Two years ago this weekend, tens of thousands of Vietnam veterans came to touch the names of the dead in a polished, black granite wall, a monument that mirrored the passions of a nation that had never come to terms with their war.
There were parades, flags, jet fly-bys. Some called the Vietnam Veterans Memorial a "black gash" and a "tribute to Jane Fonda"; others saw it as a beautiful, cathartic release for tears that hadn't come until then. It was a controversy that led to shouting matches on Capitol Hill, inspired journalist Tom Wolfe to write a scathing commentary about "the mullahs of modernism" who gave the veterans what he called an "enormous pit," and caused the designer of the memorial, a 21-year-old Yale architecture student, to denounce her attackers and hire her own lawyers.
Today, finally, the controversy may be over. An additional compromise statue of three servicemen, by Washington sculptor Frederick Hart, will be unveiled at a brief, 11 a.m. ceremony and then dedicated formally on Sunday, when Ronald Reagan is expected to attend. It marks an end to a three-year fight that both made and ruined the careers of some of the men it touched.
On one side was a determined, scruffy veteran who wanted a memorial at any cost and who enlisted well-connected West Point graduates and politicians in his service. On the other side was a Texas billionaire, a former platoon leader and a best-selling author who hated the design and wanted what they saw as a remembrance to the living. Caught in the middle was a reporter who says his work on a broadcast series ruined his television career, at least here in town.
The story of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a story of broken friendships, and of men who fought a battle that sometimes seemed as ugly and bitter as the war itself.
Jan C. Scruggs was the working-class kid from Bowie, "a redneck and all that," as he says, a guy who stumbled through high school and into the Army, only to be hit by a rocket grenade 60 miles northeast of Saigon. The rest of the 199th Infantry Brigade had moved on through the jungle. "I said the Lord's Prayer and started cussing at the guy who hit me," he says. "Then I started to go into shock. I said, 'Here I am in a rathole, about to die in Vietnam.' " It was May 28, 1969.
He spent two months in the hospital and then, exactly a decade later, on May 28, 1979, rented a room at the National Press Club and had what he'd heard was called a press conference, announcing the formation of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.
He wanted to build a monument to honor those who had served -- the movie "The Deer Hunter" had in part given him the idea. "I became obsessed with this thing," he says. "It was an absolute unidimensional drive. In 1979, even my friends thought I was off the wall." By July 4, the fund had collected exactly $144.50, as reported in a wire service story.
But the story eventually attracted a better connected group of Vietnam vets, most of them West Point graduates who moved the memorial through the offices of Sen. Charles McC. Mathias (R-Md.) and Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) on Capitol Hill. At this point, everyone liked everyone else.
The Fund announced a design competition, judged by a panel of modern art and architecture experts, who after sifting through the more than 1,400 blind entries, came up with the winner: Maya Ying Lin, the Yale undergraduate who wasn't even an architect. One of the original veterans denounced the monument as a "black gash of shame and sorrow." The war over the war memorial was on.
Scruggs at first was bewildered, although he says now he understands. "It was just a lot of anger left over from Vietnam," he says. "The memorial gave this group of people something to focus it on." In the process, he got an education.
"I learned how to do some real tricks," he says. "Like going live on the 'Today' show and fencing with the host who was trying to get you to say the wrong things. Now I understand the power of politics and the power of the media. I've learned how to make the two mesh. It wasn't until 1979, even though I'd lived in Washington my entire life, that I really saw the other side of Washington -- which is the world of Capitol Hill, the parties that certain people are invited to, the world of the TV networks. Guys like me grow up to be firemen and policemen. But now I can stand in front of a crowd of 150,000 people and look at the guy next to me, and hold my hand out like this, just to show him it's steady."
He plans to leave the memorial fund in January, but he doesn't know what he'll do. "Not one person has called me up and said, 'You've done a good job, Jan, and we'd like to have you for our project.' I've gotten my name 50,000 times in newspapers and Time and Newsweek, and I've been on all the talk shows. It just hasn't translated into anything other than that."
He's still bitter over the battle with the memorial's enemies. "These guys go for the throat," he says. Tom Carhart
One of those guys was Tom Carhart, an Army brat, West Point graduate and platoon leader who saw more grisly action than any of the others had in Vietnam.
"I killed people," he says. "I watched men die. I wept. But I would be lying to you if I didn't say it was the most thrilling thing I ever did."
