDEVAC launch is a critical, this event had even more emotion attached to it.

The unit had already taken several men killed and wounded throughout the day, so tensions and emotions were elevated.  When the LT walked down the path he didn’t see the change in the dirt in front of him (it was dark… the illumination was about 40% at best), which was a sure-fire indicator of an IED.  He immediately lost both his legs from the knee down and had serious damage to his left hand.

“Shamus 22, I hate to ask again, but what is the line-number of the wounded?”
“Buffalo 44, I am working on it.  The guys are giving me an update and we’ll get it to you as soon as they can get it to me.  Hang tight, I’m working it.”
“Roger Shamus, thanks again.”

Time seemed to crawl.  I knew my wing-man was working on the communications piece of the puzzle, but damn, at least give me some sort of update.  John and I started talking over a game plan just in case the MEDEVAC didn’t show up.  The issue for us, first of all, was that the OH58D is an armed, 2 person helicopter that is primarily an armed reconnaissance platform.  If we had the room in the back of the aircraft we would have picked him up.  However, the only way we could have extracted the LT from the battlefield was to sit him straight up in the front seat, strap him down as tight as possible, and hoped he survived the 20 minute flight back to Kandahar Hospital.

I came up with another possibility; what if move him to one of the nearby Special Operations Bases nearby?  At least they had the means of stabilizing him until the MEDEVAC. I asked my wing-man if he had the frequency of the nearest combat outpost that housed a Special Forces team, under the impression he would know why I was asking.

“I don’t know why you are asking about that, what do you need that frequency for?”

Are you kidding? What the hell are you guys doing up there?

Next came the hardest decision I have ever had to make to date.

“Shamus, what is the status on our MEDEVAC? We are losing him!”
“Trail, Lead. Has the MEDEVAC launched yet?’

No answer.

“Bayonet 95, give me your best estimate on how long 26 has.”
“About twenty minutes, tops.”  (As it turns out, this assumption was pretty accurate. The Hextend IV fluids brought him out of shock, but now he was fading, which meant it ultimately bought him 20 more minutes… the quick work of the medics saved his life so far.)
“Then we’re going in.”

image004-1000Two U.S. Army OH-58 Kiowa Warriors attached to Task Force Saber, 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade, circle the village of Chahar Bagh, Kandahar province, Afghanistan, Dec. 14, 2009. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Juan Valdes.)

We circled around the field and searched for best area that would provide a close, flat, surface that was not on a road that could possibly hide any underground explosives.  We found the best spot and executed a quick, steep approach.  My skids touched down and John unstrapped, leaped out and headed into the darkness.  He didn’t have to go far before he could make out the silhouette of six soldiers running side by side with a large black mass.

CPT Pope and 1SG Holcomb led a small party to white light through a marijuana field where the Air Force gunship had just peppered.  As we landed, the group was surprised to see we were a Kiowa.

As they moved closer, we could make out the LTs body wrapped up in blankets and folded neatly into his Skedco cocoon.  The Skedco (the brand name of the stretcher) was an impressive device.  It would completely secure a patient regardless of how they were to be extracted; even if the patient had to be lifted to safety by a hoist from a hovering helicopter, the patient was safe and secure.  And after all these young soldiers had been through over the last 24 hours, they had a look of total exhaustion.

I hoped the medics had tightened his tourniquets as tight as possible for the ride because sitting upright is the last thing you want for someone with a severe leg injury.

But we had to assume risk in order to give him a fighting chance.  John explained that they would have to help him get the wounded LT in an upright position and slide him into the cockpit.  Quickly the team with LT Bershinski began taking him out of the SKEDCO as they talked to John.   They began discussing why we made the decision to land and they agreed that he might not make it the 10 minute fight to KAF sitting upright in the cock pit.  He had lost too much blood.  He would probably never make it.  However, it was risk worth taking, even if the chance of survival was minimal.

To make this work we would have to hang up his IV bag on the helmet hooks that hung down above our heads.  And God bless those young soldiers with their only other concern; they looked at John and asked, “Where are you going to ride, sir?”

“I’m going to stay here with you guys.  He’ll come back and get me later.”

I wasn’t going to let that happen.  As we have done before, I would have had John strap into the U-shaped weapons pylon that stuck out from both sides of the helicopter.  He would have to attach himself into the top of my rocket launcher with a D-ring that connected a strap from his flight gear to a secure handle on the pylon, straddle the bar that held the weapons in place, put his feet on the skids, and hold on for dear life.  This was not the first time this technique was either performed or practiced, so I was ok with it.

Through the dark green hue of my night vision goggles, I could see the soldiers unwrapping their LT. from the warmth and security of the Skedco and begin prepping him for the ride. John had unhooked from the Intercom System on the aircraft in order to help the guys with the preparations. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a transmission came over the radio that I never expected.

“Shamus 22, Pedro 14 on your internal.  We are 5 minutes out, request sitrep.”

It was Pedro, the Air Force Combat Search and Rescue.   I don’t know how, but someone somewhere called Pedro and gave them our team internal radio frequency, and they flew straight to us.  Pedro is hugely respected among US and British combat troops.  They fly the HH-60 (the Air Force’s version of the Blackhawk,) and Air Force Para-Rescuemen (PJ) as part of their crew.  PJs are some of the best trained medics in any branch of service.  Even though they were primarily a search and rescue team whose mission was to find and extract downed pilots over enemy territory, they had no problem helping us.  Pedro performed MEDEVACs daily, especially in the higher threat areas because Pedro uses machineguns to ward off the enemy instead of red crosses.

