Release Date: March 26, 2022
Jan Scruggs, a decorated veteran of two tours in Vietnam, had the idea for a memorial in March of 1979. Three and a half years later, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was a reality. In this episode, Jan recounts his incredible journey from grunt to visionary to target… and, ultimately, to victor.
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(HOST): [00:00:01] As much as our podcast has highlighted stories of heroism during the Vietnam War, we’ve also been drawn to stories of personal grit since the war ended. Vietnam veterans changing the VA from the top down, pulling people out of burning buildings and rewriting laws to protect military dogs at the end of their careers. Sisters, wives and daughters taking on MIA and POW issues, physical and mental health issues, and unexploded ordinance. These operate larger acts of perseverance, say as much about the war and its echoes as any first person combat story or history book. Today’s story is about a warrior, both on and off the field of combat. It’s the story of how The Wall was conceived and built against incredible odds by a twice wounded veteran of two tours in Vietnam. Now, you probably know that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was not a gift from a grateful nation. Like so many other innovations, it was Vietnam veterans themselves who made it happen for each other. And one Vietnam veteran, in particular, gave birth to that vision and then persevered against the odds to bring The Wall into existence. I’m talking, of course, about Jan Scruggs, the founder of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.
(JAN): [00:01:16] In 1982 we had really been through hell in order to be able to break ground at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
(HOST): [00:01:27] In this episode, Jan recounts his incredible journey from grunt to visionary to target and ultimately to victor. From the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, founders of The Wall. This is Echoes of the Vietnam War. I’m your host, Michael Croan bringing you stories of service, sacrifice and healing from people who still feel the impact of that conflict. Nearly 50 years later. This is Episode 25, Building The Wall. Jan Scruggs was born in Bowie, Maryland, the youngest of four children. When he was 14 years old. His parents divorced and his mother moved away. Jan’s father remarried when Jan was a senior at Bowie High School. Jan graduated and turned 19 that summer. His parents couldn’t afford to send him to college, and young Jan felt awkward living with his newly married father and stepmother. So he decided to leave home. He had a high draft number, high enough to make it very unlikely he’d ever be called up. So in August of 1968, Jan enlisted in the Army. He shipped out to Vietnam in 1969 as a rifleman with the 199th Light Infantry Brigade, and quickly found himself in the thick of things.
(JAN): [00:03:08] I was pretty seriously wounded under a tree. I couldn’t shoot my rifle anymore because my hand was sort of paralyzed. Anyway, somehow I got out of it and said the Lord’s Prayer, and if I get me out of this mess, I’ll, I’ll do something nice one of these days.
(HOST): [00:03:25] It wasn’t the last time that Jan would be wounded in a firefight. He signed up for a second tour in Vietnam, and by the time he left the Army in March 1970 as a corporal, he had earned three Army Commendation Medals and a Combat Infantryman badge, along with his Purple Heart.
(JAN): [00:03:43] I got back from Vietnam and had some problems readjusting, you know, sort of couldn’t sleep right. And it was a little bit more temperamental than I used to be.
(HOST): [00:04:01] In March of 1979, Jan and his wife went to see The Deer Hunter, the Oscar winning movie about three friends whose experiences in the Vietnam War leave them emotionally scarred. It wasn’t the graphic war scenes that haunted Jan. It was the reminder that the men who died in Vietnam all had faces and names and friends and families who loved them dearly. That night, Jan began having flashbacks about a mortar truck accident that killed 12 of his friends while he looked on. 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 Jan. It seemed unconscionable that he or anyone else should be allowed to forget. By dawn, he had conceived the idea of a memorial bearing the names of those 12 men, along with all of the other American service members who died in the Vietnam War. Once it was lodged in his mind, that idea never left him. But at the same time, Jan had his own demons to deal with.
