Paul Rieckhoff

A Patriot’s Patriot

Air Date: September 20, 2014

Paul Rieckhoff offers his plan to cleanse the VA of criminal behavior.

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I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And I’m so pleased to introduce an American I have admired since learning his story at a book talk seven or so years ago…where he poignantly recounted his post-9/11 Middle East military tour and the intense psychological trauma inflicted on our veterans during the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts.

The author of Chasing Ghosts, Failures and Facades in Iraq: A Soldier’s Journey, Paul Rieckhoff is the Founder & CEO of Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans of America, and he quite literally works around-the-clock to represent his members and fight for veterans.

If I didn’t headline our conversation today “A Patriot’s Patriot,” I was quite seriously going to call it Paul Rieckhoff, the person who most desperately needs to be the next Secretary of the Veterans Administration. I am not being facetious. There is no one I know more genuine, more heartfelt or better mannered in the service of veterans than Paul Rieckhoff.

We all know about the recent scandals – reprehensible scandals and our veterans the victims of corruption and greed. So I want to live for a half hour in an alternate universe in which our guest is not only the most ferocious champion of veterans…but he is also at the helm of the VA. So I’m going to put Paul in charge, but he’ll have to deal with all the limitations: D.C. partisan gridlock, the habits of veteran neglect and the corruption-plagued VA system. Paul, what’s your first move?

RIECKHOFF: Well, my first move is to thank you for that introduction and it’s great to see you again, man, a pleasure to be here …

HEFFNER: Thank you.

RIECKHOFF: … on, on the show. It’s really an honor. I, I think the first move is, is to really stop the bleeding. I think right now the VA has had its trust shattered, the leadership is, is turned over now … we’ve got a Secretary that’s resigned in scandal. And Americans across the country have, have now turned the VA into a punch line.

I mean this is the lowest it can get for a government agency. So I think you’ve got to stop the bleeding and that starts with FBI investigations that are now ongoing in Phoenix and other places. It, it starts with cleansing the system of people who have engaged in criminal behavior … who have cooked the books in, we think, maybe sixty different cities.

And, and really saying “There’s a new Sheriff in town”. You’ve got to let people know that the values of the VA must be upheld. Criminal behavior will not be tolerated. And that veterans have got to come first.

So, the, the new nominee, Bob McDonald is the former CEO of Proctor and Gamble. He’s a surprise choice because he doesn’t come from the retired military community, he’s not a healthcare expert, he’s not a member of Congress. But he’s a branding expert. And I think that that may actually serve him well because he might have the biggest branding challenge in America right now.

There’s no brand that, that’s more shattered right now than the VA. So, you’ve got to restore that trust, you’ve got to get out in front and you’ve got to stop the bleeding in what will probably be a constant state of chaos as whistleblowers continue to come out, people may go to jail, it’s … it might be the toughest job in Washington right now. So, thank you for putting that one me ….

HEFFNER: (Laugh)

RIECKHOFF: Ahem, but, but I think we’ve got to recognize how mammoth this task really is.

HEFFNER: Well, your knowledge is intimate of this system in a veterans experiences across the country. So I just wonder … are there any quick fixes that you would recommend to whoever is the new Secretary of the Veterans Administration?

RIECKHOFF: I don’t think there are. And, and I think that’s grounded in, in reality. I mean the VA has dysfunctional for decades. It’s, it’s been kicked down the road by President after President and Secretary after Secretary and you’ve got a deeply entrenched, almost corrosive bureaucracy. So it’s very difficult to fire people, management and accountability is, is very difficult … there’s not transparency.

Even … they’ve even struggled to, to comply with subpoenas before Congress. So I think we, we’ve got to recognize … at the outset … and manage expectations for the American people and, and for the veterans … and this is going to take a few years.

This is actually a thing that we won’t see start to turn probably until we have a new President. And I think that’s part of the problem here … is people want a quick fix, they want to flip a switch, but we do have an eight step plan that we’ve laid out at IAVA … that we call our Marshall Plan for Veterans.

It started with a new VA Secretary. It starts with criminal investigations, implementing the recommendations of the Inspector General’s report in Phoenix. Infusing technology, which is very important …and maybe most of all … cooperating beyond the VA.

