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Interview with Robert Vance, September 18, 2007
September 18, 2007
Interview with Chaplain Robert Vance.
Phys. Desc:

Interviewee:  Vance, Robert Interviewer:  Zarbock, Paul Date of Interview:  9/18/2007 Series:  Military Chaplains Length  60 minutes


Zarbock: Good afternoon. My name is Paul Zarbock. I'm a staff person for the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, Randall Library. Today is the 18th of September in the Year 2007, and we are at Camp Lejeune. This is part of the Military Chaplain's Oral History Project. This afternoon we'll be interviewing Lieutenant Commander Robert Vance. Good afternoon sir, how are you?

Vance: I'm great. Thank you for asking.

Zarbock: Tell me what event or series of events or individual or series of individuals led you into the ministry?

Vance: Well I guess it would-- it started when I was 14-years-old I would say. My father had passed away, and we were of a Protestant denomination that I kind of grew up in, and Boy Scouts, which I had a great time with. And when the minister came to the house to talk to my mom about the funeral arrangements, there was myself, two brothers and a sister.

Zarbock: Where were you living sir?

Vance: We were living in El Centro, California at the time. I was born in Akron, Colorado but we moved to El Centro, actually for my health reasons. I was kind of sickly when I was young-- you wouldn't know that now but I was then. So at any rate--.

Zarbock: I'm glad you recovered by the way.

Vance: As am I. The minister said something that kind of struck myself and well one of my brothers. He said, "Well the normal fee for a funeral that I do"-- and he gave an amount for it. And I was only 14 at the time but it struck me as odd that the minister would ask the widow for a fee to do a funeral. And, of course, my brother, being a little older, he really got upset with that, and we quit going to church. Now my mom, she didn't skip a beat, she was like, okay, that's no problem. And so I had a sour taste in my mouth about religion. And I don't know at 14 if I could say I had a sour taste about religion, as much as I thought that was just not right, that wasn't cool. Well my mom remarried and we moved to Las Vegas, Nevada, and there I became friends with a lot of people that were members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and I had no idea what a Mormon was. I knew that -- there was two Mormons that went to our school in California and they were two girls and they were two of the best looking girls in the school. So I figured well I guess if this is what Mormons are all about I guess this is not a bad thing; and I had no idea what was involved in the church. But as time progressed they were talking about different points of doctrine and I found it quite intriguing. And before I turned 18-years-old I joined the LDS Church. And I joined it not because I had this earthshaking revelation that it was true, but that it made sense, and they answered every question that I asked and they did it very matter of factly and without hem-hawing around. I had even talked to some other pastors and I asked them similar questions, and what I got was, "Well it's a mystery, we don't know anything about that." And yet the LDS guys were, "Oh yeah," and then they would explain it. And so I felt very comfortable with that. Well as you may be aware, at 19-years-old most LDS young men go on a mission. And my bishop-- which is the head of our local congregation, he's called a bishop-- he told me, he said, "Well, you really don't have to go on a mission. You're 18-years-old, you got a new car." And I believe that that was inspired, because I'm the kind of guy that if you ask me to do something I'll all over it. If you tell me, well we might have a problem. And so he kind of let me off the hook, there was no pressure for me to go, and I prayed about it, thought about it and I decided that was the thing to do. And so really for me that's I guess when my ministry started back then.

Zarbock: Where did you go?

Vance: I went to Ohio and West Virginia-- a wonderful, wonderful opportunity. I spent two years just going out serving the people and taking to them about Jesus Christ and about points of doctrine and sharing ideas with them.

Zarbock: From age 18 to age 20, is that correct?

Vance: 19 to 21.

Zarbock: 19 to 21.

