Finding paradise in PT

VETERANS DAY: Local veteran pursues life of art, film, music after military service

Posted 11/11/22

Whether it’s his fluency in multiple languages from Arabic to Mandarin Chinese, his remarkable singing ability, or the fact that he’s visited and lived all across the world, there’s …

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Finding paradise in PT

VETERANS DAY: Local veteran pursues life of art, film, music after military service

Posted

Whether it’s his fluency in multiple languages from Arabic to Mandarin Chinese, his remarkable singing ability, or the fact that he’s visited and lived all across the world, there’s much more than meets the eye for Port Townsend resident and veteran Zaque Harig.

He served for the Marine Corps during the Iraq War, working in civil affairs while deployed in Afghanistan. As one of very few military members capable of speaking Pashto, one of the two native languages in Afghanistan, Harig was vital to communications between Afghan locals and the Marines, as well as intercepting and translating Taliban radio frequencies.

While Harig’s time in the military and educational pursuits have brought him across the planet, his story starts in the suburbs of North Chicago.

THE FORMATIVE YEARS

Harig grew up in the Chicago suburb of Northbrook where he discovered his first muse through his local church’s choir.

“I had a busy childhood with a lot of traditional structures of church, community, family, and lots of extended facility in the area,” he said. “I was in a professional children’s choir as well … that was the big thing that really kicked off my love of languages.”

He was exposed to the linguistic world through singing, as the choir would learn new songs in a multitude of different languages every other week.

Eventually he traded the Windy City for Washington, D.C. as he attended George Washington University.

There, Harig extended his knowledge of language, learning Mandarin and expanding his fluency in Arabic.

“I found Arabic to be by far the hardest because of the grammar. Mandarin I didn’t think was so bad, but it’s a tonal language,” Harig said of his experience learning two of what many consider to be the hardest languages to grasp for Westerners.

JOINING THE MARINES

While he enjoyed his university time, Harig took a gap year to recalibrate, which eventually led to him joining the Marines.

“I knew I had a lot of ambitions and I was not yet the man I would need to become to do the things that I wanted to do, so it occurred to me in one day to become a Marine,” he said.

“It never occurred to me to join the military ever. I never played shooting video games, I didn’t know anything about it. I knew it would be hard, and it would smooth off some of my rough edges and make me more resilient.”

During that time, Harig was hooked on the hit action show “Alias,” which emboldened him to pursue a reconnaissance role in the military.

“Back then, I thought I wanted to be a spy; I thought I wanted to work for the CIA,” he said. “I was captivated by the TV show ‘Alias’ and Jennifer Garner’s character, Sydney Bristow.”

He quickly got in contact with the Marine Corps, signing a contract that same day as he prepared to quickly ship out for boot camp.

“I told my parents a week after that, and I was in a boot camp a week after that,” he said.

After several frustrating months of missing out on any reconnaissance assignments, being switched into infantry, then eventually choosing civil affairs, Harig deployed for Afghanistan.

“The first three months were almost daily combat firefights and calling in air support,” he said. “It was surreal and intense. I had to interpret for informant debriefings, detainee interrogations, and I sometimes went in combat with an earbud listening to live Taliban radio frequencies.”

While there, Harig and his fellow soldiers faced below freezing temperatures. And scorching hot days, as well, where it reached up to
140 degrees in the summer.

“It was so stressful and the pressure was so high … it was very challenging,” he said of his deployment. “Then I came home, and I had a really difficult time adjusting.”

RECOVERY FROM WAR

Coping with the trauma of his time at war, Harig left the U.S. for a change of pace in the lush farmlands of Northern Italy.

“It was an amazing experience actually, the whole community took me in,” he said of his time as a farm hand.

His singing background came in handy during the Italian count’s (owner of the farm) birthday party, when Harig serenaded the partygoers with “Desperado” by Eagles, as the listeners sang along, swaying their arms in unison.

