Posted on Sun, Jan. 26, 2003

Jeffrey Zaun lives with his parents in Cherry Hill. He's looking for a job.
By Edward Colimore
Inquirer Staff Writer

He was the face of the Persian Gulf war, the image of the battered, bloodied American POW appearing on front pages, magazine covers and television around the world.

Now, 12 years after his plane was shot down over Iraq, Jeffrey N. Zaun is broke, jobless and back in his boyhood bedroom in Cherry Hill.

In the town where thousands gave him a hero's welcome, the 40-year-old is now trying to make it as a civilian. Zaun spends his days at his parents' ranch home dispatching his resumes, prepping for interviews, and surfing the Net for a job. His social life? Curtailed, he says.

Zaun's red late-model Saturn sits unused in the driveway. Out of work for 15 months and back home since June, he can't afford the insurance.

"Don't cry for me," he said. Jeff Zaun is a survivor.

"I'm famous for being shot down and, hey, I got shot down again, but I will survive that, too. I'm trying something risky - starting a career in banking," said Zaun, who graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and in 2000 earned an MBA from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

Weeks before the World Trade Center attack, Zaun was told he would be laid off from his job as an investment banking associate at Lehman Bros. in New York City. Since then, he's also used this time to reflect on his nearly two-month imprisonment and brush with death in an Iraqi prison.

And a year ago he began to wage a new battle - one in the U.S. courts against Saddam Hussein and his government.

He and 16 other POWs and their families are trying to exact a price - $910 million - for the unlawful treatment and pain suffered during the war.

"We're glad he's home," said Calvin Zaun, 74, an Air Force veteran who works part time as a security guard at Cherry Hill High School East and has lived in his house for the last 45 years. "It was bad [during the Persian Gulf war] when we didn't know whether he was alive or dead or tortured. And he was tortured to some extent."

Media-shy, Zaun last week talked freely for hours about the threats of execution in an Iraqi prison, his return to the United States, and attention that left him feeling "like Monica Lewinsky for the day."

"I've been pondering things over the past year," said Zaun, an analytical, introspective man who has continually tested himself - first in his military role and now in civilian life.

"To my mind, what I went through [in the war] was not as emotionally troubling as losing a kid or going through a divorce. It wasn't as emotionally troubling as the problems faced by thousands of soldiers who fought in the war and are eating out of straws because of gulf war syndrome."

Zaun said his experience got attention because it was "exotic."

"I went through a severe month and a half, but I'm safe at home. I think about the Iraqis who died during the war and how they are dying like weeds because of this guy [Saddam Hussein]."

Zaun supports renewed military action to oust Hussein and bring democracy to Iraq. He has a perspective on the current crisis that many others cannot claim.

"I didn't watch it on TV. I experienced it," he said, as he sipped from a cup of coffee at the dining room table in his parents' Whitman Avenue home in Erlton.

"Let's not be too faint-hearted," he said of the possibility of war. "Taking out the regime is the least bad alternative."

At times, he watches television for news of the military buildup but has focused on the mission of finding a job. He'd like a junior-level position in a bank or investment banking firm, willing to prove himself.

Zaun said his situation is like "a woman who got married at 22, had two kids, returned to school to learn a profession and then reentered the job market at age 40.

"I need to convince people I have value walking through the door; I don't expect to be treated like a star," he said.

In the midst of the tight job market, Zaun remains optimistic.

"When I was in the Navy, my future wasn't all that bright because I could no longer get command of an A-6 squadron," he said. The Navy had phased out the A-6. "The military wasn't becoming less but my community in the military was. They were shutting down the factory.

"Now, I may be on the bottom floor of the financial community, but my trajectory is up."

Life back on Whitman Avenue has allowed him to renew his relationship with his parents now as an adult, something he missed because he left home after high school for the Naval Academy and, later, the Navy.

"Keeping in touch with old friends is a little circumscribed because you can't keep saying, 'Hey, I'm unemployed. What's going on?' " added Zaun, who is single.

For now, his old bedroom is crammed with belongings from his life in New York before he lost his job. Zaun's 200-year-old painting depicting a war scene from the Napoleonic wars sits in the corner of the living room. In other rooms are a photo of the A-6E Intruder he flew and a shot of his father with the twin towers of the World Trade Center in the background.

Zaun's soft-spoken mother, Marjorie, 76, said her son has been focused on finding a job. "I hope he gets work," she said. "He's certainly been trying."

A bombardier/navigator on an A-6E Intruder, he went on the mission into Iraq with pilot Robert Wetzel, who still calls him every Jan. 17 to recall that fateful day and now also talk about the lawsuit. But that's not the only time they talk - they've remained friends.

On that foiled mission, Zaun had carefully studied his target: a refueling station at an airfield southwest of Iraq.

An enemy missile hit before Zaun could deliver his bomb payload. He ejected with Wetzel, who broke both arms during the exit. Wetzel, contacted through his attorney, would not comment.

Both men were quickly captured, blindfolded, handcuffed and transported to Baghdad to be interrogated.

"The worst part was being locked up in my cell and thinking they would shoot me," said Zaun. "I thought at some point these guys would kill us."

The Iraqis ordered Zaun to appear on a tape denouncing the allied invasion of Iraq and gave him the impression they would kill him if he didn't. Zaun said he beat himself in the face to make himself a less attractive candidate for broadcast, but was forced to do the video anyway.

"The freezing, the beating, being alone and threat of execution... that got my mind off my duty to my friends and that's why I did the tape," said Zaun. "That's when I failed."

Iraq soon was defeated and Zaun and fellow POWs were released on March 4, 1991. The following month he shunned reporters as he took part in a parade in honor of him and other troops who fought in the war.

About 23,000 people - cheering, clapping and shouting - lined the parade route. An additional 58,000 listened to Zaun speak at the football stadium of Cherry Hill High School West, where he graduated in 1980.

After his hero's welcome, he remained in the service and continued to fly missions. Navy officials summoned him to Florida for an interview for a study of POWs.

"When I got off the plane in Florida, the media were waiting for me and that blindsided me," he said.

Zaun ducked the media spotlight that shined on many other POWs of the gulf war. "I wanted to get back to work," he said. "I didn't like the self-promotion of it. I didn't do the talk-show circuit."

Zaun left active duty in 1998 as a lieutenant commander and became part of the inactive reserves.

He had to find a new career and turned to the Wharton School, which he described as an "outstanding civilian boot camp."

Zaun found a job at Lehman Bros., but he and several others were notified of their layoffs prior to the Sept. 11 attack.

"I was in my apartment about a quarter mile from the World Trade Center when I heard the first plane go in," he said. "I was waiting for 9 o'clock to come to call about a job at an investment bank.

"It sounded like an airplane crashed in the city, and I went down the elevator to take a look. The building was burning."

The company Zaun was going to call on the day of the terrorist attack was located in the World Trade Center and lost many people.

"Osama bin Laden and I were both there at the World Trade Center because it was the center of the financial revolution," he said. "But we were there for exactly opposite reasons. I saw something to embrace; he saw something to destroy."

Contact staff writer Edward Colimore at 856-779-3833 or

His bruised face appeared on TV during the gulf war after he was shot down and captured.

Jeffrey N. Zaun, welcomed home as a hero after the Persian Gulf war, is looking for a job in investment banking. He has an MBA from the Wharton School, but was laid off from Lehman Bros. in New York just before the 9/11 attacks. Inquirer photograph by Michael Plunkett.