It took several attempts for Navy Lt. Jeffrey Zaun to deliver a luncheon speech to midshipmen at the Naval Academy in Annapolis.
The 1984 academy graduate had to wait for cheers, applause and even a few barks to die down.
Zaun, one of the first group of prisoners taken by Iraq during the Gulf war, had come to his alma mater yesterday to thank the midshipmen for their support.
When his Iraqi captors put him in front of TV cameras, his swollen and bruised face was a haunting and strong early image of the war. He was released one month ago today with other
POWs after coalition forces ousted the Iraqi army from Kuwait.
"A month and a half ago, hope was hard to come by," said Zaun, 28. "Those were some pretty dark days and you comforted [my family] a lot. I appreciate that and I thank you for that.
"Remember, we are warriors and don't lose sight of that. In the meantime, beat Army," he added.
With that, Zaun sat down to a lunch of chili dogs, chocolate chip cookies and milkshakes. After lunching with the brigade, Zaun met with Annapolis Mayor Alfred Hopkins and reviewed the midshipmen's dress parade.
Zaun was shot down Jan. 17 while flying his plane over southwestern Iraq. He spent 47 days in captivity before being released. During Zaun's captivity, midshipmen sent his family in New Jersey a 31-foot banner with words of encouragement.
While a student at the academy, Zaun captained the gymnastics team. He stayed on at the academy six months after his graduation as an assistant gymnastics coach and physical education teacher.
To honor Zaun, captains of each of the academy's sporting teams collected sports memorabilia and other items inscribed with names and messages. The items were placed in Zaun's former locker to await his return.
"It's kind of a mess, like mine used to be," Zaun said yesterday as he stood in front of the locker and removed the items. "It's still a little cleaner."
He was presented with a tennis racket, a slightly deflated volleyball signed by the academy team, an American flag and other items. There also was a copy of a dart board superimposed over the face of Saddam Hussein, shot full of holes by the school's rifle team. Underneath photo Saddam was the caption, "We're all shooting for you."
Zaun talked very briefly about his time as a POW.
"I would get up every morning and pace," he said. "I would do a few exercises lying down, but mostly it was pacing and stretching.
"The darkest time was right after the [Iraqi] army turned us over to some political people," he added.
Midshipman Lt. Curtis Leyshon, captain of this year's gymnastics team, was the first midshipman to present Zaun with items donated by his teammates. Leyshon gave Zaun photographs of the current gymnastics team and of the one he was on.
Leyshon, holding a tattered gym bag, explained that the bag was passed down from the current captain to a freshman who they believe will someday be captain. The tradition of passing down the bag was begun by Zaun, he said.
"When we first heard that he was a gymnastics team captain, it just made me realize we're here for more than academics and sports. It made me realize the reality of it all," he said.
"That could be me soon. Like he said, it's important to remember we're warriors. I'm honored to have met him."