Jan Scruggs fights to build education center at Vietnam Veterans Memorial

May 28, 1969. Xuan Loc, South Vietnam.

Two companies of the Army’s 199th Light Infantry Brigade are slogging along a trail leading out of the forest where they have just had a bloody encounter with the enemy the day before.

About 9:30 a.m., they run into the North Vietnamese again, and more fighting breaks out. Among the American soldiers is Pfc. Jan C. Scruggs, a shy, skinny 19-year-old from Bowie, the son of a milkman and a waitress. He has been out of high school less than a year.

Scruggs hits the ground looking for something to shoot at. He moves behind a tree. In an instant, a rocket-propelled grenade explodes in the place he has just vacated.

More grenades land. Scruggs is riddled with shrapnel. He has a folded poncho tucked inside the back of his pistol belt to protect his spine, where he feared he might be shot. Now, he has holes in a dozen places. He touches a spot near his right armpit, and his hand comes away bloody.

Bullets are flying. People are screaming. A buddy with part of his shoulder blown off drops his rifle and runs. The platoon sergeant dashes to bring him back. Scruggs is alone. I’m going to die, he thinks. In this stupid little battle, in this hellhole patch of Vietnam, at age 19. He says the Lord’s Prayer and passes out.

***

On a sunny day in Orlando earlier this year, Jan Scruggs, now 62, ambled up to Vietnam War veterans hanging around an old “deuce and a half” Army truck on display, and introduced himself.

The men were gathered in a park where Scruggs was scheduled to speak the next day, and a half-scale aluminum model of the famous Vietnam Wall in Washington was set up nearby.

Scruggs looked a little formal in his navy blazer, jeans and loafers with tassels.

The vets, in T-shirts, greeted him.

“I’m Jimmy Cregan,” said a 63-year-old Chicago retiree who was a helicopter gunner in Vietnam in ’68 and ’69. “What can we help you with?”

“Well, I’m here with the Vietnam Memorial,” Scruggs said.

“Oh, are you?” Cregan said. “You in charge of this whole thing?”

“Yeah,” Scruggs said. “I’m the guy from D.C., the Vietnam Wall guy.”

It’s not clear whether the vets realized he is the Vietnam Wall guy, the guy who 30 years ago, as a gawky-looking ex-grunt in jeans and flannel shirts, got the idea that the names of all those who gave up their lives in that war might be etched in the city that sent them to their fate.

Back then, nobody even knew exactly how many Americans the war had devoured. All most people knew was that it was over and best forgotten. Now here came this naive, unsophisticated young man striding into the jungle of the Washington bureaucracy with a notion.

Who was this guy from nowhere to intrude on the sanctity and protocols of the hallowed Mall?

He turned out to be a stubborn guy who persevered through all the jokes and the politics and the funding, and the doubts and anger and the aesthetic battles to get the shiny black granite wall bearing all those names.

In a way, he’s the guy responsible for all the war memorials built on the Mall since. The Wall is considered a precedent, an inspiration, for the Korean and World War II memorials that followed.

He was in Orlando raising money to build a new education center across the street from the Wall — a project that has him back in battle, even with a bad heart and a new set of obstacles.

Little of that was known to the Orlando vets. No matter. As if Scruggs had pressed a button, their stories began.

Cregan was with a “hunter-killer” team that flew low and fired machine guns into enemy bunkers. He said he was “working up the nerve” to go look at the mini-Wall. “As you can see, I’m all full of bumps.”

William Waterman, 65, another helicopter gunner, went right to the metal replica and searched for the name of a friend. Waterman said he helped ferry commandos in and out of hot zones during the war. He was shot down.

“I got five air medals. . . . I’d give it all back to get some of these guys back,” he told Scruggs.

Said Lester Fields, 66, wearing a broad-brimmed black cavalry hat with gold tassels and crossed sabers: “I got a buddy up there. Robert J. Henry. He was killed at Quang Tri.”

His pal was hit in the neck right in front of him. “He didn’t say, ‘Les, I’m hit.’ He didn’t grunt. Nothing. Blood splattered all over. He just dropped.”

“Ugh,” said Scruggs, pressing his finger against his neck as if to a bullet wound. “That’s sad.”

***

Jan Scruggs’s “whole thing” right now — which has brought him to a new cross-country crusade — is the rejuvenation of his 12-year struggle to build the Education Center at the Wall.

Scruggs is president and founder of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, which built the elegant shrine designed by architect Maya Lin that bears the names of more than 58,000 people killed in the war. It is one of the most visited and moving memorials in the nation.