Vance: And I learned so much. Well what I learned, probably outside of the doctrinal point, was things about human nature. I'd like to say that I was pretty studied, and I put a lot of effort in learning the Bible and understanding the doctrine of the Bible, to the point that I was kind of arrogant, kind of cocky. I would go to talk to people about the church and they would bring up some point, and I would say, "Well let me show you in your Bible," and I would turn to it and I would kind of spar with them. Well call it youth, call it stupidity, call it whatever you want, I learned probably about the first year in that that's just not the way it works. God doesn't want us to be contentious, he doesn't want us to argue and beat each other up over points of doctrine. So that really molded my temperament when it come to talking to people. As long as we had a discussion I was fine, but as soon as it turned contentious I was done; and I would make that point. And I think that's served me pretty much to this day. I enjoy having a great conversation but not to the point where it becomes contentious. Well after my mission was over I came home to Las Vegas. I got into the medical field and I spent 16 years in the medical field doing physical rehabilitation. And interestingly enough, as you can probably kind of gather, one of the points that interested me about the church was the fact that there was no paid clergy; none of our clergymen get paid to do what they do, they're all self-employed or-- not self-employed, but they are employed, and then they do their religious work on their off time. And so the whole church is set up that way. Well as I'm working in the medical field I'm still continuing doing various callings in the ward. And that's just the way we work. It's really-- it's not as bad as it sounds because if you look in a typical congregation there's literally several hundred jobs-- Sunday school teacher, youth instructor.

Zarbock: Choir master, organist.

Vance: Yes, all of them. And you get all of these people that are volunteering to do all these things, and that's pretty smooth, and then you have the bishop at the top who just kind of helps orchestrate it. And really, from the military perspective, if you looked at the line of staff it would fall- you really get it.

Zarbock: By the way, back to the physical rehabilitation. What credential had you-- how did you get in, who taught you?

Vance: Well I started off doing physical therapy in a hospital with absolutely no experience whatsoever.

Zarbock: Somebody said do this and you did it.

Vance: My mom was a nurse and she knew somebody in the Physical Therapy Department. They says, "Oh yeah, I can use somebody to do the grunt work." And so I got in, mopping floors and doing that, and then just kind of gradually learned, realizing that I wasn't going to go anywhere unless I got education behind me. So I started Pre-Physical Therapy and I was going to go to the University of Utah to become a physical therapist. That didn't work out, so I did the next best thing and I got my degree in Athletic Training.

Zarbock: What year?

Vance: '88.

Zarbock: And how old were you then?

Vance: '88-- is that the right--? I was 28 when I got that. After I finished that degree I decided that well you can get a Bachelor's degree and if you want to make more money and do more things you need to go on. So I went and got my degree in Counseling Psychology with an emphasis in rehabilitation counseling. That way I could stay in the medical field, I could employ my skills as a counselor. And from the standpoint of working with people, especially from a physical rehabilitation standpoint, 90% of it's mental. If you can convince them that they can do things, then it's just the hard work of getting the body to go. So therein kind of started my quest of helping people on a more-- I don't want to say spiritual-- probably more mental level. But all the time I'm still doing my church duties. And at the time that the Chaplain Corps was introduced to me-- and this is kind of a funny story, at least I think it's kind of funny-- I was finishing up my Master's degree. I was the associate pastor with our congregation, and these two sweet sisters in our ward came up to me and they said, "You know, with your credentials and probably a little bit more education you could be a chaplain." And the only chaplain that I had had any contact or recollection and knowledge of was Father Mulcahy in MASH. And so I said, "Well do I have to wear the dorky hat, the fedora?" And they laughed. And well I just kind of passed it off because that wasn't anything that I was really thinking about doing.

Zarbock: These ladies spontaneously saw you as a-- announced to you their perception of you as being a military chaplain.

Vance: Yes they did.

Zarbock: Where did that come from?

Vance: Well they were both spouses of Air Force-- Las Vegas is where Nellis Air Force Base is-- and so I'm sure they were around chaplains and whatnot; not news to them, or not new to them. So I don't know. I've always been told that I'm easy to talk to and that I seem to kind of help people and kind of am driven to be a listener. So I passed it off, but that thought never left me, it just kind of was in the back of the head. And then about a year afterwards I was talking to my wife about it, and of course she had no clue what a chaplain was or anything like that. And I got out the phone book, do the only thing I knew what I should do, and I looked in the phone book for Army recruiters, and I called the Air Force, saying, "Hey, what do you know about chaplains?" And the person said, "Uh. . . well we have chaplains but I don't know anything about them, so I'm sorry I can't help you." I thought okay. Of course at that time I'm thinking well you're an idiot. But now as I understand the process, I'm sure the enlisted recruiter just had no clue about it. But I, my thought was this isn't a way to run a business-- no reflection, bad reflection on the Air Force. So I called the Army and the Army was all excited-- and I'm just going down alphabetically-- and then they said, "Well how old are you?" And I said, "Well I'm 35." And they go, "Oh well you're too old." So okay, so I called the Navy and asked the same question, and the Navy said, "Well sure, we have chaplains, hold on a second." So I waited for a few moments, somebody else got on the line, talked to them for a minute, and they said, "Oh yeah, hold on just a second, and let me contact this other person." Probably in a matter of about five minutes I was talking to a chaplain corps recruiter out of San Francisco. Now unbeknownst to me, I called Las Vegas, they routed me to San Diego; San Diego then routed me to San Francisco, and then two days later I had the recruiter out coming to talk to me. Well I wasn't, as far as the Department Defense, wasn't totally- didn't have all of the qualifications that I needed. So because we don't have a seminary for the LDS church, I had to get some additional graduate and college classes that would be commensurate to what the DOD recognizes as a degree in theology or divinity.

