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Remembering Vietnam My War Story - Bill Nelson
My War Story - Marsh Carter
My War Story - Nancy Sinatra
My War Story - Sen. Chuck Hagel
My War Story - Ron Nessen
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Genesis of The Wall
Like the wars the country had fought before, the United States’ involvement in Vietnam began with the support of the American people. But, as American casualties escalated, that support eroded. By the late 1960s, many Americans of all backgrounds and political leanings actively, vehemently and publicly opposed the growing conflict and the government’s policies in waging the war. The media played a significant role in swaying anti-war sentiment.
With the loss of public support for the war in Southeast Asia, Americans who had served in Vietnam suffered the most when they arrived home to a disdainful country. Many were shunned and called derisive names, such as “baby killer.”
The country, deeply divided by the conflict, would not honor the service members who put their lives in the line of fire and those who died to fight the expansion of Communism and to protect personal freedom. Instead of the parades and speeches that veterans of earlier conflicts were greeted with when they came home, returning Vietnam veterans encountered hostility and ridicule.
This shameful treatment haunted the Vietnam veterans, who also were facing recurring memories of their time “in country” and of their comrades who were killed or missing in action in a country thousands of miles away from home. These recurring memories stayed with the veterans for years, causing many to withdraw from their families and from society and many times leading to dire consequences.
Vietnam veterans were seeking recognition for their service to their country and for the sacrifices that they and their colleagues had made.
A Vision Is Captured
One veteran of the Vietnam War thought recognition wasn’t too much to ask. So, in March 1979, less than four years after the fall of Saigon, this former Vietnam foot soldier who had been wounded in combat in 1969, conceived the idea of a national memorial.
His memorial would pay tribute to the more than 3 million Americans who had served in the Vietnam War and the nearly 58,000* men and women who had died or were lost during the war.
The Memorial would not honor the war and it would not make a political statement about the war. He simply wanted the brave young people who served and died in the war be remembered, and to be able to give the estimated 43 million Americans—parents, brothers, sisters, wives, husbands and children—who were directly affected by the losses in Vietnam a place to remember, to mourn, to reflect and to heal.
That veteran, Jan C. Scruggs—a native of Bowie, Md. and a federal government employee—began what many of his peers believed to be a quixotic quest to build a Vietnam veterans memorial.
“Having been an infantryman, in Vietnam I know first hand about how Vietnam veterans felt. Many returned to be ostracized for serving in that controversial war,” Scruggs said. “Many returned physically disabled, condemned to spend lives in wheelchairs. Others, with emotional problems or concerns about Agent Orange, returned to an indifferent and seemingly uncaring nation. Others never returned at all.”
He added, “This treatment given to Vietnam veterans was nothing less than a national disgrace. It would certainly take more than a memorial to right this wrong, but it could be a beginning.”
Yet the task was imposing. After all, it had taken more than four decades to build a memorial to honor President Abraham Lincoln, who had ended slavery in this country and had enjoyed widespread public support. Furthermore, the Vietnam War had ended less than five years before, and it still was controversial.
In May 1979, Scruggs committed $2,800 out of his own pocket as seed money to get the memorial project and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF) off the ground. He did so because he wholeheartedly believed that Vietnam veterans deserved recognition and because the memorial would serve as a healing vehicle for a different kind of wound—the one inflicted on the national psyche by the long and controversial war.
“Everyone has had a dream. Some people dream of fame, some of political or military success. Some achieve their desire; not everyone can and most do not,” Scruggs said, describing his vision for the memorial.
“I had a dream that most people viewed as unattainable. It was to create a national memorial honoring Vietnam veterans, a memorial that would bear the names of those 58,000 Americans who died in the war, not to politicize about rightness or wrongness, but to honor service rendered by veterans,” Scruggs continued. “In 1979, I was told that the dream and the plan were both too radical to succeed.”
Immediately, Scruggs began seeking supporters and contributors, but faced a steep uphill climb. A story on CBS News on Independence Day that year was the low point of the memorial drive. The story reported that only $144.50 had been raised for the planned Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It appeared that the critics had been right.
The story caught the attention of several key people, including Jack Wheeler, a West Point graduate with an MBA from Harvard and a Yale law degree. Wheeler helped assemble a group of extraordinary Vietnam veterans, and within a few months, VVMF was moving ahead aggressively. Wheeler became the first chairman of the VVMF board of directors.
Also joining the cause was Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), who raised $50,000 that aided the launch of the national fundraising campaign and who ultimately co-sponsored with Maryland Sen. Charles Mathias (R) the legislation that set aside three acres near the Lincoln Memorial and Constitution Gardens for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Soon Robert Doubek, who had handled the legal work to form VVMF, left his position with a law firm, took a 50 percent pay cut and assumed the day-to-day role of VVMF executive director.
Together, the reconstituted group ultimately raised $8.4 million for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial from more than 275,000 individuals, corporations, foundations, unions, veterans groups and civic organizations. The critics had been proven wrong; there was national grassroots support behind the movement to build a memorial honoring Vietnam veterans.
The Memorial Is Dedicated
Overcoming yet more obstacles—namely fights over the proposed memorial’s location and the design chosen for it (see section titled “Maya Lin’s Award-Winning Design” for more detail)—a groundbreaking ceremony was held on March 26, 1982, and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated less than eight months later on Nov. 13 as part of a week-long national salute to Vietnam veterans.
“In retrospect, the problems all seem appropriate because of the many unresolved issues and the difficult, complex impact that the Vietnam War has had on our society. There is little reason why a project like this should have been easy,” Scruggs attested.
“The reward, however, has been simple. A memorial now stands that will forever honor the more than 3 million Vietnam veterans who had to wait more than a decade for their nation to show some appreciation for their sacrifices. Future generations will visit the memorial and will see their reflection in the names of the Americans who died in Vietnam,” Scruggs said.
In three and a half short years, not the decades it took to get other memorials built in Washington, Scruggs’ vision for a memorial honoring all U.S. service members who fought and died in the Vietnam War went from a dream to reality.
And, most importantly, the national and individual healing that Scruggs foresaw began then and continues to this day, more than 25 years later.
* When the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated in 1982, it contained 57,939 names of men and women who died or remain missing in the Vietnam War. Names have been added since then.