Part of what we’ve got to explain to the American public is the VA can’t do it alone. The VA does serve about nine million veterans around the country, but about half of my generation never even uses the VA.

So they may be reluctant to go, they maybe unaware of their benefits, they may have had a bad experience. But in my generation of post 9/11 vets, we’ve got almost three million men and women who deserve support and who need care and represent a tremendous opportunity.

What we try to tell people is, is that they’re not a charity, they’ve an investment. And if America makes that investment, it’s going pay off tremendously. That’s what we saw after World War II and every other generation of veterans.

The original GI Bill that, that my grandfather’s generation used produced a $7 return to the national economy for every dollar invested.

So if we look at this as an investment and not just a political problem or something for politicians to thump on their chest about, then this can really have long term benefits for our entire country and I believe our entire world.

HEFFNER: But you’ve found it difficult thus far, seven, eight, nine, almost ten years into this …

RIECKHOFF: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … to really get the attention and the continued funding of the US Congress.

RIECKHOFF: Yeah.

HEFFNER: Who’ve been some of your more loyal allies and how do you approach trying to get the funding that veterans need … through the VA first, and then we’ll explore other modes of, of employment and economic opportunity.

RIECKHOFF: So, you know, a lot of folks have said funding’s not an issue … some folks have said that in Washington and I think that’s really a short sighted approach because part of the problem with the VA is they have such a failure to understand their own system … they don’t even know how much money they need.

So what you see is doctors, for example, who are sometimes paid 50% of the market rate that they can get in the private sector … so the VA has a hard time competing.

Construction costs go way over budget. So we believe that, that the VA must be funded at the levels recommended by the Veterans Service organizations through what we call the Independent Budget.

That’s probably a few billion more than they’ve gotten in the past. And we’ve got to prepare Congress, the American people, taxpayers for the fact that war is expensive. And, and, and the aftereffects of war are going require focus for decades.

So that’s going to take a long time. We’d better strap in, get ready and understand that taking care of somebody with a brain injury could be a million dollars a year. So you’ve got to kind of reset those expectations.

But to answer your question … sometimes veterans are surprisingly non-partisan. We see Republicans and Democrats working together, especially on the House side in a way you might not see on any other issue in America.

The Chairman on House Veterans Affairs Committee, Jeff Miller is a Republican from Florida. He’s been very aggressive. He’s been consistent and he’s complimented by a Democrat from Maine Mike Michaud who, who has also been very committed, especially on the area of oversight. And they’ve kind of been banging their head against the wall of the VA for, for years. And nobody’s been listening.

In the past people like Jon Tester in the Senate have been ferocious advocates, Patty Murray, a Democrat as well, and recently John McCain on the Right.

But taking a bigger step back, we’ve got a huge challenge as a community in that there are only two combat vets in the US Senate right now. John McCain from Arizona and Senator John Walsh, a new Senator from Montana, who’s likely to lose in November.

So we have a generation of people like Akaka and Inouye and Dole who are gone now. And, and this disconnect that exists between the American public and our military has never been greater and it definitely impacts our policy. So, we don’t have that many ferocious advocates. We’ve got a lot of people who love to stand up and get a photo op and issue a press release, but when it comes down to, to staying consistent and delivering for vets, unfortunately, there aren’t enough.

HEFFNER: One of the things that was such a profound memory from your book talk was this idea of the invisibility of veterans.

RIECKHOFF: Yeah.

HEFFNER: And the fact that that’s exacerbated by what you describe …the absence of veterans in our representative bodies. But it pre-dates that …

RIECKHOFF: Mmmmm.

HEFFNER: These wars were very much a ghost …

RIECKHOFF: Right.

HEFFNER: … to so many Americans.

RIECKHOFF: Right.

HEFFNER: Expound on that for us.

RIECKHOFF: Yeah, well, it’s really unprecedented … the disconnect that we’ve got in our broader society. So you’ve got less than one half of one percent of the overall American public has served in Iraq and Afghanistan. You go back to Vietnam or World War II … sometimes it was 12% of the overall population. So in, in a studio like this, half your crew would have served overseas. At least someone in your family, someone in, in your school would have served overseas in conflict.

So there was a direct, personal connection in every family, in every workplace, in … across our society. That’s very different now.

