It was a cold and windy day in Washington D.C. 35 years ago as I spoke at a place on the National Mall near the Lincoln Memorial. A crowd of 50,000 people, mostly Vietnam veterans, gathered after a parade down Constitution Avenue. Three years of non-stop work was coming to an end. I took a deep breath.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” I said, “the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is now dedicated.” After I spoke those words, the crowd surged forward ― embracing this 492-foot-long chevron-shaped memorial engraved with the names of the over 58,000 American fallen from the Vietnam War. The human chain seemed to move in unison, until it began breaking off into small groups to touch the reflective black granite of the Memorial Wall.
The struggle to get this built was not exactly easy. Yet it was done in record time. Just three years after the enabling bill was introduced, the Memorial was designed, funded, constructed and dedicated. There was considerable help from some West Point grads who had also attended the Harvard Business School. Key team members were retired colonels from the Marine Corps and Air Force. We sparred with opponents of the design, fought skirmishes in Congress and later overcame bureaucratic road blocks.
People volunteered their talents, including future Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. The Memorial had grown out of my academic writings and testimony before the U.S. Senate about post-traumatic stress. My theory was that a wall of names would help to heal the psychological wounds of Vietnam Veterans.
Four million or so visitors go to the Memorial annually. While most are tourists, others are on a personal pilgrimage. Over 400,000 people have paid homage by leaving a wide range of items there. One is the blood-stained canteen of an enemy soldier left by the son of a Vietnam veteran who had been tortured by his memories of combat but unable to visit the Memorial. “I hope that by leaving this at this great Memorial gives Dad some peace,” the son wrote on a scrap of paper.
It is a worthwhile exercise to take a look at the impact of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on our nation. In addition to its central mission, the Memorial has had at least four unexpected legacies over these 35 years:
1. Public mourning in America. The Wall changed the way people mourn. After the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, people began leaving emotionally charged items at the site of the tragedy. Soon after the The Wall was dedicated, a professor of American Popular Culture, Kristin Haas, took note of some subtle, yet profound phenomena in America. Markers at the sites of highway deaths began to appear, as did photos and flowers at places where inner city youth were killed. Members of the LGBT movement created a huge AIDS quilt that would visit the National Mall every year. Replicative behaviors followed 9/11 in Manhattan.
Suddenly, it was okay to mourn and to share one’s grief with others. This is healthy ― shared grief brings people together.
2. Growth of memorials nationwide. After 1982 the race was on to build state memorials to Vietnam Veterans. From Portland, Oregon, to Frankfurt, Kentucky, veterans groups and state officials began designing and dedicating memorials. Each is a unique work of art and many use the black granite of The Wall. Each Memorial had the positive effect of bringing Vietnam veterans together for ceremonies and special events. A half-scale granite replica, known as “The Wall South,” resides in Pensacola, Florida. A three-quarters scale replica is located at the Army Infantry Museum in Ft. Benning, GA. Several half-scale replicas tour cities and towns around the nation.
3. A spiritual dimension. Some of those who study religion compare The Wall to an altar, a holy place where people show reverence. Theologian Gustav Niebuhr wrote, “Americans have long revered places that they link to their national identity: the bridge at Concord, the Alamo, the battleship Arizona at Pearl Harbor. Few pieces of ground are so hallowed as Gettysburg, where the Civil War battle and Lincoln’s address paired national unity and purpose in a way that is seen as almost mystical. But veneration occasionally imparts even more to a hallowed site: a spiritual dimension that transforms it into something like a sacred shrine, where pilgrims come and devotions are paid. For generations, Gettysburg was such a place. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, several scholars of religion and culture say, is becoming one now.” I think it’s an understatement to say that anything that brings people together is useful in this day and age.
4. A different American Mall. Who can blame veterans of WWII and Korea for wanting a Memorial on The Mall? It was inspiring to be there in 1995 when the Korean War Veterans Memorial was completed. I was also there in 2004 when the World War II Memorial was dedicated. However, neither Korean War nor World War II veterans pushed for a memorial until The Wall was dedicated. The Wall created “a need” for Memorials ― “memorial fever” was contagious. In 2018, 100 years after the event ended, a national World War I Memorial is scheduled to be dedicated in Washington DC at Pershing Plaza near the White House.
In late 2014, I took leave of my Washington office and worked from home until my retirement in 2015. In October 2015, I was deeply touched by the death of Delta Force Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler in Iraq. Would he and the more than 2 million veterans of the “War on Terror” ever get a National Memorial? After all, it seemed to me, this was a war that could continue on for another century.
I decided to write an article about this subject and it was published in The Army Times. A helicopter pilot in Afghanistan saw the story and contacted a fellow West Point graduate, Andrew Brennan, who on his own initiative was creating a team to help bring a memorial to reality.
I was happy to join this group and reached out to some leading military figures to help assemble an advisory board. Several Vietnam veteran friends made financial gifts in the $10,000 range. The leadership of NewDayUSA agreed that the time was right to get involved ― and the company announced a $1 million donation on Sept. 12, 2017. Congress also moved with dispatch, and President Trump signed enabling legislation in August at Camp David.
We’re on our way! Much of the current work involves site acquisition. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is a former Navy Seal who led troops in combat; his agency has jurisdiction over The Mall.
Let me be candid. Relatively few Americans are carrying out the fight against our enemies in Aghanistan or Iraq, or even places like Syria and Niger. It’s a small percentage of our young citizens who volunteer to risk life and limb. But there are thousands ― and they deserve our support. They want a memorial. I’m proud to be among many devoted to making sure this happens. This will be a place where their honorable service will be remembered by the nation. Where their courage and sacrifice will be acknowledged. And where they, their families and their friends can come together to heal.
It happens every day for the veterans of my generation at The Wall. Let’s give the post 9/11 generation their own place to go ― where they too can experience some measure of peace, reconciliation and love. Read more: www.gwotmemorialfoundation.org
Jan Scruggs spent a year in Vietnam with the 199th Light Infantry Brigade in 1969- 1970. He was wounded and decorated for gallantry. He later became an expert on Post Traumatic Stress at American University. He is a lawyer and professional speaker. JanScruggs.com