Vietnam Memorial turns 10 this week and the man who built it will be there

THE WALL GREW OUT OF A NIGHTMARE

November 08, 1992|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,Staff Writer

It was 1979. Jan Scruggs, a 29-year-old former infantryman i Vietnam, had just seen the haunting movie about the war, "The Deer Hunter."

He couldn't sleep. He sat with a bottle of whiskey in the kitchen of his Howard County home. His mind raced back to the war.

Twelve buddies were unloading an ammunition truck. The ammunition exploded. Corporal Scruggs came running. He found bodies blown apart. All 12 men died.

"The names," Mr. Scruggs said to himself that night in his kitchen. "The names. No one remembers their names."

Mr. Scruggs dozed off and dreamed of a memorial in Washington with the names of everyone killed in Vietnam. He woke up and vowed to build that memorial himself.

Three and a half years later, on Nov. 13, 1982, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated. Millions of Americans have stood before it and cried.

"There's nothing magical about me," Mr. Scruggs says during an interview at his home in Columbia. "I'm just an average guy from Bowie, you know, a C student, your average guy on the street."

He is 42 now, and corporations pay him large amounts of money to speak to their workers. When he says he makes his living as a motivational speaker, he laughs as if this is pretty much beyond belief.

The memorial is about to turn 10. For the past year Mr. Scruggs has worked full time organizing the 10th anniversary commemoration, which began Friday and concludes Wednesday, Veterans Day.

At noon today, the first of 1,000 volunteers from across America will stand at the memorial and begin reading the 58,183 names on the wall. The volunteers, some prominent such as Charles Kuralt and William Westmoreland, will recite names around-the-clock until 9 a.m. Wednesday.

Mr. Scruggs will be there.

"Last summer I began thinking about the 10th anniversary of this memorial, and how this was really an opportunity to finish the job I had started -- this whole idea of healing the nation's wounds, of doing something positive to help the nation put Vietnam behind it," Mr. Scruggs says.

"There's no crucial date for Vietnam, like Dec. 7, 1941, is a crucial date for World War II. The 10th anniversary of the memorial was probably the only thing we could do to commemorate Vietnam in a positive way, and the memorial's been a positive thing.

"People finally have a place to go, a place where they can let go of their grief, their individual grief. They can leave it behind at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial."

The complex veteran

Before there was the memorial, there was the Vietnam veteran Jan Scruggs -- brooding, confused, intense, complex.

"There was always a dark side to Jan, always a little bit of sadness there," says Lisa Itte, a close friend. "And I think that was Vietnam, maybe knowing too much too early.

"I think in a lot of ways the memorial was Jan's way of working through Vietnam. It was more like an epiphany for him. It was something he was driven to do."

He grew up in a blue-collar family in Bowie; his mother was a waitress, his father a milkman. After graduating from high school in 1968, he enlisted in the Army and was sent to Vietnam. He was wounded, decorated, discharged and regurgitated back onto the streets of a divided, indifferent America.

He floundered.

Later, as a graduate student at American University in Washington, he studied the psychological effects of the war on veterans. He thought, for the first time, that some kind of memorial was needed.

After seeing "The Deer Hunter," he knew what kind. But his wife, Becky, was concerned.

"I kind of wondered, maybe he was having delusions of grandeur or something," she says. "Here he was going to build this monument in Washington, D.C."

George W. Mayo Jr. believed Mr. Scruggs was merely unrealistic. Mr. Mayo, a Washington lawyer, met Mr. Scruggs in 1979 and joined the small band of veterans trying to build a memorial.

"He fixed on this idea certainly when nobody else was fixed on it," Mr. Mayo says. "Many people, myself included, thought it would never happen. But I don't think he ever had a doubt."

"Never intimidated"

Back then, Mr. Scruggs was "a little rough around the edges," Mr. Mayo says. "He wasn't one of these guys who was out to impress you with his polish and image.

"Jan was never intimidated by anybody. He talked to CEOs, high-level politicians -- even the president of the United States -- the same way he talks to any of us. He kind of says: Accept me as I am, or don't accept me at all."

Some people didn't accept him, or rather, didn't accept a memorial that looked like "a tombstone."

That was Ross Perot's description. The Texas billionaire and 1992 presidential candidate who donated $170,000 to help build a monument, said veterans considered it "an apology, not a memorial."

A movement to kill the memorial swelled. But Mr. Scruggs held firm.

"Most people would have quit for 10 times less the trouble than he ran into," says Terry O'Donnell, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund's lawyer. "He finally made it happen out of sheer persistence."

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