When people visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., they can see the 58,279 names on The Wall, The Three Servicemen statue, the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, the In Memory plaque, and a flagpole that flies both the U.S. and the POW-MIA flag.
While the memorial and names provide an obvious visual reminder, Army Veteran Jan Scruggs wants people to know the story behind the memorial. It involves a poncho, a promise, PTSD, an Academy Award-winning movie and a focus on warriors instead of a war.
A poncho creates a promise
Scruggs landed in Vietnam as an Army infantryman after volunteering for the draft. He spent most of his time firing 81mm rounds at targets, also carrying an M-16 and M67 90mm recoilless rifle.
One day in May 1969, Scruggs was in his first battle. The next day, an armored unit came in to pull his unit out. Scruggs said an eerie feeling crept over him.
“You know what, I got a feeling I’m going to get hit today,” he said.
That day, he placed his poncho behind his pistol belt and tied it tight, like in basic training. That small tip was a lifesaver. Enemy shrapnel hit Scruggs in both legs and right arm, but the majority hit his poncho.
“It would’ve split my spine in half,” he said.
Severely injured, Scruggs made a promise: “As I was laying there, literally dying—I was bleeding out, I could see the blood pumping out—I knew, maybe a few minutes to go. I just said the Lord’s prayer and said, ‘Look, God, if you can get me out of this mess here, I’ll do something to pay you back.’”
An explosion that still resonates
While still in Vietnam, Scruggs experienced another life-changing moment. One morning, a huge explosion rocked his camp from multiple exploding mortar rounds. Scruggs ran from his morning shave with medical bandages to see a truck on fire.
“All these guys, they were all laying on the ground,” he said, choking back tears. “They weren’t moving. They were all dead.”
Panel 14W lists the 12 men who died, a day Scruggs still struggles to deal with 41 years later. One of those was John D. Pies, who happened to walk past as the mortars as they were exploding.
“I was with them. It’s very difficult for me,” Scruggs said, saying he’s only touched the name twice in 39 years and thousands of Wall visits. “These were all great guys.”
Army Veteran Jan Scruggs touches panel 14W at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial March 15. VA photo by Tass Mimikos.
A promise kept
While at American University, Scruggs said he realized he suffered from PTSD. After writing a few articles, he testified in front of Congress for the Vet Centers program. Congress established Vet Centers in 1979 because a significant number of Vietnam combat and era Veterans were not accessing VA services at the same levels as Korean and World War II Veterans.
After going to the movie theater to watch “The Deer Hunter” with his wife, Scruggs told his wife he learned how to keep the promise he made in 1969.
“I know what I’m going to do,” he told his wife. “I’m going to build a national memorial in Washington, D.C., and have all the names on it, and it will be great, and I’m going to do this.”
His wife told him to sleep on the idea overnight. He read Carl Jung about warriors and shared memories, which lead him to the idea of placing every name on the Wall. He sold a piece of land he owned in West Virginia for $2,800, which started “this crazy idea.”
Using West Point graduates who went to Harvard’s Business School, a team went to work. On May 28, 1979, Scruggs rented a room at the National Press Club and told the media in attendance that there would be a national memorial.
“In order to get this memorial, we had the largest architectural design competition in the history of Western civilization,” he said.
Over 1,400 teams submitted, with Maya Lin’s design chosen.
Two and a half years later in November 1982, Scruggs stood at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, opening it to a crowd of about 50,000.
“Because I was so tortured by what had happened in this incident, this created the Vietnam Veterans Memorial,” Scruggs said.
Names as a tribute
Scruggs said putting the names of the casualties on the wall was a befitting tribute, albeit with substantial controversy. Some Veterans advocated for a war memorial, while Scruggs and his team wanted a memorial for the men and women who died. The 58,279 names are by date of death, with names in alphabetical order if they died on the same date. The Wall is intentionally devoid of ranks or service.
“We decided that all were equal in their sacrifice, no need to pay attention to military rank,” Scruggs said. “It would distract from the experience.”
The intention was for visitors to remember each person who died.
“They remember him the way he was when he was 19 or 20 years old, before he got killed in Vietnam,” Scruggs said. “They think, ‘what would he have done in life?’ Doctor, lawyer, fireman – he would’ve done something, something good and had a family. But at a young age, he was robbed of his youth.”
Focus on the warrior instead of the war
Because of the unpopularity of the war, Scruggs said people wanted the focus on the warrior instead of the war.
“You got to remember how divisive that war was,” he said. “The guys who were killed, it was pretty obvious to us nobody was ever going to remember these guys. Many of the people who are related to people on The Wall, they know they didn’t die for nothing. This is where the living and the dead commune.”
“This Wall means many things to many people as it records the names of the past and reflects on our hopes for the future,” Hagel said. “It also offers a reminder, a message that carries across generations. The Wall reminds us to honor those who defend our country for making sure they’re treated with the dignity and respect and appreciation they deserve.”