At night, he says, he would sneak through the Mekong Delta and hit houses, killing key members of the Vietcong infrastructure. Once, he and some members of his platoon waited in ambush for the enemy, then shot 10 of them. "I got a sort of a rush," he says. "It was like I was high. I had never felt so elated. But that's life. That's war." He talks of feeling "aroused" while going into battle. "I killed -- and I enjoyed it," he says. "That's human."
It was Carhart who called the memorial "a black gash of shame and sorrow," finally speaking out at a meeting of the Fine Arts Commission after seething inside for months. He had been in the original group of veterans who wanted the memorial built, and what his remark did was draw a lot of figurative blood. "When I spoke out against the design, I broke camp with a lot of my brothers," he says. "They turned on me with a viciousness." He says they started rumors that he had never emotionally recovered from the war.
"I'm not crazy, I'm not still suffering from the war," he says. "I was just offended by a black ditch. A black ditch! Come on. It's an open urinal."
Carhart himself had entered the competition, conceiving of a circular, white wall around a statue of a man holding a wounded comrade in his arms. The man was to have been standing in a purple, heart-shaped pool of water, a symbol of the Purple Heart award. Carhart won two in Vietnam. One is in his dresser drawer; the other he uses as a money clip. He says his rage toward the memorial has nothing to do with his rejection from the competition.
Carhart had been a lawyer representing multinational corporations before the Common Market in Brussels when he moved to Washington in 1980, eager to advance his career. Now he is a GS-13 running the Vietnam Veterans Leadership Program, making $39,000 a year. He lives with his wife and two children in a small, rented house in Falls Church.
He is careful not to blame the memorial fund publicly for his problems, but he doesn't know if he'd speak out again.
"When I came to town, I had an afterburner tied to my back," he says. "I was a superstar. And then all of a sudden, I came to a full stop. For the last few years, I've been wandering in the desert.
"Would I do it over again? I say yes -- because words are free. But if I were really faced with it, I don't know if I'd have the courage." Carlton Sherwood
The person who knows for sure that the memorial wasn't worth the price he paid is Carlton Sherwood, the former WDVM investigative reporter who broadcast a series a year ago that raised questions about why $9 million was raised by the fund but only, he said, $2.6 million spent for actual construction. Sherwood resigned from the station, he says, after a loud shouting match in the newsroom, in which he says he called news director Dave Pearce "gutless," "spineless" and a "pernicious bedwetter." Sherwood now works for The Washington Times.
"The way in which I resigned at WDVM ruined me in town with other news directors," says Sherwood, an intense, aggressive reporter who had won a Pulitzer Prize and a Peabody Award for previous investigative work. "I was not likely to land a job here with other television stations."
On Wednesday night, WDVM aired an unusual apology for the series and on Monday donated $50,000 toward the maintenance of the memorial. Pearce confirmed that the fund had threatened to sue before the settlement.
"I do not apologize," Sherwood said by phone. "I do not retract anything that was aired. I stand by the story. My reports were approved in advance by Channel 9 and its attorneys and were based almost entirely on the fund's own financial reports. After discussions with representatives from the station, I was told that this the apology and donation was a business decision."
Fund members claim that Sherwood was put up to the story by the opponents of the memorial, particularly H. Ross Perot, the conservative, hard-driving Texas billionaire who lost a close friend in Vietnam and who is still angry that "we sent these men on the battlefield but did not go with them in spirit." Sherwood says it's not true about Perot. "He didn't want to talk to me, he really didn't," he says. "I had to drag him kicking and screaming. Nobody came to me and said, 'Do this story.' "
A GAO report eventually cleared the fund of any wrongdoing, but Sherwood scoffs at it. "From everything I saw," he says, "they took a nonprofit, charitable agency and were running it like a government agency. If it were the government, you'd expect them to spend 80 cents for a 20-cent widget. Which may explain why the GAO was more tolerant, being tolerant to large expenditures for very little results."
What is interesting, and often overlooked, is that Sherwood is a veteran himself. He finds the memorial "depressing," but says he doesn't feel as emotional about it as the other fund members do.
"There were 100 wars in Vietnam," he says. "The war I fought was totally different than theirs. I was on the DMZ. We had no booby traps, we didn't have to worry about shooting women and children and being court-martialed if we did. We were fighting a trench war. I didn't have time to think. We were losing 350 people -- people killed -- a week. When you know so many on the wall, it sort of loses its impact.
"I'm sure shrinks would say, 'It's not healthy, you should face up to it, you ought to address these feelings.' Well, I'm not holding anything back, I don't think."
