Six years ago I attended hearings before a House subcommittee in which Jan Scruggs, a Vietnam veteran and an articulate and personable man, pleaded for help for Vietnam veterans. He argued persuasively that they needed psychological readjustment counseling to overcome the aftershock of the Vietnam war.
A small part of that help, Scruggs suggested in passing, would be a memorial to honor the dead and missing of the war. The memorial would convey that however divisive the war itself was, the sacrifices of the warriors were appreciated by the nation. A memorial--a symbol--mattered.
Congress ignored Scruggs on his memorial idea. It would even dawdle for several years before giving money--a paltry $12 million--to fund the psychological counseling centers.
From that brush-off beginning, Scruggs went on to form the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. The group would amaze the philanthropy experts by raising $6 million in private money. Congress, giving no money, eventually set aside two acres of land at Constitution Gardens, an arboreal preserve near the Lincoln Memorial. Early this spring, ground-breaking ceremonies were held for the veterans memorial. The design, an expansive but simple V-shaped black granite wall that includes the inscribed names of the war's dead and missing, was chosen from among 1,400 entries.
To get from that day in 1976 to now, Scruggs has had to endure not only the frustrations of fund-raising but, of late, the egos of artists, the posturing of congressmen and Reagan administration officials, and the whines of uninvolved critics.
The other day, the winning artist, a 22-year-old architectural student, was in a twit because Scruggs' group, generously compromising with some of the whiners, had commissioned a sculptor to design a statuary of soldiers that will face the granite wall.
Before that, a small group of congressmen--few of whom had ever exerted special energies to help Vietnam veterans get jobs, schooling or counseling--protested that the winning design was a loser for not providing the patriotic uplift it wanted in a war memorial. The black granite wall was seen as "a political statement of shame and dishonor."
I don't know from what sources of inner strength Scruggs draws his good-humored patience, but he has yet to be discouraged by the howling, carping and pointless controversy. He says that the "memorial has become a target for a lot of people's displaced anger. Emotions are far out of proportion." He is looking forward to Veterans Day this November when the memorial can be dedicated and at least that part of the debt to Vietnam veterans be paid off symbolically.
The rest of the debt is something else. The same administration that supported the criticism of the memorial, through the art critic James Watt, chose not to implement a $142 million job-training program that passed Congress last year as part of a Vietnam veterans bill. It refuses to carry out a $25 million small-business loan program for Vietnam veterans, the kind of program that helped World War II and Korean war veterans.
Last October, when these bills passed Congress, the Vietnam veterans were prepared to say that this legislation, however belated and limited, did reflect something more than words and more than a memorial. Congress was saying to the veterans: You're right, we forgot you, but let this legislation and these programs make up for some of the neglect.
Rep. David Bonior (D-Mich.), a Vietnam-era veteran who has done as much as anyone in Congress to deal fairly with the veterans, received a large response of gratefulness from those who expected to be helped by the new programs. But when the veterans applied for the job-training courses and small-business loans and found they weren't there, the cynicism and despair increased.
They'd been had once again--except the Reagan administration had ripped into the wound with its own cutting style. Ronald Reagan had called the Vietnam war "a noble cause," and then let his appointees go about treating the veterans ignobly.
These actions are also symbols that carry a message. They, not the memorial in Constitution Gardens, represent "shame and dishonor."