On January 21, 1970, Jan Scruggs was having his morning cup of coffee, but he was far from his kitchen table at home. He was in Vietnam, serving in the 199th Light Infantry Brigade.

In the nine months since he’d been in-country, Scruggs had already seen a lot of action and had been wounded in a battle near Xuan Loc. He had spent three months recovering in a hospital before being sent back to fight with rocket-propelled grenade fragments permanently embedded in his body.

On that January day, “There was a big explosion,” Scruggs recalled. “I ran over to see a truck on fire and a dozen of my friends dying.” They had been unloading an ammunition truck when the explosion occurred. Scruggs would never forget the awful scene. He would never forget those friends.

The man with the vision

Scruggs was raised in a rural Maryland town between Baltimore and Washington, D.C.  His mother was a waitress; his father a milkman. “We’re all the result of our upbringing. My background was relatively modest,” he said. “But I was always impressed with the example my parents set.”

When the 18-year-old Scruggs volunteered to enlist in the Army in 1968, debate surrounding Vietnam was escalating.  The war’s length and the growing number of casualties were fueling tensions. Within months after he recovered from his wounds and returned to his unit, the American public was learning the details of the events at My Lai. By the time he returned home, three months after the explosion, the country was even further divided.

Over the next few years, as the war came to a close and more and more troops returned home, the media began to paint a picture of the stereotypical Vietnam veteran: drug addicted, bitter, discontented, and unable to adjust to life back home. Like all stereotypes, this one was unfair.

The truth was, veterans were no more likely to be addicted to drugs than those who did not serve. And if they were bitter, who could blame them? When they returned home from serving their country, there was no national show of gratitude. They were either ignored or shouted at and called vicious names. Veterans frequently found themselves denying their time in Vietnam, never mentioning their service to new friends and acquaintances for fear of the reactions it might elicit.

By June 1977, Scruggs was attending graduate school at American University in Washington, D.C. and had embarked on a research study exploring the social and psychological consequences of Vietnam military duties. He found that returning veterans were finding it hard to trust people. They were feeling alienated from the nation’s leaders, and they had low self-esteem. He also found that those veterans whose units experienced high casualty rates were experiencing higher divorce rates and a greater frequency of combat-related dreams.  Using his findings, he testified at the Senate hearing on the Veteran’s Health Care Amendments Act of 1977, with the hope that he could help veterans gain access to the services and support they needed.

He also wanted to find a way to help them heal and suggested that the country build a national memorial as a symbol that the country cared about them.

Getting started

Jan Scruggs, along with Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM), announce plans at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. to build a national memorial in D.C. dedicated to all those who served in the Vietnam War.

By 1979, the country was beginning to have more positive feelings toward Vietnam veterans. Movies were dealing more realistically with their issues. And Congress had declared a “Vietnam Veterans Week” for that April to honor those who had returned home.

One film that came out early that year, The Deer Hunter, explored the effects of war on three friends, their families and a tight-knit community. When Scruggs went to see the movie in early 1979, it wasn’t the graphic war scenes that haunted him. It was the reminder that the men who died in Vietnam all had faces and names, as well as friends and families who loved them dearly. He could still picture the faces of his 12 buddies, but the passing years were making it harder and harder to remember their names.

That bothered him. It seemed unconscionable that he–or anyone else–should be allowed to forget. For weeks, he obsessed about the idea of building a memorial.

“It just resonated,” he explained. “If all of the names could be in one place, these names would have great power—a power to heal. It would have power for individual veterans, but collectively, they would have even greater power to show the enormity of the sacrifices that were made.”

His research had proven that post-traumatic stress was real and had shone a light on the challenges faced by a significant number of military veterans. The idea for a memorial seemed like a natural extension of his work and his growing desire to find a way to help veterans.  He had studied the work of psychiatrist Carl Jung, a student of Sigmund Freud, who wrote of shared societal values. As Scruggs analyzed the concept of collective psychological states, he realized that, just as veterans needed psychological healing, so too did the nation.

“The Memorial had several purposes,” he explained.  “It would help veterans heal. Its mere existence would be societal recognition that their sacrifices were honorable rather than dishonorable. Veterans needed this, and so did the nation. Our country needed something symbolic to help heal our wounds.”