(JAN): [00:05:03] I became convinced that I had something wrong with me. Post-traumatic stress disorder. The word didn’t exist back then because the American Psychiatric Association had not decided that this was an actual thing. Unlike World War One, everyone said, Oh, he’s got combat fatigue, battle fatigue. And so I decided that the best way to deal with it was to become a national expert on what is now called post-traumatic stress disorder. So I did research at American University, as in my my master’s degree at the time, and I wrote several articles for The Washington Post. Military medicine test- testified before Congress, which made me an, quote unquote, expert. Fast forward from May 28, 1969 to May 28th, 1979, I decided I had a press conference at the National Press Club. I announced a memorial that would have the names of all the dead on the memorial. And July 4th, 1979. Associated Press who came to this press conference. I had said, how much money you raised? And I said, Well, I’m on the phone. I was in Department of Labor at the time. I said, Well, it looks like $144.50. And the next thing I know, all these talk show hosts or they’re making fun of it and kind of it’s kind of a funny thing. And and I thought it was kind of a cheap shot. But I said to myself, maybe this will help. And it did.
(HOST): [00:06:51] The resulting press coverage drew the attention of some allies to Jan’s cause. Jan was soon joined by Bob Doubek, a fellow Vietnam veteran and attorney working in Washington, DC, who later became the first executive director of the memorial fund. They began having regular meetings with John P Wheeler, a graduate of West Point in the Harvard Business School, along with Arthur Mosley, Tom Shull and Sandy Mayo, all of whom would prove instrumental in realizing Jan’s vision.
(JAN): [00:07:20] I just said, Look, I don’t really know what I’m doing, but I know it’ll work if I get the right people involved. And they said, We’re the right people and we’re going to put together a business plan for this. What do we need?
(HOST): [00:07:33] Their initial timeline was aggressive with the ultimate goal of dedicating the memorial on Veterans Day 1982 and just over three years. They needed to secure a plot of land, raise funds and public awareness, design the memorial, coordinate construction and organize the dedication ceremonies. Most importantly, they needed to navigate a labyrinth of government authorizations and approvals. The VVMF organizers soon learned that it required a literal act of Congress to build a memorial on federal land. Scruggs reached out to one of the senators from his home state of Maryland, Charles Mathias, a Navy veteran of World War Two. Jan then took the bold step of contacting Virginia Senator John Warner, who had served as secretary of the Navy during the war and was himself a veteran of World War Two and the Korean War. After meeting with the VVMF officers and advisors, Warner volunteered to help the organization raise the seed money needed to launch the fundraising campaign.
(JAN): [00:08:34] We started having conversations with a guy named General William Westmoreland from South Carolina, and here I am a GS-7 at the Dept of Labor and am having a discussion with the guy named Ross Perot. H. Ross Perot, very famous guy and Naval Academy graduate. He saved a bunch of employees that were taken hostage by the by the Iranians. And when he went there himself to Iran and was able to help find a way to scoop them out of there. So great patriot. He’s a best friend of all the prisoners of war. He always had special banquets for the Green Berets and that sort of thing. So all of a sudden I’m talking to him with some frequency and he says, Well, Jane, I got something to tell you. He had that funny little voice and he says, You got a good heart, son, but you’re not going to make it. Let me tell you why. Because I couldn’t do it. And I’m H. Ross Perot. So he explained to me he had had a meeting with a guy named Congressman Ray Roberts from Texas, as well as Hamilton Jordan, who was the chief of staff for the White House and said, look, I would like to build a memorial with all the names of the casualties. And I will pay for every penny of it because my best friend, Mr. Leftwich, was honored at the Naval Academy, now was killed in action. He was a great heroic Marine. And he said that Ray Roberts and Hamilton Jordan got back to him after a couple of weeks and said, Ross, don’t waste your money. This is impossible. Legislatively, it probably have to wait until ten years after the war ends. We fought like hell. And we got this legislation introduced in 1979, November 1979 by Senator Charles Mathias. The legislation was passed and signed into law in the Rose Garden with President Carter.
