America's involvement in Vietnam was—in popular opinion—very unpopular. Unlike today’s troops, who are welcomed home with open arms despite opinions on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the public’s feelings about the conflict in Vietnam were transferred to those who fought in it.
Jan Scruggs was one of those veterans.
Serving with the 199th Light Infantry Brigade, Army Private 1st Class Scruggs saw his fair share of combat, though he claims most had it worse than he did. Still just a kid when he came home from Vietnam, the Bowie, Maryland, native headed to school at American University where he studied psychology, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees. He also researched post-traumatic stress disorder and became a subject-matter expert.
“Flowing from all that came the whole idea of some sort of a monument, which resulted in The Vietnam Veterans Memorial,” he said. “I formed an organization and got some people involved—the right people, thankfully.”
Just having the right people involved didn’t necessarily ensure a smooth path. There were struggles.
“That’s the way things happen in Washington, D.C.,” Scruggs said. “Everybody gets to join the debate.”
And there was great debate over the proposed memorial. Granted permission to move forward with the project by Congress in 1979, designs were solicited through a contest. The winning entry was chosen from more than 1,400 submissions and belonged to a Yale undergraduate from Ohio.
That she was Asian-American was enough of a flash point, but most opponents were as incredulous over Maya Lin’s design itself—a wall of black granite. In stark contrast to its existing white marble cousins, Lin’s wall was likened to a tombstone and called an insult. One protester went so far as to call it “a black scar, in a hole, hidden as if out of shame.”
Regardless, the project proceeded with construction beginning March 26, 1982—though not without compromise. Protestors lobbied to change the wall’s color to white and incorporate a bronze statue of three service men—a more traditional element—near the center of the memorial. A compromise was reached, and while the statue exists and was unveiled in 1984, it sits to the side of The Wall, which was constructed as Lin envisioned. A monument dedicated in 1993 to the women who served in Vietnam is located just steps away.
After three years and $8.4 million dollars, the original project was completed. The cost seems relatively small, except none of the funds came from the federal government. The first $2,800 was donated by Scruggs, the rest from 275,000 individuals, corporations, foundations, veterans groups, civic organizations and labor unions.
Initially, Scruggs intended for The Wall—as it’s commonly called—to serve as a public welcome home and thank you to those who served in Vietnam, and it did. But it was soon evident it served a greater purpose.
“Very soon after it was built, it became clear that there was a much wider audience for this—including millions and millions and millions of tourists, most of whom … did not serve in the Vietnam War,” he said, adding that one summer day last year he counted about 1,400 visitors in a three-hour period. “So … it’s the wall that heals for the veterans. But it serves a wider purpose—to help people enjoy a very moving piece of architecture and think about the people who served the country during times of war.”
Since its controversial beginnings, feelings toward The Wall have changed drastically. It’s now one of the most popular memorials in Washington. In fact, Vanity Fair described it as “… far and away the greatest memorial of modern times—the most beautiful, the most heart-wrenching, the most subtle, and the most powerful.”
Not long after the unveiling on Veterans Day 1982, the tide of public opinion began to shift. It became apparent when a Medal of Honor recipient called The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund and told Scruggs “the wall that heals has become the wall that educates.”
From that thought, Scruggs conceived a new project.
“Flowing from the educational focus of The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund came the idea for the education center,” he said, adding the center’s purpose will be to elevate service to the nation. “Different teachers and others throughout the years have looked at it and they saw that there was a need—here’s an opportunity to teach people about the Vietnam War.”
With the goal of elevating service to the nation, the center will be different from the nation’s other memorials in that visitors will be asked to give back—not in cash, but in service.
“Everybody who leaves there will be given an option to serve their country, or not. Not by going into the military, but by going back to their local communities and giving four hours of their time to some sort of a charity,” Scruggs said. “And there’ll be a dog tag or something like that,” to encourage visitors to make good on their promises.
“I mean, millions and millions of man-hours of volunteerism will come from this, and that way people will get introduced to their communities and volunteering, will get introduced to one of the responsibilities of citizenship,” he said. “We all have some sort of responsibility to people other than ourselves, and what a great way to honor the people who have fallen defending our country and obeying the desire of Congress and the president to fight wars in various places.”
While everything needed to move forward has been in place for the past 12 years, The Education Center at The Wall is on hold until it’s fully funded. Scruggs said it will take another couple of years and a total of $85 million to bring the project to fruition. Until then, those who can’t wait for a sneak peek can take a virtual online tour through The Vietnam Memorial Fund’s website (vvmf.org).
Much of the new education center will be driven by technology. In fact, the photos of those troops who died in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan—34,000 images of those lost in Vietnam alone—will be displayed digitally. Perhaps as moving as the images are the stories told in the items visitors have left behind.
It offers the opportunity, Scruggs said, to share stories that depict the basic values the education center is dedicated to telling—military values like duty, honor, sacrifice, integrity and courage.
“It gives us a chance to tell these stories of the casualties—of the guys who didn’t make it back—and, of course, those who did, too, through these items that have been left there,” he said. “One guy left a watch and he left a little story with the watch. [It]stopped at 12 minutes after 10, which is unfortunately when [his buddy] got killed, but he was the guy in the platoon who was always asking everybody what time it was.”
The heartbreaking and heartwarming stories the education center will tell are but a chapter in the greater story of the generation whose memorial helped heal a nation.
Samantha L. Quigley is the editor in chief of ON★PATROL.