He and a team of young, impassioned veterans and allies got it legislated, funded and built in three years for $8.4 million.

The education center, by contrast, is an $85 million project envisioned as an underground Vietnam War museum and a memorial to service in all of America’s wars, including Iraq and Afghanistan.

Critics have worried, though, that the center could overshadow the quiet power of the Wall, and that some visitors might be drawn to the center and never visit the memorial. Others think it could alter the sacred neutrality of the Wall, spur the push for visitor centers at other memorials or disrupt the landscape.

“Why do we need visitors centers or museums attached to monuments?” asks Kirk Savage, a professor of history of art and architecture at the University of Pittsburgh who has studied monuments on the Mall.

“If any memorial can stand alone, it’s Maya Lin’s,” he says. Plus, he adds, even if the center is underground, it will be somewhat intrusive.

“You can’t make a building underground unless you put entrances,” he says. “It’s just not possible to make an underground building that isn’t going to be in some way intrusive on that site.”

Scruggs says his critics see him as a serial memorialist: “Here’s Scruggs coming back to the Mall. He’s already got the Vietnam Memorial built. ... He’s coming back for another bite at the apple.”

When Scruggs asked his friend Chuck Hagel, then a Republican senator from Nebraska, for help getting the legislation, Hagel was skeptical. “Why do we need it?” he says he asked Scruggs. But Scruggs was persuasive, and Hagel, himself a Vietnam War veteran, authored a bill.

The legislation was introduced in 2000, but opposition was intense, and it had to be reintroduced in 2001 and 2003. “It really sucked,” Scruggs recalls. “Year after year, getting our asses kicked.”

Authorization finally became law in 2003 — with a seven-year deadline to find funding.

The center is to be located just north of the Lincoln Memorial, across Henry Bacon Drive from the Wall, near 23d Street and Constitution Avenue NW. Much like the new U.S. Capitol’s Visitor Center, the Vietnam War center is to be built underground, to try to preserve landscape and sight lines.

Its major features will be an interactive history of the era and a display of some of the thousands of mementos left at the Wall. The center will also show a changing montage of photos of those whose names are on the Wall and those who were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Scruggs says he has collected 28,000 photos in a digital database, and he issues a call for more on most trips. Scanning equipment copies the pictures on the spot, or they can be submitted via the Internet to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.

But as time passed and the 2010 deadline neared, potential donors seemed unenthused. People found the center “interesting but not exciting,” Scruggs says.

Then the recession hit.

“The whole thing [was] falling apart,” he says. “I got 10 million dollars from Time Warner. I got 3 million bucks coming from Australia. I mean, it was all over,” he says.

In the middle of everything, it was almost all over for Scruggs, too.

One day two years ago, he went missing on his way back from an event in Richmond. Police, alerted by worried friends, found him unconscious in his car, which had run out of gas on the Beltway near River Road.

A metal heart valve implanted in 2008 had become infected, and “the infection canceled out my brain somehow,” he says.

He underwent a risky surgery to replace the metal valve with a valve from a pig. It took a year for him to recover fully.

“I don’t know everything about God or whatever,” he says. “But I tell you what: If He would have wanted me dead, I’d have been dead. So, I was not worried about the surgery. I was not worried about, ‘Oh, will I make it? Will I die on the operating table?’ ”

Now “reinvigorated,” and with a four-year extension granted by Congress in 2010, he has redoubled work. He travels constantly to drum up support, and he promises that groundbreaking will be in November.

Many aspects of the center have been approved by the National Capital Planning Commission and the Commission of Fine Arts. “The fighting is over,” Scruggs says. Most of what he has to do now is raise the remaining $40 million he needs. And stay alive.

“I don’t want this to end like a bad movie,” he says: “Right before the dedication ... here I am pushing up daisies or something.”

***

Jan. 21, 1970, Fire Base Nancy, near Xuan Loc, South Vietnam.

Scruggs, now recovered from his wounds, is relaxing in his one-man hooch. About 300 paces away, a mortar platoon is unloading a truck after a mission, when suddenly its ammunition blows up.

Scruggs runs to help and is the first person there. It is a horrible scene. Bodies are on fire. Men are terribly wounded. Severed limbs are strewn about. Scruggs starts to assist a fallen comrade when someone tells him not to bother: The injured man has a hole through his forehead the size of a golf ball.

It is a cruel accident of war, and 12 men are dead.