Zarbock: So there was a menu of courses and--?

Vance: Well the requirement at the time was that you had to have a Master's of Divinity or Theology, which equated to 72 graduate credits, that was sanctioned by the DOD. And so many, many years ago the LDS Church had had said because we don't have a seminary they would use the degree in a helping profession, like psychology counseling, and then add to that 24 to 30 credits of religion through Brigham Young University that put those together, and then that would satisfy the DOD's requirement. So that's what I did.

Zarbock: So you trudged off to Brigham Young to take more courses?

Vance: Well I was able to take most of them in Las Vegas through a satellite program down there, and a couple of them that were-- they weren't really online classes back then, they were more mail order type classes. And so in 1995 I raised my hand and I became a chaplain. The interesting thing about that was is that my wife and I, we were struggling, struggling with the decision. She was working full-time, I was working full-time; we were doing quite well financially. And for me to come into the chaplaincy I had to take a 60% cut in pay.

Zarbock: And she took 100%.

Vance: Well so-- it was a big factor. So we fasted and prayed about it, and the thing that really solidified in our mind that it was the right thing to do was that within one minute of each other we both had the same answer, and we both looked at each other and she said, "You know, this is the right thing," and I go, "Yeah, I feel the same way." And so off we went. And so here I am 12 years later. So that's how I got introduced to it.

Zarbock: Where have you served? Overseas?

Vance: I started right here at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and I was the brig chaplain, which-- a wonderful ministry. I didn't think that at first. At first I thought well why in the world do I want to go the brig? And there's a story with that, and it's somewhat positive and somewhat negative at the same time. And I hate to say this but I'll say it for what it is. A lot of times LDS chaplains are always not looked on as favorably as could be from some other denominations because of our theology and our background. And one of the-- again, one of the ladies out in our local ward said, "Oh you'll go to the brig because that's where all the Mormon chaplains go." And I looked at her and she says, "Oh yeah, it's just damage control. There's some chaplains that don't want us in the Protestant chapel." And I thought to myself, well that's kind of crazy. Well I got my first assignment and I was the brig chaplain. And so it was kind of comical, kind of funny, and I do the services over at the brig for a year. When I first got there I was a little concerned, going into the brig every day, and these were kind of the castoffs of life and the ones that nobody wants, the ones that society says you're not deemed worthy to be in our society. And I'll tell you, I got to love those people, and part of the reason is, is that I never asked them what they did; I didn't want to know, I didn't want to be judgmental in the way I looked at them. I just wanted to be able to look at them as a child of God and say, "I'm down here to do whatever you need me to do to help you out." Gave me a whole healthy respect to people who are- they did just stupid things and got caught; by the grace of God there go I, I just didn't get caught doing some of those things. And then other really seriously evil people, but yet they still had some redeeming qualities, you just had to dig for them. And even though they were evil, what I would consider evil, yet they were still- they're still a child of God. And to get up every morning and realize that you're going to go talk to them and minister to them, yes sometimes that was a challenge. There were days that I did not want to go in because I didn't want to have to talk to somebody; but you don't have that opportunity. From there I went out to the School of Infantry, here on Lejeune, went out to Marine Combat Training Battalion. And that was kind of interesting. At that time females started first coming through, and so that was a unique challenge in and of itself, to have the female Marines trained alongside the male Marines. It was always kind of funny because the guys could outdo the women on everything, physically, just running-- anytime there was a competition the guys would just always kill them. But sometimes when it came to the finesse stuff, the women would make the guys look bad. Like they would tell them to go out and dig a fighting hole. Well the guys go out there and they just chuck a bunch of dirt to the side and they'd get down in it and that was it. Well sometimes the ladies-- it was exact, it was just like the field manual said, and the walls were straight and the sump was in there and it just looked good. And so sometimes the women would actually win because they did it by the book. And so that created its own source of contention. From there I went up to the Engineer's School and had a great time. Went to 2nd Marine Division, after that, and served with 3rd Battalion 6th Marines, and spent a whole two and a half years with them, and did a couple of desert warfare training, mountain warfare training. Then we went on, 22nd MEU, the Marine Expeditionary Unit; special operations capable. From there I went to Hawaii. I served on a guided missile cruiser, the CG-73, USS Port Royal. And from there I went to the intelligence community and spent three years there, in Hawaii. And then now I'm back here to the Lejeune area serving with the Marine Aircraft Group 26 at New River.

