Although 40 years have passed since the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was constructed, its founder, Jan Scruggs, 72, continues to visit the site every week and says that he has frequented it thousands of times.
“It's just a very pleasant place. It's like going into a cathedral,” he said. “People talk with a hushed voice. It’s a sacred place.”
For tourists, the location is the most-visited memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., attracting more than 5 million people each year.
When Scruggs travels to downtown Washington from his home in Annapolis, Maryland, he usually lingers on the memorial’s grounds for a while without mentioning who he is. But, on occasion, he will give a touring school group an impromptu history lesson.
“When it was built, I felt for the first couple of years that this would be something that would attract crowds on Veterans Day and Memorial Day, and would basically be of interest to people who were directly involved with the Vietnam War,” said Scruggs. “I was recently there, talking to a bunch of people from Spain. They were absolutely enthralled with this memorial.”
For Scruggs, a Vietnam veteran himself, creating the memorial aided in his recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and fulfilled a mission he said he was destined to accomplish.
“It was really the impossible dream. I was absolutely convinced that it had to be done,” he said. “I was the person who had to, I was almost chosen to do this. This is why I was born. I became very obsessed by it.”
Consequences of war
Scruggs was just 19 when he arrived in Vietnam with the Army in April 1969. After only a month into his deployment, he was severely wounded, losing so much blood that he thought he was going to die. Eventually, he was rescued by fellow service members who bandaged him up and took him to the hospital, where he stayed for three months before returning to combat duty. In total, Scruggs completed 12 months of active duty in Vietnam and received a Purple Heart because of the wounds he sustained.
Upon returning home in 1970, Scruggs bought a motorcycle and started a self-described “wild life,” drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana, in part, to neutralize his symptoms of PTSD.
However, he still wanted to make something out of his life, so he decided to get a master’s degree in counseling psychology and was eventually recognized as one of the first experts on PTSD, writing articles about the disorder and testifying on it before Congress. (PTSD was not officially classified by the American Psychiatric Association until 1980.)
Embarking on an impossible dream
In March 1979 Scruggs and his wife went to see The Deer Hunter, a film about three friends whose lives were changed after fighting in Vietnam. At the time, Scruggs was still haunted by his own memories of the war, most significantly when his close friends encountered an explosion.
Scruggs was the first on the scene with his medical bag, followed by others who had to use fire extinguishers on the men and the truck they were riding in.
“But they all died, every single one of them. And we tried to blow air into one guy’s lungs and nothing was working. We couldn’t even find where the wounds were,” he said. “And other guys were missing arms and legs. This completely damaged me at age 19. I was not ready for this.”
That night after coming home from the movie theater, Scruggs remembers not being able to sleep. In the morning he told his wife that he was going to build a memorial to Vietnam veterans in Washington, D.C., that would have all the names of those who died in the war.
He announced his plans at the National Press Club in May 1979, 10 years to the month after he himself was wounded, but efforts got off to a rocky start.
“A month later, it was a big laughingstock on TV and these late-night shows [joked] about the guy who wanted to build the Vietnam Veterans Memorial had thus far raised $144.50,” he said. “And that was true and accurate. That’s exactly what I’d raised."
Looking back, Scruggs admits that the skills needed to get the project off the ground were beyond what he imagined. He quickly assembled a core team — including graduates of West Point Military Academy — to jumpstart private fundraising and line up legislative support for the memorial.
Design and controversy
They held one of the largest architectural design competitions in history, which featured an all-star jury consisting of architects, sculptors and other design professionals. Out of the over 1,400 submissions, they had to decide which best illustrated a memorial that was reflective, contemplative and featured the names of the fallen.
“We had to find a way to sell the idea that we’re separating the war from the warrior. This design is not about the Vietnam War,” Scruggs said. “It’s about the bravery of the American soldiers who went over there and did their job as their country asked them to do.”
The winning design ended up being that of Maya Lin, a 21-year-old college student with Chinese ancestry.
Scruggs acknowledges that Lin’s heritage certainly stirred controversy, but he thinks what really drew people’s ire was that the memorial did not seem patriotic enough or evoke emotions like that of Iwo Jima and other war memorials.
“The ancestry of Maya Lin, to some veterans, felt improper,” he said. “I talked to people all the time about the memorial [and told them] she’s from Athens, Ohio. Her parents were both English professors. And she said when I met her, ‘I’m as Chinese as apple pie.’”
Others who were resistant to the memorial’s design called it the “black gash of shame and sorrow,” in contrast to the other monuments on the mall, which were all white.
However, Scruggs said he thought Lin’s plans were “excitingly different. It’s got this shimmering granite. You can look in there and see your face. And the brilliance of this thing is that the names were placed in chronological order. So, the guys who were killed on the day when I was in a battle in Vietnam, their names are right next to each other, in perpetuity.”
Lin’s selection of black granite had an added advantage. At older monuments and cemeteries that used traditional stone, he said, names can often become difficult to read over time as the stone becomes weathered. But the granite used at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial should look the same hundreds of years from now as it did when it was first constructed.
An unconventional cure for PTSD
Scruggs said that as soon as the monument was unveiled in 1982, he no longer had any interest in smoking marijuana to relieve his PTSD. The new memorial is what centered him.
For the servicemembers of today who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan struggling with PTSD, he recommends finding what personally centers them.
“The average person can accomplish a lot in this country. I see it all the time — people volunteer at dog shelters, churches, everything else. People do a lot of good things, and we want to encourage that kind of behavior,” he said.
Eventually, after raising millions of dollars in private donations, Scruggs was able to secure $3 million from Congress to provide for ongoing maintenance of the grounds, which he said has kept the memorial in incredible shape as he continues to visit it every week.
“Many times, people bring in teddy bears to the Vietnam wall, they’ll have someone’s story attached to it — a letter, a photograph, a pair of Army boots,” he said. “And for me, it’s just such a wonderful feeling to know that my buddies and everyone else who was killed on the American side got what they deserved, a national monument. That was certainly all I could do for them.”
Aaron Kassraie writes about issues important to military veterans and their families for AARP. He also serves as a general assignment reporter. Kassraie previously covered U.S. foreign policy as a correspondent for the Kuwait News Agency’s Washington bureau and worked in news gathering for USA Today and Al Jazeera English.