A bad day. Probably his worst day in Vietnam, it will haunt him for years.

Scruggs had joined the Army to get away from home. He was the youngest of the four children of parents who migrated to Washington from Alabama during World War II.

His father drove a cab and worked as a milkman. His mother, who had left school in the eighth grade to work in the fields, wore cowboy boots and was a waitress. They broke up when Scruggs was 14, and his mother moved away.

After his father remarried, Scruggs felt he was in the way at home and decided to leave.

The Army seemed the perfect vehicle. He joined in August 1968, the summer after he graduated from Bowie High School. He wasn’t concerned about the war in Vietnam. He could go or not go. Either way was fine.

The Army trained him to fire mortars and serve as an infantryman. He was sent to Vietnam in April 1969 for a one-year tour. His old platoon sergeant, Jimmy Mosconis, says Scruggs was a quiet and dependable soldier.

A month later, he arrived in the area around Xuan Loc, northeast of Saigon.

He and his buddies all survived the fight in which he was wounded, although he spent three months in hospitals recuperating. Back in action in November, he got a commendation for valor for retrieving a broken bazooka-like weapon before it fell into enemy hands during a firefight.

“It’s the nation’s lowest award for gallantry,” he says with a chuckle.

Then came the ammunition explosion. “These are the things that happen in wars,” he says. “They’re awful. Awful.”

***

One recent Sunday, between trips to New York and Texas, Scruggs climbed the spiral staircase to the loft of his condo in Annapolis and pulled out an old single-barrel shotgun he had found on patrol in Vietnam a lifetime ago.

“See how they modified it,” he said, noting a homemade bracket where a sling could be attached. It seemed an ancient weapon even then, he said, and may have dated to the doomed French struggle for Vietnam, decades before America’s.

Carved into the wooden stock was: “Scruggs ... ‘D’/4/12,” for his company, battalion and regiment. He had also etched his Social Security number. He couldn’t recall why.

Scruggs was in bare feet as he talked — clad in tan cargo shorts and a dark green sports shirt that suggested Army fatigues. One wall of the loft was covered with photos of him with VIPs. Scruggs with President Clinton. Scruggs with newscaster Morley Safer. Scruggs with former secretary of state Colin Powell.

Scruggs was never a man to avoid the limelight, says Robert W. Doubek, the fund’s former executive director. Scruggs has powerful connections to Capitol Hill, the Pentagon and the Vietnam War veterans corporate community.

Former senator Hagel says Scruggs, like a good politician, knows his market and knows Washington. “He knows how to use the levers,” Hagel says. Friends say that Scruggs is an effective speaker and writer, and is personally charming.

Scruggs takes a bus every morning to Washington, where his offices are located.

He and his wife of 38 years, Becky, live in a comfortable third-floor unit on the banks of Spa Creek, with the spire of the Maryland statehouse visible in the distance. They have no children.

His wife says he’s “strange,” not weird strange, but often preoccupied with his thoughts. When Scruggs got back from Vietnam, he worked as a security guard, bought a motorcycle and grew his hair long. He began studying psychology at American University.

He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and researched post-traumatic stress disorder — something he believes he probably had. He became an authority and testified before Congress.

The Wall grew more out of his study of psychology, philosophy, healing and PTSD than of any incident in the war. “I just saw kind of an average amount of combat,” he says. “Most people had a much worse time than me. It’s not like I was battered and tortured by the things that went on in Vietnam.”

The Wall was more of a calling. “This needed to be done,” he says.

Doubek, an early ally, recalls the 1979 meeting of Vietnam War veterans where he first saw Scruggs. He was sitting in a corner, a lean, scraggly-looking man who reminded Doubek of the isolated loner, the Steppenwolf of literature.

“He was not, to me, an impressive presence,” Doubek says. “He stood up, however, and he just said, ‘What about a memorial?’ And he was roundly put down by the assembled group.” Vietnam War veterans need better benefits, Doubek recalled the others saying, they don’t need a memorial.

After the Wall was built and the excitement passed, Scruggs thought he wanted to be a lawyer. He earned a law degree from the University of Maryland in 1990. But he was then in his 40s and didn’t feel like reporting to a 25-year-old law firm supervisor.

Besides, the Wall and its names were calling him back. “Vietnam and the people he saw die there really did have a long-standing effect upon ... his soul,” Doubek says.

Scruggs says: “There’s no stopping.” He reconstituted his dormant Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund and began planning for the Wall’s 10th anniversary.