(HOST): [00:10:41] VVMF had its land two acres near the Lincoln Memorial, and the project was officially off the ground.
(JAN): [00:10:48] The main thing we did was make this a site specific piece of legislation that was important because this site, this memorial works for many reasons. But one reason is the tension and the connection with the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument that all kind of makes it work. So we’re here. We are in the White House, and I start raising money and. The American Legion agreed to give us $1,000,000. The VFW gave us about $375,000. We were raising money was not the problem. And everything was going just fine. But we had to get a design. What do we do? How do you get a design to hire an architect? That’s what I thought. As a matter of fact, Frederick Hart, since he was the one of the top guys in America, I told him, I said, Fred, I think you can design this. And he said, That’s a great idea, Jan. And then the board said, Jan, you don’t tell somebody to take this to a national memorial. So we had a, an architectural design competition, the largest held in the history of Western civilization. There were over 1400 entries into the competition. And here are the two words to remember. Reflective and contemplative. The memorial shall be reflective and contemplative.
(HOST): [00:12:12] There were other criteria as well. The memorial’s design would harmonize with its surroundings, especially the neighboring national memorials. It would make no political statement about the war, and it would include all of the names of the dead and missing.
(JAN): [00:12:26] And should have an estimated building cost of less than $5 million.
(HOST): [00:12:31] A jury was thoughtfully assembled and gathered in an airplane hangar to consider the 1400 plus entries. The identities of the designers were kept secret to ensure that each design was considered solely on its own merits. Maya Lin, then an undergraduate at Yale, conceived her design as a park within a park, a quiet, protected place unto itself. Yet harmonious with the overall plan of Constitution Gardens. To achieve this effect, she chose polished black granite for the walls. Its mirror like surface reflects the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, placing the walls 58,000 names into a thoughtful historical context. Even though Lin’s design was chosen unanimously by the jury, it immediately became a lightning rod, as did Lin’s Asian heritage, once her identity was revealed. Despite the fact that she was born and raised in Athens, Ohio.
(JAN): [00:13:28] It is now October 1981. The person who was in the design competition who was a West Point graduate, said, This memorial shall not be built because it is a black gash of shame. I have one question for you to answer. Ladies and gentlemen, why is every monument white on the mall? But this one is black. The color of shame.
(HOST): [00:13:53] After a short break, Jan and Maya Lin and their allies face mounting opposition to the memorial’s design from people with seemingly unlimited power and influence. Stick around. This year, we’re celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to commemorate this milestone every day at 3 p.m. Eastern. We read the name of every service member on The Wall who died on that date. This is in addition to the live in person reading of the names that will be held in Washington, DC beginning on November 7th. You can visit vvmf.org/ROTN for more information about the daily virtual reading of the names and about the in-person event. We know it isn’t easy for everybody to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. So VVMF created The Wall That Heals an exact replica of the wall at three quarter scale that travels to communities all across America. The Wall That Heals and the Mobile Education Center that travels with it will be in Garner, North Carolina, March 31 through April three, and in Crawfordsville, Arkansas, April 7 through 10. To see the rest of this year’s tour schedule and to learn how you can bring The Wall That Heals to your town, visit vvmf.org. Do you have loved ones who survived the Vietnam War but died after returning home? Did you know you can honor them at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial? We’re still accepting applications for the 2022 In Memory honor roll through March 29. So just a few more days. We also have an In Memory Facebook group with nearly 15,000 members, so be sure to join that if you want to feel part of a community of people who’ve experienced a loss similar to yours. You’ll find the In Memory honor roll application and a link to the Facebook group by going to npr.org and clicking on In Memory.