He spent time in Switzerland and Chicago for college, but continued to struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder, and eventually made his way to Ireland to pursue an international development program, as well as joining a world-class Irish choir.

While he enjoyed international development, Harig realized that his true passion was in art.

“I decided to uproot my life in Ireland because in that contemplation of life and death and ‘What are we really doing here,’ I hadn’t prioritized art. My art dreams had been on the shelf,” he said, adding, “It would’ve been cool but it didn’t feel like it would feed my soul or allow me to live to the fullest extent possible.”

Harig returned to D.C. in pursuit of honing his film, music, writing, and other art forms, but a familiar opportunity arose with reconnaissance in the military, but this time he turned it down.

“It was a very tough call. That was my final time when I turned away from this whole intelligence world seduction, I think it would’ve eventually turned me into someone I didn’t want to become, which was why I fully embraced art at this point,” he said.

His first big art project during that time came after purchasing a Ford van and planning to venture around America in search of captivating stories.

After raising $20,000 for the project, he headed to Washington state and began filming a collection of interesting, informative, weird, and fun stories in the video medium.

Harig covered anything from an Anacortes couple’s whale watching business to a drunken flash mob in Ellensburg to a Benedictine monk in Oregon.

While the wide variety provided great content, Harig later honed in on post-9/11 veterans and their experiences recovering from trauma.

PANDORA’S BOX

After a friend encouraged him to sort out his own feelings from deployment, Harig went through a breakdown of sorts from revisiting past trauma he’d pushed down for years.

“My only structure was this weekly therapy session at a vet center in California. I kind of did it to myself; I was curious to see if there was anything, so when I opened Pandora’s Box, I did something I couldn’t undo,” he said.

After forcing himself to read through all his notes and letters from deployment, it harkened memories and flashbacks that he’d kept out of mind since his time in the Middle East.

“All the triggers compounded and then suddenly when I was relatively fine a few days before, I was having hyper-vigilance all the time, panic attacks, scorchingly painful anxiety, nightmares, remembering things I’d forgotten about, flashbacks. It was just like I was living a TV episode. That was very challenging, and the therapy process was slow.”

“It wasn’t until I was actually robbed and someone smashed the window of my van and stole my backpack with every film, every photo, every writing, every creative thing I’d worked on in the last few years, was just ripped out of my life,” he added.

Returning to Chicago, Harig recovered at his parent’s home for some time.

“I was basically pretty much homebound and screwed up for about a year, and that summer I got Freedom, my service dog, and it was a gradual process of reintegration,” he said.

After some time, his passion for film was reignited as he eventually graduated from film school and decided to head to Port Townsend, a haven he’d remembered from visiting a friend during his van adventure.

FINDING HOME IN PT

“Around the time when I graduated, I always remembered the one time I visited Port Townsend about five years ago, and I thought to myself, ‘That’s the best place I’ve ever been to.’ I’ve never felt more at home anywhere than during that one weekend,” Harig said.

With Freedom (the service dog) by his side, he arrived on the Olympic Peninsula and joined the Port Townsend Film Festival as an intern before working his way up to the director of marketing and development position.

Looking back at his time while deployed, Harig shared his thoughts on the transition from soldier to civilian.

“Everyone is so real. I think for that brief window of time [while deployed] we all became the purest, unfiltered version of ourselves and existed exactly as who we are, while some of us were on our last time of living or having all of our limbs,” he said. “You’ll never forget what it felt like to live so fully stretched, and that is what is so hard about transitioning.”

“The sacrifice wasn’t getting shot at; the sacrifice is living your best, truest, most full life for a short window and having to give it all up and play the game again,” he added.

Sharing sage wisdom on the ups and downs of adventure, Harig said: “You could be invited to a count’s birthday party with all-organic, homegrown food produced by their on-site chef while everyone celebrates as you serenade the count with ‘Desperado,’ or you could end up having been drugged and left on the side of a mountain in Switzerland to die in the snow with no money or phone or coat.”

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