You’ve got a small group of people who’ve served over and over and over again while the rest of the American public has been, for the most part, living life uninterrupted.

They’re watching American Idol and we’re off at war. And that’s gone on now for over a decade. So we have members at IAVA who’ve done 9 tours, 10 tours, 11 tours and over and over again. And that churn has really produced a tremendous toll on them and their families.

So when they come home, they don’t have their uniforms on anymore, they ride in the subway with you or they stand next to you on a corner and they kind of fold back into society. And sometimes that’s what want, but at the same time we have to recognize that they come home with challenges and they come home with experience that also usable. If you get in school, for example, here in New York City, like many of them have. They tend to do very well.

Places like Columbia and here at CUNY … they’re excelling. But they do need the resources and the support to understand how to use their new GI Bill and they need family support along the way and they need an understanding that, you know, being a 28 year old freshman at City College may be a bit different than being an 18 year old coming right out of high school.

But here in New York especially, I think they represent tremendous opportunity and I think, for the new Mayor, this is something he’s got to get ahead of.

I mean this is an opportunity for him to lead at the national level and make New York City the premiere place for veterans. Not just a place that supports veterans, but a place that attracts veterans. If you want to start a small business, if you want to go to school, come to New York City because we care about our veterans and we recognize their potential.

That’s the opportunity he has, especially n the next few months to set the tone in a way that really hasn’t been done before in a major city.

HEFFNER: You wrote on Facebook, “Since the White House isn’t interested in talking to us about hashtag VA scandal and what kind of leader we’d like to see at the VA …” you go on to post suggestions. Was that really the lack of input …

RIECKHOFF: Yeah. Absolutely … I mean … look our average member is 28 years old. We’re not part of the “old boys club”. We’re a new organization, we’re only started 10 years ago, so we fought hard to have our community recognized and represented in Washington and across the country.

We represent a new demographic, new issues and, and, and some really stark contrast to the older generation. For example, 15% of our members are women. We don’t have a women’s auxiliary at IAVA … at IAVA women have been on the front lines, they’re fighting and dying and, and they make up a critical part of our constituency … but in many ways they’ve been squeezed out. And lately the White House, I think has terribly managed this entire scandal.

You know, we sit here … two months after the scandal started. It took a month before they really recognized the size and scope of it and then Shinseki resigned in scandal. A Cabinet level Secretary resigned in scandal. And then it took them a month to fill the spot.

So I think they bumbled this entire process and most of all, they haven’t reached out to tthe community. The President hasn’t talked to veterans, the President hasn’t come to meet with our members or gone out on the road and said, “Hey guys, tell me what’s going on.”

So it’s been a very isolated decision. I think compounded six years of, of disconnect. So sometimes you’ve got to scream from the mountaintops and for our generation it’s literally posting our recommendations on Twitter and Facebook.

And, and we want to make sure at least folks like you and others see it and we can generate a conversation so you don’t have the same old people going in and out of Washington and most of all so they can understand there’s a youth movement ready.

There are people of my generation that want to serve, that want to continue to, to fight for their brothers and sisters, but they need to be asked. And, and the White House needs to understand that you may have to take a chance on some folks. They maybe unorthodox, they may be 15 years younger than you’re used to, but I think we can all recognize that Washington’s failed us in a lot of ways … and, and, I think veterans have been failed perhaps worst of all.

HEFFNER: After Shinseki’s resignation you and I had a text message exchange in which it seemed promising that they were going to consult you for your feedback. That was my impression. Was that not the case?

RIECKHOFF: Was not the case at all. I mean, you know … we literally …

HEFFNER: But for a moment there …

RIECKHOFF: We hoped that they would reach out … it makes sense, right?

HEFFNER: You had some meetings in DC, but they weren’t with the stakeholders …

RIECKHOFF: Look, I mean, I mean … you know, the President never had the veterans groups into the White House. Two months of scandal. Veterans died on wait list, it was on every newspaper in America … a Cabinet Secretary resigns and at no point did the President say “I’m going to go listen to the vets. I’m going to reach out to them, I’m going to go down to where they are, have them come visit me” … and I think that that underscores the disconnect that the President has been experiencing with our community for six years.