Since then, it has been his full-time job — something that may be unique. Most agencies that build memorials dissolve once the memorial is erected.

But Scruggs says that can leave a memorial abandoned. He cites the fate of the District of Columbia War Memorial on the Mall honoring veterans of World War I. That had fallen into a state of near ruin until it was renovated recently. “With the Vietnam Memorial, I and others really couldn’t let that happen,” he says.

It’s an unusual way to spend a life, caring for the memory of 58,000 people who have been killed. “It’s been a catharsis,” his wife says. “All 30 years.”

And experts say that Scruggs opened the door for subsequent memorials on the mall.

“In a way, those other monuments were built because the Vietnam veterans memorial was built,” says Savage, the Mall scholar. “They came along and said, ‘Hey, wait a minute. Why is there a monument to them and not to us?’ ”

Says Scruggs: “They didn’t know they they needed one” until the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was built.

He believes that he has rejuvenated interest in the education center by reaching out to veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “One day, they will get their own memorial,” he says. “Until then, they will be honored here.”

His advisers have also come up with the idea of offering each visitor a copy of a fallen service member’s dog tag. If the visitor accepts it, he or she would promise to go home and do a good deed, then report back.

It sounds like a gimmick, but Scruggs thinks it’s brilliant. “This will change museums in America,” he says. “The people who visit this museum go back to their little town. ... They’ve got their little dog tag, and they go plant a tree. Not two people, but a couple of million people a year will go back ... and do some act of public service.

“So, all of these people who got themselves killed in these wars,” he says, “they’ll have this legacy unlike anything any of them could have possibly thought of.”

***

Back in Orlando, on a Saturday in January, the morning was warming fast as aging veterans gathered on folding chairs under the live oaks in Lake Eola Park.

And as the VFW band tuned up, the old bonds, and pains, of Vietnam seemed to lurk just beneath the surface.

Former fighter pilot Joe Kittinger, 83, who served three tours, flew 400 combat missions and spent 11 months as a POW, was there, still fuming about Jane Fonda and the politicians who lost the war.

James E. Jardon II, an Orlando businessman who flew B-52s and still gets choked up when he talks about friends he lost, was there. Over dinner the night before he had pledged $50,000 to the center, in honor of buddies he vowed he’d never forget.

And Bobbie E. Keith was there. Now virtually forgotten as the bikini-clad “Bobbie the Weather Girl,” she served more time in country — three years — than most Vietnam veterans.

An Army brat from Winthrop, Mass., she was 19 when she volunteered to do TV weather reports in Saigon on the Armed Forces Vietnam Network. She often had the local temperatures pasted to her body. “You can Google me,” she said.

She said she is now retired from the foreign service, lives in Satellite Beach, and “idolizes” Scruggs for what he did to heal the war’s psychic wounds.

The gathering was a salute to veterans, a chance for people to see the traveling Wall and to hear Scruggs and others speak. Now two years into his extension, the clock is ticking again, although if he comes up with 75 percent of the $85 million cost, he can get a further three-year extension.

The first to address the audience was Kittinger.

“The military did not lose that war,” he said from the podium. “It was lost by the politicians. ... We abandoned that country. We went there in the beginning for one purpose, to prevent a small nation from being overrun by the Communists.”

He closed with an attack on Fonda, the activist actress who visited North Vietnam at the height of the war and was photographed sitting on an enemy antiaircraft battery. “Jane Fonda was a traitor to our country,” Kittinger said. He wished she had been tried for treason, and hopes that someday she still might be.

“God bless America,” he said, in conclusion.

Scruggs, who was introduced by Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, spoke next.

He told the audience that the names of nearly 2,000 Floridians are on the Wall, 100 from Orlando. He talked about the education center and said it would bring those who died back to life, in a sense, by showing their photographs.

He closed with a quote about courage from British World War I battlefield physician Charles McMoran Wilson.

“Courage is a moral quality. It is not a chance gift of nature like an aptitude for games. It is ... a fixed resolve not to quit, which must be made not once but many times by the power of the will.”

He was referring, of course, to courage on the battlefield, but it is, perhaps, a similar resolve that Scruggs has shown since he left his war 42 years ago.

Michael E. Ruane is a Washington Post staff writer. To comment on this story, send e-mail to wpletters@washpost.com.

What do you think of the Wall? Have you been there? Share your stories in our comments section below.

Michael covers monuments, memorials, institutions; lore, ghosts, people of Capital, topics historical, martial, medical.
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