On May 28, 1969, while bleeding to death in Vietnam, I was preparing to die at age 19 after saying the Lord’s Prayer. Brave US troops, all draftees, found and dragged me to safety. I recovered and completed my tour.
May 28, 1979, I rented a room at the National Press Club and boldly told the media in attendance that there would be a national memorial in Washington engraved with the names of the fallen honoring all who served in the recently completed Vietnam War. I had national credibility from my research on combat trauma at American University. The memorial would give them recognition and, perhaps, some healing for the entire nation. The success of the plan was unlikely, led by a naive GS 7 federal employee named Scruggs. Yet, the memorial was funded and built in record time for the November 1982 dedication.
A dedicated team planned the project led by several grads of the West Point and the Harvard Business School. We held the largest design competition ever and endured a raging national controversy over the avant-garde design chosen, which has worked so masterfully since 1982, enjoyed by over 5,000,000 visitors annually. The designer was Maya Lin, then a 21-year-old student at Yale University.
What is often called “The Wall” also led to unanticipated outcomes, including the Korean War Memorial in 1993 and the World War II Memorial in 2004, on America’s Mall. If imitation is the most sincere from of flattery, The Wall deserves awards. There are several 1/2, 3/4 and full scale replicas traveling the country since 1984.
Pensacola, Florida, made a granite replica (The Wall South) a few years later near the naval base. Recently a full-scale granite replica was dedicated in Missouri by a Vietnam vet — desiring the healing that often emanates from the memorial — to be closer to the veterans in the western USA. The replica faces the sun at the same angle as in Washington. Other replicas come and go from veterans groups. One entrepreneur was selling 1/2 and 3/4 scale replicas in the neighborhood of $200 or more for interested people to have on their property.
The Wall is amazing. There is no anthropological or sociological precedent for a monument with such characteristics or replication. This would include the phenomena of probably a half-million items which have been left at the Wall, stored by the National Park Service. Some of these items have been displayed in the Smithsonian and the Imperial War Museum in London. And lets not forget Rolling Thunder, with its hundreds of thousands of motorcycle riders who ride to The Wall from was far away as Oregon. The Wall is like Mecca or the Western Wall in Jerusalem that compels the faithful to visit.
The talking point for the memorial was to “separate the war from the warrior” to honor the service of our citizens who gave their lives in the rice paddies of Vietnam. Victory was elusive, as is the case in Afghanistan.
It is fascinating to think that 75 years ago, on June 6, 1944, thousands of America paratroopers and infantry were on their way to the beaches and cliffs of Normandy, France, where many are now buried in cemeteries after laying down their lives. When I visited Normandy and places like Gettysburg I always remember the sobering, haunting words of World War I veteran, Archibald MacLeish, written during World War II.
“The Young Dead Soldiers Do Not Speak”
"Nevertheless they are heard in the still houses: who has not heard them?
"They have a silence that speaks for them at night and when the clock counts.
"They say, We were young. We have died. Remember us.
"They say, Our deaths are not ours: they are yours: they will mean what you make them.
They say, Whether our lives and our deaths were for peace and a new hope or for nothing we cannot say: it is you who must say this."
Enjoy Memorial Day 2019, where we live in safety and freedom in the United States of America. Take a moment to think of the fallen who did their duty and who are in harm’s way on this day.
Jan Scruggs is founder of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, was an infantryman in Vietnam, and was appointed chairman of the Selective Service System’s National Appeals Board by President Obama in 2013.