Next came the second hardest decision of the night, telling the guys I am not getting their LT out of the fight and back to safety.  I motioned to John by waving my arms while at the same time not trying to flip the aircraft.  I tried to get some sort of reflection to flash in his direction in order to get him to turn around.  He finally saw me and plugged back into the intercom.

“What’s up?’
“Tell the guys to push back a little, Pedro is inbound.”
“Yea, he’ll have a much better chance this way.  Tell the guys to stay right where they are and we’ll guide Pedro in to them.”
“Will do”

So John turned to the guys, explained what was going on, and they did as he requested.  John crawled back into our little cockpit, strapped in and we took off.  As we were departing Bayonet 95 gave us another call, “Thanks Shamus, we really appreciate the support.”

“Bayonet 95, your 26 element is not on board.  As it turns out, Pedro 14 is inbound in approximately 5 minutes.  It was better that they take him for you because they would be able to stabilize him and get him to the hospital much faster than I would.  (Pedro birds fly much faster than our Kiowa Warriors.)  Also, I don’t think he would’ve made the journey in my aircraft because he would have to sit upright, which would run a greater risk of him bleeding out before I got him back.”

I waited for the disappointment and confusion to transfer itself back to me over the radio.

“No worries, Shamus, just glad you guys are here.”  Thank God they understood.

CPT Pope returned to LT Bershiniski, who wanted to know what was going on.  He was disoriented, but not enough to miss that a bird had just landed and flew away without him.

CPT Pope remembers how angry LT Bershinski was at the situation and stated his displeasure back towards him.  CPT Pope felt like the way the unit started the last eight days somewhat recklessly and haphazardly and based on the events, the anger directed towards him was somehow deserved.

Pedro gave “1 min out” call.  I talked Pedro onto the landing zone and John clarified my instructions with a laser pointer of where to land and where the men were.  Pedro did one circle for verification and landed.

Moments later, Pedro was off to Kandahar, providing the much needed medical care in route. CPT Pope’s team, however, began the long night of waiting for daylight to look for Specialist Yanney and Sergeant Tom, two of their soldiers they could not account for during the due to events earlier in the evening.

We finished the rest of our mission cycle with no other significant events taking place.  When I finally landed for the night, my Executive Officer, Major Mike Demirjian, was waiting for me.  Mike stayed up past his normal bed down time to make sure my team and I were ok.  I appreciated that because I have a great deal of respect for the Mike, and knowing you have the trust and respect of your friends and the approval of your chain of command makes big difference.  After our team finished with the mandatory debriefs, filled out our logbooks, and secured our night vision goggles and weapons, we hopped in the Troop van and went back to our rooms.  I got out of the van, thanked our driver, and headed to my room.

I was met at the door by our chaplain, Captain Urquhart.  He is and will always be one of the best chaplains I have ever had the honor and pleasure to work with.  He too had heard about what had happened from our XO and wanted to make sure I was ok.  We talked about it for a few minutes, and he reminded me where I could find him if I needed.  I went into my room and crashed.

I had wrestled with the idea of whether or not I made the right decision with what I did.  On one hand, it was frowned upon for the OH 58D to be used as a primary means of extraction for any situation.  The only time it was wholly acceptable was if your wingman got shot down and was under heavy fire and as a last option, you could go after them, have them strap onto the outside of your aircraft, and fly to safety.  But my chain of command was behind me, one hundred percent.  A few weeks later, I was talking about what happened to a friend named Kelly over the internet, who just happened to work for the Wounded Warrior Foundation.  I was telling her the story of what happened and out of the kindness of her heart, Kelly took it upon herself to check with her contacts into where exactly the LT was sent to in the states.

Because of the injuries he sustained, there was only one logical choice, Walter Reed Hospital.  Kelly asked a friend who worked at Walter Reed if anyone that met the description of had been admitted in the last few weeks.  Kelly’s friend answered that not only had he found our LT, he was also his primary caregiver.  He said the LT could recollect a few things from that night, such as there being something wrong with the helicopter that came in to get him.

To put his mind at ease with what happened, I wrote Kelly a letter to pass on to the LT.  I kept it as unclassified as possible, and explained that had I picked him up, he probably wouldn’t be here today. Kelly passed the letter on to her friend.

Kelly got word that the LT read the letter intently for at least an hour, trying to piece together the night.  I could only hope that it would help to put things in order and answer a few unanswered questions, especially the one about whether or not he completed his mission.  In reality, he did exactly that.  He was one of the true heroes on the battlefield, the ones who walk the land day in and day out trying to make life better for those who want a better life, regardless of where in the world they live.

image005-1000Sgt. John Bulford (right, in cockpit), C Company, 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment, 5th Stryker Brigade, is re-enlisted by Chief Warrant Officer 2 Dave Ginn (left, in cockpit) from Task Force Saber on Forward Operating Base Frontenac Dec. 26. (Army photo courtesy of 1-17 Infantry)

I still think back on that night and wonder what would’ve happened had I picked up the LT, but then I have to remind myself that not only are my team and I home safe, but so is he.

John DiPaola and James Pope

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