And, and it’s not a partisan issue. I mean we work with Republicans and Democrats. But it, it’s been delegated downward to the VA or to the Department of Defense and as the Commander-in-Chief he’s got to make the care and welfare of our veterans a priority for him.

Not just for an Undersecretary, not just for the First Lady, but for the Commander-in-Chief and that’s what he’s failed to do. And I think it’s part of why this scandal happened. We literally knew about these issues two years ago. We knew about scheduling problems, we knew about secret waiting lists … the White House didn’t listen. So in many way for the President, unfortunately, this is like a Hurricane Katrina moment … right … this was something he could have gotten ahead of … some of it was predictable … much of it was preventable. But they chose to be disconnected and unfortunately it, it’s been to the detriment of our veterans most of all.

HEFFNER: Did he not seek your input and your organization’s input because of this idea that he’s interacting with veterans who are currently enmeshed in the scandal and at the VA? I mean is that …

RIECKHOFF: I actually … I actually have no idea …

HEFFNER: Because it’s outrageous.

RIECKHOFF: It is outrageous, but it’s also not just about IAVA … we represent over 200,000 members and they are the next generation. And, and I think it would be useful for the President to know. I mean literally, if you follow me on Twitter you see, that I retrweet people who are going through the scheduling problems.

This morning there was a guy who’s been waiting over two weeks for a dermatology appointment. There are folks who have been stuck on wait lists and disability backlogs. And all you have to do is follow us on Twitter to see what’s really happening. If you had done that two years ago, you would have known that the VA Secretary was out of touch. That there may have been even criminal problems. But if you turn a blind eye or you’re focused on other things, you missed it. And I, I think that’s a real shame.

This is going to be a real political headache for the President and I think for both parties. When they go back to, to, to election campaigns in this summer … Republicans and Democrats … one of the first places they’re going to go is to their local veterans hall. They’re going to go to a pancake breakfast, they’re going to talk to the vets and they’re going to say, “I want your vote” and the vets are going to say “What the hell happened with the VA? How did you let this happen? What’s your solution? How are you going to move us forward?” And I think that’s a piece of accountability at the local level that’s a long time coming. And I think they’re really going to feel it this summer.

HEFFNER: I think your hope, though, is that Mayor de Blasio is going to take action. So what can he do that the President has not done?

RIECKHOFF: He can do a lot. I mean he can start by saying “Hey, I care about veterans.” Right. And his, his father tragically was lost to a suicide and, and he was a World War II veteran. So Mayor deBlasio has an intimate understanding of these issues.

I think it starts with laying out a vision for New York City … what are we going to focus on, how are we going to deal with employment, education, health care and, and a supportive community?

How are we going to say, as a city … “Welcome home”, especially after the way Vietnam veterans were treated were they had to basically do a renegade parade after Vietnam to be properly welcomed because they weren’t welcomed by the city.

So there’s an opportunity for us to turn the page on Vietnam, to welcome our veterans and, and it sounds like, from the Mayor and Senator Schumer we’re going to do a “Welcome Home” parade at some point.

They’re going to go through the Canyon of Heroes and we’re going to have a lot of fanfare at some point, when the Afghanistan war ends, but what we’ve got to think about is what happens after that parade.

So Mayor deBlasio’s got an opportunity to lay out a vision, to support these veterans and their families. And I hope he does it soon.

You, you know July 4th, Memorial Day, Veterans Day, these are all opportunities to capture the city’s attention and really be out in front. And it’s, it’s a non-partisan issue. We can unite the city, Republicans and Democrats, after an election around an issue I hope everyone can agree upon.

HEFFNER: Let’s talk about the post-parade problems.

RIECKHOFF: Yeah.

HEFFNER: So, there’s post traumatic stress disorder …

RIECKHOFF: Right.

HEFFNER: … there’s the suicide epidemic. Is it still an epidemic?

RIECKHOFF: Yes. Absolutely. So, suicide is the number one issue for IAVA members this year. Every year we poll them. We use a lot of online tools and we get down to the grass roots and we say, “Hey guys, what do you think is the number one issue?” And overwhelmingly they said to us “suicide”. They’re tired. We’re tired of losing our brothers and sisters to this invisible enemy.