Zarbock: Off camera. I'm just going to ask you, among other things, three questions. Like bookends-- funny things the bookends, sad things; stuff in the middle, absurdities that you have-- and again what I'm trying not to do is to buffoon the military. But with a multi, multi million individual organization, spread all over the planet, goofy things are going to happen. So let's start off. One of the bookends: happy things, memorable events in your life that were positive.

Vance: The thing that always motivates me and kind of makes me feel like what I'm doing is important is when you see the light bulb come on in somebody's head-- you know the old cartoon when the light comes on and they get it. Those are probably the most memorable things for me is to be able to sit down and talk to somebody, regardless of what their problem is or what their faith group is, and to see them figure it out and get it, and then change their life. We always say that we can write a book about the experiences that we have and some of the, like you say, the buffoonery, the absurdities, the knuckleheads. But then there's the ones that-- the young lad who can't really get along with people and yet all of a sudden he comes in here and he figures out that he's part of a bigger organization and blossoms into just a wonderful leader. Those kind of things are neat. To pin down a couple of memorable-- being able to go to the hospital and see somebody that thinks they were going to lose their war child and all of a sudden have them come out and be healthy and see the relief on the family, and to be there when it happens. On the same token is when somebody is lost, and to be with the family and to see them with their faith embrace the fact this isn't goodbye, this is until we meet again; to be able to share in their spirit, to feel the strength that they have. And sometimes I sit back as a chaplain thinking gosh they should be ministering to me-- and to see their faith. Those are the memorable things. Memorable things are of course also going to different ports and seeing different cultures, and going to church in a foreign land and recognizing the music but not knowing words, looking at the book saying, "I have no clue what that word is but I know the melody," and to be able to sing with them and to fellowship with them, even though we don't have any kind of verbal connection. Those things are kind of neat. To get to see other cultures. We're pretty shaded-- and shaded maybe isn't the word, sheltered probably is a better word, in the United States. We don't understand what other countries go through and the challenges that they have, and we take it for granted to walk in and flip on a light switch and turn on the water and be able to flush the toilet. Those are just things we do-- run down to the supermarket and get food and pull into the gas station-- and there's countries that don't have that. And to see that-- and then as a part of the military-- and part of my job usually when we go out on deployments and things like that is kind of the goodwill ambassador, go out to do what we call community relations projects and try to bring either the Marines or the ship's crew or whomever out to these local areas and to try to help them. That's pretty neat when you see a group of Marines and sailors who they could be going out on liberty and having fun and doing all the things that they do on liberty, and yet they choose to go refurbish an orphanage or cut some grass and get some things out of the way, or bring toys to sick kids in a hospital in a foreign country. Those are memorable, those are things that I'll probably never forget. Memorable also are the trials that my family went through. I think it was hard, as with any deployed family, for the husband and the wife to leave the family and then leave everybody at home. They always think that we're on the party cruise, we're going out and having fun. But the memorable thing for me is really how my wife grew, as she was always Bob Vance's wife, that's kind of how she was known-- and I don't mean that to sound arrogant but when you're in the ministry and you're doing things, people always know who you are, and then oh yes, this is the wife. Well going on deployments, doing different things, having assignments that keep you away, to all of a sudden be Mrs. Vance's husband, that was pretty neat, and to see her blossom and grow in that, and see the kids experience things that they never would have experienced had they stayed in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Zarbock: How many children do you have?