(HOST): [00:15:54] For 40 years, VVMF has led the way to help heal our nation, remember those who gave all and honor all who served. Our legacy endowment will ensure that we can continue honoring Vietnam veterans for the next 40 years and beyond. We launched the Legacy Endowment with a $500,000 matching gift campaign. The Legacy Challenge. Each new outright gift or gift established through a will, will be matched up to 50%, with a maximum of $50,000 matched per gift. All qualifying gifts established or newly identified before November 12th of this year are eligible for the match. Learn more at vvmf.org/legacy. When VVMF announced the selection of Maya Lin’s design for the memorial, the initial public reaction was generally positive. But several weeks after the announcement, a handful of people began to protest the design. A few of the most vocal opponents, including James Webb and H. Ross Perot, had previously been strong supporters of a memorial. Now they had complaints. They complained about the walls being black. They did not like the idea that it was below ground level. They did not like its minimalist design. They felt it was a slap in the face to those who had served because it did not contain traditional symbols honoring service, courage and sacrifice. Some opponents simply did not like the fact that Lin was a young student, a woman and of Asian descent. What could she possibly know about honoring the service of Vietnam veterans? Then in October 1980, veteran and lawyer Tom Carhart, also a former supporter, testified before the Commission of Fine Arts against the design, saying that one needs no artistic education to see this design for what it is a black trench that scars the mall with black walls, the universal color of shame and sorrow and degradation.
(JAN): [00:18:04] It was an argument that really resonated very quickly. All of a sudden, this becomes a media contest. Washington Post, New York Times, National Review. We are now up against some real adversaries. I mean, people who really have their act together. And and they had unlimited money, remember Ross Perot. And they had the ability to do things in Congress that we had no idea how to counteract. So this thing grew. ABC or CBS 60 Minutes is now knocking on my door. I’m with Morley Safer. And. How am I going to win this battle? This is a little bit too much stress. I’m just. Just a boy from Bowie, Maryland. What’s all this crap? Christmas of 1981. An article appears in the Chicago Tribune, and the article says this memorial design is terrible. And according to information that my staff has obtained, a member of the American Communist Party was involved in selecting this design. So once you throw communists into the mix and anti-communists, an anti-communist war, put them all in a box and you have the recipe for a real disaster. The opponents made incredible, incredible progress.
(JAN): [00:19:49] And of course, we just didn’t know what to do other than put one foot in front of another and just try to strike back. So we got Rocky Bleier. Who won the many medals in Vietnam, and he’s got four Super Bowl rings. He’s a small guy and very tough guy. You can always kind of push through and get the get the touchdown. So. It’s now Scruggs versus the Scruggs team versus the anti Scruggs team. And they have all this money. They have all this influence. These people ran political campaigns. These are not normal guys you run into on the street. They ran political campaigns for members of Congress. They know. They know one thing. This was a political campaign. The winner of this campaign would be the the side that got the most votes. So I said, okay, let’s go. Why do you want to make a political statement about the color black? I mean, doesn’t that offend black people? As a matter of fact, it did offend many black people. And who stood stood behind us.
(HOST): [00:21:14] One of those people was Brigadier General George Price, one of America’s highest ranking black officers, and a retired veteran of Korea and Vietnam. At a meeting in Senator Warner’s office, somebody again equated the color black with shame, and General Price had had enough. Black is not a color of shame, he said, and I’m tired of hearing it called such by you. Color meant nothing on the battlefields of Korea and Vietnam. We are all equal in combat. Color should mean nothing now. And then the general made himself unmistakably clear on the matter.
(GEORGE): [00:21:47] Then I got up and jumped his ass like it was a new moon. And I told him, mentioned that one more time. I’m not sure what has to do. I’m going to put a grenade with the pin out of it, put it in your goddamn mouth. You need to sit down and shut up and let the thing go. And I told Sentor Warner, Do you need to vote for it up or down, one way or another? We fooled around with this long enough.
(JAN): [00:22:08] He’s a very, very tough guy. And we were able to show people with the help of General William Westmoreland, oddly enough, that when it’s polished, black is Maya Lin, said black is the absence of color. And if it was white, the glare of this from the sun would actually hurt people’s eyes. So it had to be black. But if it’s black granite, polished black granite, it allows you to see your own face. You can almost shave in it. And that’s the psychological impact of the names for those who see the names that you see almost every day at The Wall is because of that.
