Langdon native participates in Project Unpack: Telling Stories, Creating Community

A soldier’s life is not one that a majority of the United States population experiences, but it is one that is popularized in media from video games to movies.

Posted on 6/25/16

By Melissa Anderson

An aspect often missed is when those soldiers of war return home as combat veterans. Currently in Fargo-Moorhead, a group of veterans, artists, and professors from North Dakota State University (NDSU) is seeking to change how the civilian population views veterans with “Project Unpack: Telling Stories, Creating Community”.

Josh Zeis is one veteran who is helping to expand the American view of veterans. Zeis grew up in Langdon and, following his high school graduation, was faced with the same decision that his classmates were. However, for Zeis, deciding what to do with his future had more than just the college option ahead.

“Simply put, I had no idea what I wanted to do with myself, so I joined the Army National Guard in 2005 as a medic,” Zeis said.

Zeis deployed to Iraq in 2007 with the 817th Sapper Company tasked with searching for and clearing Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) until 2008. In 2010, Zeis spent about a month with the 815th Medical Company in the Democratic Republic of Congo helping to provide their citizens with free medical care and to train their army medics.

Zeis received his Bachelor of Fine Arts from NDSU in 2011 and his Master of Fine Arts from the George Washington University in 2014. Currently, he works for his brother, Zach Zeis, teaching ceramics at the Plains Art Museum and NDSU. He also assists with various projects with this National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grant.

“Project Unpack: Telling Stories, Creating Community” is a one-year program funded by the NEH to initiate dialogues in the Fargo-Moorhead and North Dakota communities about the legacies of American wars.

The grant’s recipients plan to create events for veterans, their family members, and the larger community to talk freely or ‘unpack’ about complex topics such as life in the military, experiences of war, the return home, and readjusting to life as a civilian.

To achieve this goal, Project Unpack has launched a set of community events that promote various ways of storytelling in the Fargo-Moorhead area. These events include book discussions, artistic outlets, and the recording and archiving of personal stories. The hope of Project Unpack is that such programs allow the community to better understand what war veterans face upon their return home and the challenges that families face upon their veteran’s return home.   

“Unpacking” the internal baggage gives the individual time to reflect and consider the circumstances of their lives more fully. It gives the community the opportunity to listen more thoughtfully and to develop compassion for others.

“This was something that I wanted to do years ago,” Zeis said,”I was having a conversation with artist Michael Strand, who is affiliated with the NDSU National Endowment of the Humanities grant this project was associated with, and the idea was something that resonated with him over the years.”

Strand approached Zeis about doing his “Return” performance piece  as part of the NEH grant “Project Unpack: Telling Stories, Creating Community” which was authored by Dr. Christina Weber of NDSU.

“The grant is geared towards documenting and sharing veterans’ stories in the North Dakota region,” Zeis said.

On June 9, 2016 Zeis did his performance art piece titled “Return” in which he carried a large piece of ice sculpted into the form of an Army rucksack.

“For me, the rucksack is a symbol of military service,” Zeis said.

“A soldier’s rucksack,” Zeis explained, “contains their belongings which they are solely responsible for, which is literally strapped to their bodies and transported from place to place.”

As a representation of that idea, Zeis chose to carve the rucksack out of ice not only to represent the weight of the physical load he carried but also as the representation of the burdens that veterans carry.

“I felt isolated after my deployment by society and also sort of self-isolated. I rarely got the feeling that people actually wanted to listen to my story so, for the most part, I kept it all in my head, and it became a burden. It’s not like I was about to go out of my way to tell it, but I have discovered recently that sharing these stories also helps to share the burden,” Zeis stated.

During his route, Zeis was interviewed by Dan Gunderson of Minnesota Public Radio and was able to share his story with the public.

“So to answer the question ‘why a rucksack sculpted by ice?’, as I walked that day and told my story, I wasn’t thinking about the pain my body was going through,” Zeis explained, “Really, the hardest parts of the walk were when I wasn’t talking. That is when I could feel the blisters on my feet and the abrasions on my shoulders and hips.”

The route was 24 miles, but Zeis only made it to mile 16 before taking his boots off to examine the many giant blisters he had earned during his trek on his feet.

“I’ve never had blisters on my feet before that day. I didn’t think I could make it another 8 miles,” Zeis said.

Even though the ice had melted from 100 plus pounds to about 2 pounds, the damage was done, Zeis was spent. Secretly, Zeis had told himself that if, throughout the walk, anyone offered to carry the pack for him, he wouldn’t hesitate to share.

“There is something deeply meaningful about that offer,” Zeis explained, “Coincidentally, my three brothers: Zach, Brett, and Jesse, offered to finish the last 8 miles for me. That meant so much to me.”

The route that Zeis traveled with his melting rucksack was the same route that he traveled on the day that he  found out that he would be deployed to the war in Iraq with the 817th Sapper Company out of Jamestown.

The trek started where Zeis lived at the time in an apartment complex  near the Century 10 Cinema in Fargo. From there Zeis walked to the National Guard Armory where he worked, to sister, Marlena’s, apartment at the time near Hooligans in West Fargo, and then back to the apartment.

“I began at 8 a.m. and lasted until about 3 p.m. My brothers took over and finished it around 6 p.m.,” Zeis said.

After that, Zeis went to the NDSU Renaissance Hall in downtown Fargo to speak to the public about his experience recreating the walk he took all those years ago.

“The significance of the route was that it was the places that I went on a very life changing day,” Zeis explained, “Hearing that I would be serving in combat operations that day immediately caused me to see the world differently.”

“All of a sudden my future was uncertain. I realized that I wasn’t in control of my fate – time slowed down.”

The pack was so heavy in the beginning that by the 9th mile it had already taken its toll on Zeis’ body. One thing that happened that was unexpected was around mile 11 when the ice began to shatter but still hold its form.

“I was able to reach back and pull off long shards of ice and ate them to hydrate,” Zeis said, “I remember my brother, Zach, telling me once that some truckers chew ice to stay alert on long hauls.”

Zeis continued explaining that it has something to do with the coldness and the loud crunching sound by the inner ear that helped to keep the drivers alert.

“I also thought that the more of this ice I consume, the more hydrated I would get, and the lighter the pack would become,” Zeis said.

Zeis also shared the shards of ice with some of his traveling companions. He enjoyed the symbolism of sharing and consuming this burden.

“It was right in line with my intention for this project,” Zeis stated.

“Every veteran experiences war differently. Some serve in combat operations, on aircraft carriers, in an office on a base, flying helicopters, operating a bulldozer, walking around yelling at soldiers telling them to blouse their damn pants and shave their damn face…you get the idea,” Zeis explained.

One thing that Zeis is curious about  is how other veterans experienced the call to duty. How do veterans remember the day when they got the call to go to war? With that in mind, the hope that Zeis has by doing this project is to get other veterans thinking about that fateful day and maybe even share it with others.

“I would like to encourage people not to be afraid to ask veterans genuine questions. Help share the burdens–that is what builds stronger communities,” Zeis said.

Zeis encourages veterans and their family to participate in any of the upcoming Project Unpack events. Even if that veteran has passed away, the Project would like their surviving family members to help contribute to documenting their story.

Those interested in following the stories or learning more about Project UnPack are encouraged to visit the Project Unpack website for this grant at to see what events are coming up.