Twenty-two veterans a day are lost to suicide. That’s outrageous. If we were losing that many people to an enemy weapons system or to al Qaeda, we’d have press conferences non-stops, we be calling in DARPA, we’ be trying to figure out how the greatest minds in America could tackle this problem. But we’re losing folks to suicide almost invisibly every day.

So, so that’s going to be our top priority in the midst of this VA scandal. We’ve laid out a pretty comprehensive approach that has a legislative solution, a comprehensive bill called the Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, the Save Act … we’ve asked for an Executive Order from the President and all summer long we’re going to connect a million veterans with resources.

We’re going to do that with local outreach events, baseball games, we’re going to partner with the rock band Linkin Park, we’re going to get down to the grass roots and connect veterans and the communities with our cause.

Because most of the progress, especially in this issue has got to happen outside of Washington. People have to know that it’s okay to step forward and ask for help, that there’s a community that understands and supports them, and at the same time, we have to make sure those resources deliver.

So if a veteran does raise his hand and say “I am going to be courageous, I’m going to come forward and get help” that he doesn’t get stuck on a secret waiting list. And that we’re improvising, adapting and overcoming and offering him opportunities at the local level that, that can solve his problems.

If the VA can’t do it, it might a local hospital, it might be a city resource, it might be a community based non-profit. But most of all, we’ve got to get the country involved. That’s what’s been missing here.

After 9/11 President Bush, I believe, missed an opportunity to galvanize this country as we went to war. Now President Obama’s missing an opportunity to galvanize this country behind our veterans. It’s happening right now. We are literally dying across this country and the President’s got to step up and if he doesn’t, people watching have got to do it. We can’t wait for Washington to respond. They haven’t had a good track record of doing that in the last couple of years, so if there’s any issue we can unite around, this should be it.

HEFFNER: Not to back-pedal from that, Paul, but, you know, this issue of confronting veterans and the concerns that they, that they face … it doesn’t even occur to me that the country is prepared to play a more democratic role in how we orchestrate war in the future.

RIECKHOFF: Yeah.

HEFFNER: And not only do we ignore veterans as a society …

RIECKHOFF: Right.

HEFFNER: … as we were potentially embarking on intervention in Syria, or again in Iraq …

RIECKHOFF: Right.

HEFFNER: So don’t we have to start there?

RIECKHOFF: Yeah, well I think …

HEFFNER: With the psychology …

RIECKHOFF: … yeah, I mean, it’s all of that, right. I mean … what, what, what … an outcome that that’s happened as a result of this all volunteer military … right … that happened after the Vietnam War … we went to an all volunteer military … there’s no draft, there’s no conscription … so you have this small group of people who are highly professionalized, who volunteer to serve and who’ve been fighting our wars for now 13 years or so.

It’s created the best military on the planet. Our, our people are fantastic fighters, they’re highly trained, but … and, and it’s been great for the military. But it might not be great for our democracy.

Right now what you’ve got is other people’s kids fighting our wars. So you can say, “Sure, drop some bombs on Syria.” Or “Sure, drop another 300 people into Iraq”, because it’s not my kids. That’s never really happened in American history.

So I think we’ve got to re-evaluate what it means to, to serve in this country. What it means to be connected to war … it’s not like World War II, where we had war bonds and people rationing their, their metal to, to support the fight.

So I think we need courage from political leaders and we need activism from the people to say, “Even if we do send 300 people, and it’s only 300 people into Iraq … that we care”. And that we’re paying attention. And that we will hold people accountable. But it’s hard to do that when it’s somebody else’s kids. Which has really been, I think, one of the most interesting and in some ways troubling parts of the war on terror.

It’s like nothing we’ve seen in American history. Really. And, and I think it’s going to really be important in the next decades to see how the Presidents and Congress and the public deal with issues of war and conflict. Because now we know what it costs. It’s very expensive in terms of our international reputation, our lives lost, our public treasure … war is very, very expensive. And it’s brutal.

But it’s a lot easier to, to, to let it happen when it’s not you. And that you don’t have skin in the game. So I think we’ve really got to think hard about that in the years to come.

HEFFNER: Well not only is it unfair, but it’s debilitating. And its debilitating to our democracy …

RIECKHOFF: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … or the even principle or premise of a democracy.

RIECKHOFF: Yeah. Yeah.

