The War Hits Home

updated 02/04/1991 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/04/1991 01:00AM

In the driveway of his home in Virginia Beach, Va., Navy Lt. Jeffrey Zaun's black Ford Mustang convertible sits just where he left it in August. A few days ago, hearing that Zaun had been taken prisoner after ejecting from his A-6E Intruder attack plane somewhere over Kuwait or Iraq, a few little girls from the neighborhood hung a clutch of yellow ribbons from columns on the front of the small, wood frame house. At a local tavern, Zaun's friends and Navy buddies reminisced about the earnest, friendly bachelor who moved into this military ghetto three years ago. They know they will probably not be seeing Jeff Zaun any time soon. "Just put down that Becky misses him a lot," says a forlorn-looking bartender at the Ready Room, a hangout for pilots from nearby Oceana Naval Air Station. "He was a very fine gentleman."

They hit with a nasty report and a sickening aftershock—three brief, wobbly video clips from Iraqi television. In stark close-up on the screen were images of three captured U.S. fighter pilots, their faces swollen and battered, their voices slurred and their eyes glazed. Paraded like prizes of war, Marine Lt. Col. Clifford Acree, 39, Marine Chief Warrant Officer Guy Hunter Jr., 46, and Zaun, 28, became show-and-tell exhibits for Saddam Hussein—and America's first gulf war POWs. Their haunting stares, hinting of fear, anger, confusion and pain, were a blunt reminder that the gulf conflict is not some game to be played out with high-tech computer-controlled missiles and supersonic jets. It is war. And war is ugly.

Like millions of other viewers, the families of the captured men watched the interviews with anguish and anger but also with a sense of relief, since their loved ones, previously assumed missing, were at least still alive. Military officials requested that, for the captives' protection, the families not speak publicly, and for the most part they cooperated. But the questions they asked were universal: Is he hurt? Is he being tortured? Will he survive?

In his small office on the sylvan campus of Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., James Bond Stockdale is a stranger to the captives and their families—yet he understands their plight better, perhaps, than most people. Twenty-five years ago Stock-dale was a Navy commander in Vietnam. He was flying a combat mission when his A-4 attack plane was hit just south of Hanoi. "I was just pulling out of a dive when I heard a noise I hadn't expected—the boom-boom-boom of a 57-mm. gun," says the 67-year-old veteran. "All the red lights came on, my control system was going out—I could barely keep that plane from flying into the ground." He managed to eject and was skimming over the jungle under his parachute when suddenly, "[I started] hearing rifle fire, then the whine of bullets." In an instant he assessed the state of the war—and the likely length of his looming captivity. "I said to myself, 'Five years.' "

It turned out to be 2,714 days—more than seven years before he saw freedom or his family again. Captured first by civilians, Stockdale had it bad from the beginning. "They are right on top of me," he recalled in his 1984 book In Love and War, "the town roughnecks, running pell-mell from the south, carrying clubs and screaming.... Every kid has to show off, gets his licks in as I am pummeled, bashed, rolled up in a ball. They grab my arms and legs and twist and kick, and then somebody zonks me over the head, and I start to get woozy."

A few days later, Stockdale, a leg and shoulder broken and afire with pain, was carried almost 100 miles north to the North Vietnamese capital, to the infamous Hoa Lo prison, known as the Hanoi Hilton. There he endured torture both physical and mental, seemingly endless solitary confinement and at times self-inflicted "survival" wounds. Once, to avoid having to perform in a propaganda film, he repeatedly hit his own face with a stool, causing such bruising and swelling that the North Vietnamese would not film him. Another time, facing the threat of severe torture, he broke a window in his cell and used the shards of glass to cut his wrists. "I've got to go on the offensive," he remembers thinking. "I can't just wait for the ax to fall and then be sorry about it." A jailer found Stockdale bleeding and quickly bound his wounds.

Stockdale won't speculate about the sort of treatment the downed American fliers may have already endured in Baghdad. But this he can say: "Fear is rampant." Early on, he says, "You're disoriented, you're hurt. You're alone, and you start to feel very, very despondent. In three days you can be reduced to a whimpering, confused animal."

That, he suspects, is what Baghdad hopes will happen to the prisoners. "They display the captives for the Iraqi people, to show them what the enemy looks like, to show he is repentant, downcast, shamefaced...probably a coward. They parade these guys around the city and say, 'Here's one of those assholes. Now look at him. We're going to make mincemeat of him and all his ilk.' " To resist their captors, says Stockdale, now a senior research fellow at Stanford's conservative Hoover Institution, the POWs—trained to be fierce, independent warriors—must now learn to rely on each other. "The No. 1 personality trait that spelled disaster and heartbreak and failure was not trusting in your [fellow captives]," Stockdale says. "The highest value in prison isn't God and country, it's the guy next door. You've got to stick together. It's all you've got."

For the POWs' families, isolated and frustratingly uninformed, hope is all they can cling to. In middle-class Cherry Hill. N.J., Marjorie and Calvin Zaun, Jeffrey's mother and father, listened anxiously to his videotaped statement. His mother was disturbed by the sound of her son's voice, "high-pitched and tense" as he denounced America's leaders. As Zaun's boyhood friend Robert Kinsella put it, "Anybody who knows Jeff knows that under normal circumstances he wouldn't talk like that. He's behind enemy lines and he's going to do and say exactly what they tell him to." And still, his mother took comfort in seeing even Jeffs battered face. "I'm smiling for the first time, because he's alive," she told a reporter, her eyes filled with tears. Pacing the living room floor, Calvin Zaun pounded his fist into his palm, reminding himself that he had raised his son into a man. "He's alive, he's alive," he repeated. "He's a strong sonofabitch. He's a survivor."

—Karen S. Schneider, Don Sider in Florida

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