Vance: Four boys.

Zarbock: Ages?

Vance: 26, 24, 23 and 19.

Zarbock: Anybody go into the military?

Vance: My oldest is in the Air Force Reserve. My number two son is, as we speak right now, he's in boot camp for the Hawaii Army National Guard. And my number three son is in the Ford [ph?] Center, also preparing to go on missions for the church. So they're kind of all over the place.

Zarbock: What about absurdities? We were chatting about that off camera, some of the goofy things that-- and there may not be any.

Vance: Well sometimes it's the bureaucracy is-- and the right hand not always knowing what the left hand is doing; it creates all kinds of funny. They're not funny at the time, you're kind of like oh boy, that's just almost plain stupid, but then after you look at it then you kind of- they become funny. I don't-- not to point stones or try to indict anybody but rules, standard operating procedures, after-action reports, they're all wonderful things, they're things in which- that we have to do and they help the flow go. But the thing that's the most absurd to me is that I will do something, I will do an after-action report, I will file it and then the next person that comes along to do it will reinvent the wheel and never look at the after-action report. And so we see this constant learning curve all over and over and over again, and you're just like well why can't we just figure it out, why is it so hard that we have to keep doing the same thing over and over again? Some of the other absurdities are-- and this is going to sound bad and I don't mean it to sound bad-- but sometimes we as chaplains forget that we're chaplains, more so than we are officers. You have to have a good balance between being a staff officer and an advisor to the command, and being a chaplain, a man or woman of God who supports the spiritual nourishment and nurturing of individuals. And sometimes what you see is you see more of the officer part come out than you see of the chaplain. And then sometimes you see the other where they couldn't- they wouldn't know how to staff or paper or give a brief to save their life because they're more interested in doing this. And so to say it's absurd is probably unfair, but sometimes you have to look at it. It's like we just have to find that balance, and I think sometimes that's hard, that really is hard.

Zarbock: Yes. Chaplain, something that I've asked all of the interviewees. Has there ever been a time in your military career when you were ordered, or hinted at broadly, or with a wink and a nod, a nudge, at that level, to do something that was in violation of Navy regulations, your personal belief system, spiritual and ethical framework-- have you ever been told or asked or enticed?

Vance: One time actually when I-- early on in my career. If you're familiar with the Latter Day Saints or the Mormons, we believe in the Bible to be the word of God, and we also belief in the Book of Mormon as a companion scripture. And we come under the Protestant umbrella in the Chaplain Corps; we don't have our own specific thing. And one of the things that before I even came into the Chaplain Corps, the church, meaning the LDS Church, told us that anytime we're doing general divine or Protestant services that we're not to use any of our scripture, we're strictly to stick with the Bible and its principles. So we don't have a problem with that, not at all, but-- because some people might have a problem; if I'm doing a general Protestant service or something of that nature and I was to give some doctrine out of the Book of Mormon, they might find that offensive. So we're just told we don't do that. Well I had a senior chaplain sit me down and say, "Now Chaplain," he says, "you know when you're doing services I don't want you to use the Book of Mormon." I said, "Okay sir, I appreciate that." I wasn't going to anyway, but he didn't know that. And he says, "Yeah, it just wouldn't be right and so I don't want you to use that." He didn't really have that right, to say that. But it's not something that really bothered me. I'm kind of a rabble-rouser as it is and so I kind of have fun with people when they do that. And I said, "Well sir, I wholeheartedly appreciate that, and do you mind if I make a suggestion to you?" And he says, "Sure, what's that?" I said, "Well I would like for you not to use the Old Testament when you preach." "Well why do you say that?" And I go, "Well you're insinuating that my belief in the Book of Mormon as a book of the word of God, so you're saying it's not scripture and therefore I can't use it, would be akin to me telling you not to use the Old Testament." And he goes, "Oh, oh, oh, that's not what I mean." And I go, "Oh sir come on, let's call it what it is, that's exactly what you mean. You don't believe from your theology that this is scripture. I believe it is; and so you're telling me that I can't use it."

Zarbock: It's called censorship isn't it?

Vance: Well I don't want to go that far. He was trying to be true to his faith group.