HEFFNER: So, let me ask you … in terms of your own political operation on a day to day basis … how are you attempting to relate these concerns to the experiences of non-veterans so that Americans perhaps who are struggling with suicide or issues that are medical in nature, but relate to experiences of veterans …

RIECKHOFF: Mmmmm.

HEFFNER: … can have an understanding of what they’re going through. Are we … do we have to all be in the same pie?

RIECKHOFF: I think it starts with story telling. I mean the veteran’s community has had a history of telling stories. Telling war stories, talking about our experiences, but trying to bridge that gap. I, I mean, you know, every generation has had a great writer or a filmmaker that comes home and tries to tell the stories. If you think about Catch 22, or you think about Born on the 4th of July, there have been a lot of ways to communicate the experiences of war.

But for us, it’s really about letting our veterans tell their stories. And technology is like fuel injection … so we’re able to put up videos, tweets, Facebook, obviously and every other piece of social media to convey our experiences from a personal level, from a human level. I think that’s the most important starting point. Just telling you a story about some one like Kyle Carpenter who just received the Medal of Honor a few weeks ago from the President … a heroic young guy who jumped on a hand grenade to save his buddy. Was in hospitals for 2 and a half years … struggled to get by, but he’s a triumphant leader now. He survived and he’s inspiring others.

And, and, and, you know, maybe cutting to the core of this … he was on a wait list, too. So if you’re a Medal of Honor recipient and you’re stuck on a wait list at the VA, what does that mean for the guy here in Brooklyn who nobody knows.

I think the story telling is, is always the most important way of communicating our experiences on a very human level, so you can understand us as a neighbor, a brother, a friend, not just an “other”, or someone in a uniform that’s far away, like some reality TV show.

HEFFNER: I said we were going to explore the economic opportunity that we ought to advance for veterans and, and all Americans and … so, you know, given, given what plagues our economy generally … the situation where you have people who are on Park Avenue, and people who are not … how do you grapple with this issue, specifically for veterans.

RIECKHOFF: Well, almost every economic issue facing the American public is hitting vets even harder. So unemployment rates are significantly higher than the national average. Mortgage foreclosure rates at one point were four times the national average for the military community. Student loan debt. All the issues that impact most Americans, impact veterans even harder. So I think it’s about understanding the economic cost that our community faces and also, again, recognizing the opportunity that they present.

They’re small business owners. They, they’re going to graduate school. They’re very entrepreneurial, they’re rushing into start up spaces ranging from technology to the green space. And I think that what, what they want to do is succeed. They want to continue to use the skills they had overseas of adapting, improvising, overcoming with limited resources, limited guidance and, and take those home. And, and build businesses and also, you know, rebuild schools and, and work in local government.

They’re leaders. They have chosen to be leaders and I think that doesn’t stop at the water’s edge when they come home. And, and revitalizing our economy, especially the local level, is, is in many ways our next beachhead. You know, that’s where they want to be. And they’re going to continue to serve their, their country and their communities for the rest of their lives. And the economic issues are, are maybe some of the most glaring. And, and some of the greatest opportunities.

HEFFNER: We’re running out of time. But some corporations have stepped up to the plate in a major way. Name a couple of them …

RIECKHOFF: Yeah. I mean, for us it’s been pretty far reaching. It’s been companies like Google and Miller/Coors and, and CNN and E-bay … they’ve stepped up in different, creative ways to support our cause.

When people come to me and say “How can I support veterans?”. I say, “Well, what do you do well?” Whatever you do well, do that for veterans. So if you’re E-Bay and, and you sell tons of stuff online … figure out how to use that platform to connect with our veterans.

Google has donated technologies. Miller/Coors has helped us hire people and, and involve them in their workforce and engaged us in communities nationwide. And I think the corporate response has been helpful, especially around employment. We’ve made some good headway around employment. But there also have been other areas that are lacking, especially philanthropy.

Philanthropy has to step up now around what is really a public health challenge. So foundations, individual donors, they need to understand that this is not just a government problem. It’s the community’s problem and we need them to step up and donate to some of the best in class here in New York and around the country.

HEFFNER: Paul, I’m so delighted you were able to join us today.

RIECKHOFF: My pleasure, sir, and congratulations on the show. It’s great to be with you.

HEFFNER: You, too. Thank you.

And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time…for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind.

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