WASHINGTON – When he enlisted in the Army and went off to Vietnam, his friends from Bowie High School didn’t understand. Later, when he suggested a memorial should be erected to remember the dead from that war, he again felt alone.
But today, during the month that marks the 15th anniversary of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Jan Scruggs said he is not alone in the belief that the wall has brought healing to the nation.
“It has helped us achieve separating the war from the warrior,” said Scruggs, 46.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a prisoner of war during that conflict, agrees.
“I was not always an enthusiastic supporter of the memorial,” he said, “until one day several years ago when I saw two vets who didn’t know each other here, embracing and hugging.
“It made it clear to me that this is a remarkable place.”
Scruggs spent Friday morning marking the anniversary with McCain and five other senators who also served in the conflict: Sens. Charles Hagel, R-Neb.; Max Cleland, D-Ga.; Bob Kerrey, D- Neb.; John Kerry, D-Mass.; and Charles Robb, D-Va.
The senators laid a wreath at the mirror-like granite wall bearing the names of the war’s dead.
“We just have to know memorials are not built to honor wars,” Hagel said. “There is only suffering in war. They are built for those who know there are things in this world worth fighting for.”
The greatest evidence that the monument is an instrument of healing, Scruggs said, is what people leave behind.
There is a finality to the good-byes exemplified in the offerings. People leave flowers and notes, he said, but also the permanent things: wedding rings, letters, photographs and dog tags.
“This is not something that people do in this culture,” said Scruggs, who is in the process of moving to Annapolis.
Scruggs spent a year in Vietnam beginning in April of 1969. The disturbing images he saw “started this whole odyssey,” he said.
He said he saw a group of 12 men killed accidentally when unloading ammunition from a truck.
“It was like something from Dante’s `Inferno,’ ” he said. “There were fire and fumes rising from bodies. There were brains and parts of bodies everywhere. It was the worst thing that you can imagine happening.”
While studying for his master’s degree in counseling, Scruggs said he learned about how survivors of events like Vietnam often feel guilt. This is what led to the idea of a memorial.
One way to bring honor to the sacrifices of the living, he said, is to memorialize the dead. People needed to be remembered as individuals – by name.
Individually, the names would be a mark of personal sacrifice. Amassed collectively they would demonstrate the magnitude of the loss. To date, there are 58,202 names engraved.
“And it would be the survivors, the ones who come to the wall, that would bring it to life,” he said.
In 1979 he launched an effort to get congressional approval for the project and eventually founded the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, which continues to provide funds for site renovations and upkeep, the addition of names to the wall, insurance and educational programs.
In 1980, Congress authorized the site for the monument that lies just beyond the bustle of Constitution Avenue near the Lincoln Memorial. The monument was finished in 1982.
Each day brings something new at the memorial. Before the anniversary ceremony, a man searched for a name and knelt to touch it.
Also, a group of high school students from Columbus, Ohio, walked to the middle of the wall, where it is at its tallest, and looked up.
“They don’t seem real,” said Ryan Clark, 18. “They just seem like names on a wall.”
Morgan Lanicca, 17, said she is “left with questions,” but thought being near the wall helped her understand better what her parents had always told her about the war.
Making the war real for young people is a new thrust for Scruggs’ organization. This year, it has put a greater emphasis on educational programs. In the coming decade, the group hopes to develop curriculum on the Vietnam conflict to be used by students of all ages, expand the number of scholarships it provides to students of Vietnam veterans, tour the country with a replica of the wall and exhibit some of the artifacts left at the memorial. -30-