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Sunday, April 13

Returning POW will face onslaught of attention

By Matt Katz | The (Cherry Hill, N.J.) Courier-Post

When Sgt. James Riley returns from the Middle East, he will jump into an ocean of attention.

Fortunately, these are not uncharted waters.

Like Riley, Jeffrey Zaun grew up in South Jersey. Like Riley, Zaun went to Iraq to fight for America, during the first gulf war. Like Riley, Zaun was among the first Americans to be captured by Iraq at the start of the war. Like Riley, Zaun survived, and returned to South Jersey.

"I would guess (the POWs) are probably not as happy as I am right now," said Zaun, a former Navy bomber pilot from Cherry Hill whose plane was shot down the first day of Operation Desert Storm.

"My experience was everybody was all happy and I was still a bit stunned. I was still on my guard."

Zaun, who was a POW for 46 days, said Riley will be blindsided by the overwhelming attention.

"You don't have a clue, and you don't care," Zaun said. "His world is those Army guys, and public opinion be damned. He'll be surprised ... pleasantly or not."

Zaun said the extraordinary number of well-wishers is awkward.

"I would try to have a genuine reaction with each of them," he said. "But you have an emotional limit. ... You find yourself saying the same thing to the 12th guy as he first guy. Whether you like it or not, it's hard to have independent conversations with that many people. I just felt insincere."

During those meetings and countless media interviews, Zaun said, he found himself recounting his story rather than the actual experience.

"I was dealing with the media onslaught, which was a complete shock," he said. "You're not trained for that."

Although he said the media attention was "disorienting," it also helped. "It takes your mind off (the captivity)," he said.

Otherwise, Riley, an Army sergeant from Pennsauken, N.J., might be emotionally healthy and not have problems like post-traumatic stress disorder, Zaun said. "I think that's largely psychologist-induced," he said.

Plus, Riley survived. And that, Zaun said, can improve one's perspective."For the rest of his life, when a bad things happen, he can go, 'Well, no one is shooting at me. I'm not dead yet,' " Zaun said. "It's a good thing."

Zaun, who moved to Jersey City on Sunday and will start work at Standard & Poor's Monday, has contacted the Riley family's casualty assistance officer and offered to talk with Riley.

He said the advice he would give any former POW is to get back to work.

"The way you cope with this kind of stress is with your unit," he said.

A few months after his release, Zaun was flying again.