(HOST): [00:22:48] After that, opposition to the color black decreased in volume, but other complaints continued to percolate. Eventually, the United States Congress got involved. Some of those congressmen were military veterans themselves with strong opinions and no shortage of strings they could pull.
(JAN): [00:23:04] Jeremiah Denton got involved, who was the senator from Alabama, I think won the Medal of Honor, along with General er, Admiral Stockdale, who was the CEO of the Citadel in South Carolina, Jim Webb. He became secretary of the Navy, and was a presidential candidate. I mean, this is not the. Some of them were really radical people. I mean, politically radical people. And anyway, so Congress says to Secretary Watt Do not give them a construction permit.
(HOST): [00:23:36] Even though legislation had already passed granting PMF space on the National Mall, no ground could be broken without a construction permit. Jan’s adversaries were using the bureaucracy to try and force a different design for the memorial.
(JAN): [00:23:49] I’m told to get my my troops and we’ll have a meeting on Capitol Hill. And I talked to Ross Perot and he says, yeah, I’ll be there with my guys and we’ll try to work this thing out. And they get in there and everyone’s got an identical three by five card. My name is Joe Blow, and I am against the memorial design because this is they had rehearsed and choreographed over. You see, they wanted the Memorial White. Above ground with a flagpole through the center. It wouldn’t work like this works, but we were trying to find a way to compromise. So, I mean, ashtrays were getting thrown. People were really raising their voice at each other. It was it’s very interesting thing about negotiation. Sometimes the guy who says the least is the guy or woman who wins the day. So the guy who was there with our team was General Michael S. Davison, and he was a very famous World War Two hero and was also the superintendent of West Point or the commandant of cadets coming down to commit. Very tall guy. It looks like he was out of a movie. Then he says, Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve listened to your arguments. Let’s end this right now. We need a traditional element, a traditional element attached to this memorial design, a statue of the American fighting man. And I’m sitting there waiting for what else is going to happen. Ross Perot says. Wait a minute. I know Felix de Weldon. He did the World War two memorial. He says, you know, if you can keep them sober long enough, you put together a hell of a statue.
(HOST): [00:25:38] VVMF agreed to the statue compromise and to adding a flag, but they couldn’t wait for the statue to be designed before breaking ground. Otherwise, they would never reach their dedication deadline of November 11th, 1982. Over several tense weeks, more debate followed until the Commission of Fine Arts and the National Capital Planning Commission gave their approval for a statue and flag in concept pending suitable placement for those elements.
(JAN): [00:26:05] But Secretary Watt is not quite finished and neither are the opponents. We get a call that says, Look, you’re not going to get a construction permit because Secretary Watt just got 22 phone calls from members of Congress. So, we’d run out of tricks. I mean, if they would have stopped the groundbreaking, they would have had the political momentum to stop the entire project. So the only thing we have is a guy named Tom Schell, who was a 1973 graduate of West Point, Tom Schell. And he answered to Bud McFarland and to Ambassador James Baker, White House guy, very famous inside Washington Guy, Texan and Tom Schell went over to the secretary of the Interior’s office, met with a guy named Bill Horn, and basically said, Bill, I’m here representing the President of the United States and I want the construction permit. So the guy said, well, okay.
(HOST): [00:27:18] On March 11th, 1982, eight months before the memorial was to be dedicated, Interior Secretary James Watt finally granted permission for the construction permits. VVMF wasted no time and took no chances. They wanted construction to begin as soon as possible so that the momentum would prevent any further gamesmanship by their adversaries.