Zarbock: Sure, sure.

Vance: But it wasn't a problem, but we should have never had that conversation. I appreciated his candor because he was going on the dictates of his religious beliefs. And so I'm not going to find fault within that, for that; but really that should never have happened. Anything from a moral or illegal standpoint, I've never had anybody ask me to do that, that would go against that; nor have I had anybody really ask me to violate my faith. An interesting thing about the chaplains is that people look to us to give them the answers of what's right and wrong. And so very-- I would hope that it would be very few and far between when somebody would dictate to us to do something that would not be right. I'm sure it happens, I'm sure it does.

Zarbock: Well you can read about a few of them, after we get this thing posted on the web.

Vance: I guess I've been fortunate then. In the interviews I've done it is an extreme rarity, and universally if the chaplain was ordered, or again as subtle as hinted at, universally, later that order or that subtle hint was retracted by the person who gave the order or the person who was seductive in trying to arrange something that the chaplain said forthrightly, "No I can't do that and I won't do that."

Vance: I guess there's been times when people have wanted to get information from me that would've been privileged. And I don't know that it was so much- if there was malice or if it was more curiosity-- "Well what did he say? What did he do?" And it's like, "Aw, I can't tell you that." "Well what are they for?" "Oh they're there for problems that I'm helping them with." But I've never had somebody just come right forward and say, "Tell me what exactly happened," because I would just have to smile and say no. (pause) I remember this happened when I was in the brig.

Zarbock: When you were serving in the brig.

Vance: Yes. Kind of a funny story on that too, just real quick. My number three son, he was a little character, and he got in trouble one day in school and the teacher and the principal said, "Where's your dad?" And he said, "He's in the brig." That's the way my son, he was just very matter of fact, "He's in the brig." And they go, "Oh that makes sense." So I had to go talk to him the next day and tell him that wasn't a very good response. When I was serving in the brig-- part of my responsibility as a chaplain is to facilitate for the religious needs of those who are with me. Sometimes it's a hard thing to do. Because I was approached by two groups of people who for all intents and purposes go against everything that I believe. Their way of thinking and their way of worship is contrary to what I believe as a practicing Christian. And they came to me and they asked for help because they couldn't worship like they wanted to. Well I asked a couple of my peers what I should do and pretty much got told hey, they're just kind of out of luck, that's just not something that you do. I struggled with that because my constitutional mandate is to make sure that there's the free exercise. And so I had to go to the commanding officer and say, "Sir, this needs to happen." And he gave me all kinds of grief over that, and not in a bad way, he was actually more kind of joking around and kidding, like how could you do that? Not that he didn't want it to happen but it was just kind of a weird scenario that here a Christian chaplain was coming to bat for particular religions that we would not normally do that for. And the sad part about it was that I got a lot of grief from my fellow chaplains because I did that-- "I would never do that; I couldn't envision myself giving them what they needed." I don't want to say I was proud of the fact of what I did, but I think that really kind of embodies-- it's not about me, it's about who we serve. And now it's kind of a memorable, and also a turning point for me because I realize that sometimes no matter what job you're in, no matter where you're at, you're going to have people that have agendas. And even I have agendas, just like everybody else, and so I'm not trying to make any kind of indictment. But as a chaplain sometimes we have to do things that we just don't want to do; but that's not our fault, and we need to do them anyway because they're the right thing to do.

Zarbock: Yes. Well again off camera I was saying we're going to conclude with a final question on my part. Reviewing your whole life-- this is one of those small questions-- reviewing your whole life. . .

Vance: Just a little bit. . .

Zarbock: Yes-- coming of age, educational, ministerial experiences, military experiences, family experiences, what has Chaplain Vance put together as his belief system?

Vance: There's a song that we have, that I kind of like, and it's a very simple one. It says do what is right and let the consequences fall; and then there's a whole three verses to that. I think we're all given the knowledge between right and wrong, and we all are given choices. I think one of the greatest gifts that God gave us was the ability to choose. He doesn't make us do things. He presents an idea and says either you accept it or you reject it, and by the way the consequences to either one are there. I guess that for me it is I need to do all that I can do to do it right, and then let God pick up the pieces that I can't. That would be my philosophy, my credo.

Zarbock: Thank you Chaplain. #### End of Vance.mp3 ####

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