Friends attest to toughness, tenacity of captured airman displayed by Iraq

January 22, 1991|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,Anne Arundel Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- The guy on the Iraqi television broadcasts looked like Lt. Jeffrey N. Zaun, a 1984 Naval Academy graduate, and his voice sounded like Lieutenant Zaun, but Lt. Tom Belesimo, a former gymnastics teammate says it wasn't the Jeff Zaun he remembers.

"That's definitely not the way Jeff speaks," Lieutenant Belesimo said in a telephone interview from Norfolk, Va., where he is stationed.

"He normally sounds more confident, and his speech is smooth and flowing. This sounded like he was hesitating, he was being prodded. I don't think it was Jeff. Not the Jeff I remember."

Americans first heard interviews with Lieutenant Zaun, 28, of Cherry Hill, N.J., and six other captured airmen Sunday afternoon, then saw videotapes on television yesterday morning.

Lieutenant Zaun, who was standing against a white background, looked shaken and had what appeared to be bruises and cuts around his eyes and elsewhere on his face. His gums appeared bloody.

He told interviewers that he had flown a Navy A6-E Intruder from the carrier USS Saratoga in the Red Sea on a mission against an airfield in southwestern Iraq and said the United States had "wrongly attacked the peaceful people of Iraq."

He was "doing what they taught him in survival school," said his former gymnastics coach Peter Kormann.

"Jeff told me they teach these kids to tell (their captors) what they already know and if they want them to read a statement, go ahead and do it if it will save your life," Mr. Kormann, now the gymnastics coach at Ohio State, explained in a telephone interview.

Mr. Kormann recalled the young gymnast as "the type of guy you look for in an athlete, somebody with a lot of tenacity and aggressiveness."

Along with the tenacity and aggressiveness, Mr. Kormann said hefound sensitivity. "He spent a lot of time at our house," the coach recounted. "My kids loved him. He always had time to play with them and read to them."

We're all praying for him. We're just praying every minute that this thing gets over and they get him back," Mr. Kormann said.

Lieutenant Zaun's family could not be reached yesterday.

Back in Cherry Hill, Bob Kinsella, who grew up across the street from Lieutenant Zaun, recalled daily games of football or hockey or baseball with the neighborhood gang.

"He was very into sports," Mr. Kinsella said. But he wasn't a great natural athlete. He was just very determined."

Lieutenant Zaun's determination will stand him in good stead during his captivity, Lieutenant Belesimo said. "Nothing is too difficult for Jeff," he said. "If you put a challenge in front of him, he'll make it happen."

"Jeff's a survivor," Mr. Kormann said. "If anyone can get out of this, he can. He's a tough, tough kid."

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