(JAN): [00:27:39] We were able to get some construction equipment prematurely on the grounds, and that’s when I just told them to turn the bulldozers on and start digging random holes all over the mall. Even during even during the construction threats, they were trying to get parents to try to file a lawsuit against us, claiming they couldn’t use the name of their deceased son on a memorial. I mean, these guys wouldn’t stop. And in the middle of this whole thing, 60 Minutes is there. Tom Bettag, the guy who was the producer, and he says, yeah, these guys are coming at me telling me you guys are taking millions of dollars and taking weekend trips with your girlfriends and doing all this stuff. And we here at 60 Minutes don’t put any credence in all of that. But what you know, you got some real enemies out there. And I said, yeah, I figured that out. We get it built and no one knew how to build this thing, how to put all these names on it. A group out of Tennessee, Ben Swinger Glassworks, did it, and it turned out fantastic. And once people saw it, they could understand it. And everything turned out just fine.
(HOST): [00:29:13] Long after the memorial’s construction was complete. Jan’s opponents still kept coming to attack. The memorial’s design was now a moot point, so they went after Jan personally and his management of VVMF.
(JAN): [00:29:27] In 1983, a year later, after it’s been built, these guys come after us again. Local TV channel in Washington. They had a reporter who had won a Pulitzer or not or a Peabody Award that he was going to. He said they took the money from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. They spent 4 million for the memorial, another 4 million for themselves. I said, Oh, shit, I had no idea we did that. And they just kept coming in. The last time they came at us was a. The 10th anniversary of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. I’d like a two person staff. And Peter Jennings. I was told by a friend at ABC News had decided to target us for sweeps week. That’s when all the networks compete. The great story they were going to do a story on Jan Scruggs and the Vietnam Memorial being a bunch of crooks and all this so forth and so on. And they did. And it was. But we did a lot of work with them before they ran it, and it had a happy ending. But that was the end of that. I just want to encourage people in their local communities. You may have something you want to do or build, or maybe a homeless shelter or shelter for animals, a monument, something nice that helps people. I would just encourage you to do it. Life is short. The years kind of go by, but if you sort of dig your foxhole and invite others to join it, you can do great things. And I hope I hope that I inspire somebody to do just that.
(HOST): [00:31:35] In 1985, Jan Scruggs, along with Arthur Joel L Swerdlow published To Heal a Nation the story of Jan’s effort to get the Vietnam Veterans Memorial built in 1988. That book became an NBC movie of the week starring Eric Roberts as Jan Scruggs. Jan retired from VMware in 2015. He and his wife, Becky, live in Annapolis, Maryland. Thanks for listening to the official podcast from the founders of The Wall in Washington, DC. If you’re enjoying these stories, tell a friend or two to check us out. Or better yet, leave us a rating or a review wherever you get your podcasts, that’s the most powerful way to help new listeners find us. We’ll be back in two weeks with more stories of service, sacrifice and healing. See you then.
Full Interview with Jan Scruggs for 40th Anniversary of the Groundbreaking of The Wall
- VVMF Jan Scruggs – https://www.vvmf.org/About-The-Wall/history-of-the-vietnam-veterans-memorial/Jan-Scruggs/
- Jan Scruggs podcast – https://www.buzzsprout.com/1516993
- VVMF History of The Wall – https://www.vvmf.org/About-The-Wall/
- VVMF Reading of the Names – vvmf.org/rotn
- VVMF 40th Anniversary – vvmf.org/40th
- VVMF The Wall That Heals – vvmf.org/the-wall-that-heals
- VVMF In Memory program – vvmf.org/in-memory-program
- VVMF Legacy Endowment Challenge – vvmf.org/legacy
- Jan Scruggs Groundbreaking Interview – https://youtu.be/k1GgVS6bSII
- To Heal a Nation book – https://www.amazon.com/Heal-Nation-Vietnam-Veterans-Memorial/dp/0060154047
- To Heal a Nation movie – https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0096279/
- YouTube Echoes of the Vietnam War Interview playlist – https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLK63b6Cn53unMMj-yZYEch0RuYy1YN1zl