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Fargo vet uses art to unpack the horrors of war

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Josh Zeis walks 45th Street North in Fargo.
Josh Zeis walks 45th Street North in Fargo, N.D., carrying a 100-plus pound block of ice shaped like a military pack on June 9. Zeis is taking part in a National Endowment for the Humanities funded project helping veterans cope with their return from war.
Dan Koeck for MPR News

It's a comfortable 70 degrees at 8 a.m. when Josh Zeis shrugs into his military rucksack.

But this isn't a soldier's gear. It's a 100-pound block of ice strapped to a backpack frame. Zeis says it's about the weight of the pack and medical bag he carried in Iraq.

"I remember this feeling," he said. "Feels about right."

Zeis, 32, is making the roughly 20-mile walk to the places he went the day in 2007 when he found out he was going to war. From his apartment, he'll walk to the National Guard armory, then on to his sister's house.

Some of the walk he shares with his girlfriend, their dog Max and North Dakota State University faculty members who track his progress and provide support.

This is performance art. The ice represents the stories veterans carry. It's part of a $201,000 project funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities using art to help veterans ease the burdens of war they carry.

"It helps to share the burden. You tell somebody the story, they sort of have to carry that with them now," he said. "It makes it easier, lightens the load."

Josh Zeis is doing a project to help vets cope.
Josh Zeis is participating in a project funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities that uses art to help veterans cope with their return from war.
Dan Koeck for MPR News

Zeis is a ceramics instructor at the Plains Art Museum in Fargo and works with his brother in a concrete business.

Zeis spent nine months in Iraq as a medic with a unit that searched for roadside bombs. A lasting legacy of his time in Iraq searching for roadside bombs is a hyper vigilance. He's always scanning the roadsides, looking for anything out of place. And he finds stuff: money, sunglasses, cellphones.

"There's always something to harvest," he said.

He's a little anxious about sharing his own stories publicly. But the stories come out in pieces during an 8-mile stretch alongside a reporter.

The stories include memories of a middle-of-the-night call that came for a medic from the base motor pool.

"Providing care to this soldier who pointed his M4 (assault rifle) at his chest and pulled the trigger," Zeis recalled as he walked in Fargo heat. "He was probably dead before he hit the ground. We just worked on him. We did what we were trained to do. It was the first dead body I've ever seen."

Those memories come roaring back at him whenever he hears of a veteran killing himself.

Josh Zeis hoists a block of ice that he created.
Josh Zeis hoists a block of ice that he created in the shape of a military pack onto his back.
Dan Koeck for MPR News

"I think about riding in the back of that ambulance," he said, "trying to grab his tongue with my latex gloved fingers, trying to get an endotracheal tube in."

Zeis reached for another story from another hard day. He was driving a vehicle in a convoy on patrol when it was attacked.

"I panicked. I felt like I was very convinced we were going to be dead," he said. "I was just afraid and sort of like a coward. That can totally deflate someone's ego. Never thought I'd act like that. I wasn't in control anymore. It was all primal response and that's how I respond I guess."

He still feels shame telling that story. But he says he doesn't regret a moment of his war experience.

"It showed me the the way the world really is," he said. "There's tragedy. There's hate and there's fear. Sometimes things happen where you react in a way you didn't anticipate yourself acting or responding."

That self-realization changed Zeis. He had planned to go to medical school. But he returned from Iraq determined to become an artist. He works in clay.

PTSD art
Josh Zeis and his dog, Max, pause on the outskirts of Fargo on June 9. Zeis's wife, Stacey Anthony, and Max joined Zeis for segments of the walk.
Dan Koeck for MPR News

War made life more meaningful, Zeis said.

"The horrible things, those feelings, they stir up life a little bit and they make you think about life," he said. "I'm glad I was woken up from whatever dormant state I was in."

The next phase of this project is a series of pottery and writing workshops for veterans by North Dakota State University faculty. Zeis will help with the pottery.

The National Endowment for the Humanities grant will fund art workshops and oral history collection for the rest of the year.

"For me it's just a far more provocative method of getting people to ask questions and think about the world without worrying about one particular answer or one particular way of thinking about the experience," said NDSU associate professor of sociology Christina Weber.

Weber, who spearheaded the project, has studied how soldiers fare returning from war. She wanted to do something that engaged veterans beyond data driven research.

The goal was to give veterans a safe place to unburden themselves. She decided art was the best approach.

"I'm hoping they can find community and a place to talk about the things they've experienced or at least be able to share it and know there's a community of support around them and open up a lot of dialogue," she said.

As the temperature crept toward 90 degrees and the ice pack shrunk and fractured, Zeis reached back to grab shards of ice to eat.

He saw meaning in that simple act. Perhaps the burdens we carry, he reasoned, aren't all bad.