A theory: Maybe he got angry and wanted to expose what he saw as mismanagement in the fund because of his real anger toward the war.
"That's an interesting theory," he says, "but the reason I went after the story is that it seemed to me that it was the kind of story I have done in the past. Now, maybe subliminally, maybe there is something in the back of my mind. I had, and have, no position on the memorial. Maybe that is subconscious. Maybe I force myself not to be moved by it. Maybe if you go down the road seven or 10 years, it'll be different. I used to say that Veterans Day never meant anything to me, but now, every time it comes around, I fear that I'm going to get a wrenching feeling in my stomach. It's the anniversary of 'The Story.' " Jack Wheeler
The fund member most antagonized by 'The Story' was Jack Wheeler, a smart, hard-working lawyer who had gone to West Point, Yale Law School and Harvard Business School. Once he thought about becoming an Episcopal priest, but dropped the idea after a year. Now he's a special counsel to the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.
It was Wheeler who noticed the story about Scruggs only collecting $144.50, and it was Wheeler, a man who had never been quite sure what he wanted from life, who seized on the idea and got his old West Point network on the phone. Later, the memorial opponents would make sure that everyone knew that Wheeler, a logistics officer, had never seen combat, and later, Sherwood would report that Wheeler "became the subject of disciplinary action for misappropriation of government property" and that he was "cited for conduct totally unbecoming an officer." (Wheeler says he was reprimanded for using a jeep not assigned to the official motor pool.)
One morning last year, Wheeler was shaving when his wife told him there was a Carlton Sherwood at the door. Sherwood had been sending Wheeler mailgrams and telegrams asking him to respond to the allegations he said would be in his series, but Wheeler, convinced that Sherwood was out to get him, was ignoring them. This time, he let Sherwood in. He began talking but then noticed a small, remote microphone attached to Sherwood's tie, the kind that could transmit to recording equipment. He told Sherwood to take it off, and he did. The next day, Wheeler had Sherwood arrested on his complaint that he was violating a Maryland law against illegal taping of a conversation. The charges were dismissed two days later. Sherwood says there was nothing on the tape; Wheeler says the station recorded some of the conversation but erased it.
"I did it because they violated my family, and they had gone over the limits," says Wheeler. "My kids picked up the tension we felt. My boy wept. If he wants to beat up on me, he could beat up on me somewhere else besides my house, before breakfast."
Controversy aside, Wheeler says the memorial has given him a direction he didn't have before. "This may not be the only thing I'll ever do," he says, "but I do know it's something I'm going to do for the rest of my life." Like all the others, he too has a friend on the wall -- Tommy, his classmate from West Point.
"The memorial means I kept a promise," he says, talking in his office at the SEC. "When I was at Harvard, Tommy was killed in action. I cut class to go to his funeral. I just didn't want to talk about it. This was in Harvard in '68. Tommy's memory will never leave me. He's an example of the best in all of us. I want to live up to that. One day in August, they put the panel up with his name. I saluted. No one saw me, and I didn't cry."
He didn't cry then, but now his eyes fill with tears. James Webb
Wheeler didn't know James Webb, the author of the best-selling war novel, "Fields of Fire," when he first got interested in the memorial, but he was glad to have a well-known, well-connected name who could help.
Now Webb, a Naval Academy graduate, Marine Corps veteran and assistant secretary of defense, admits that the wall has helped some of those veterans with emotional problems, but "these are a small amount of people . . . that doesn't mean the design should cater to them."
Both sides of Webb's family fought in the Civil War. On a table in his large Pentagon office are all his war mementos, starting with a notebook his great-grandfather used in the Civil War and moving up to a Mark 33 "baseball grenade" that he himself used in Vietnam. He was awarded the Navy Cross, the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts.
He complains that his problem with the memorial wasn't his supposed anger toward the war but "a failure of leadership" on the part of Scruggs and Wheeler. "They are two of the most pathetic creatures I have ever worked with," he says. "They are totally out of their ballpark." He maintains he was silent until they started sniping at him by spreading the word that he was a crazed ultraconservative. "I never said anything publicly about these guys until I got my butt blown away," he says. ". . . Now I'm 'The Right Wing Freak.'
"I don't need to cry on your shoulder," he adds, "but it's no fun being called a right-wing McCarthyite . . . That's pretty rough stuff, particularly for a writer."
After this weekend, he hopes that the war will be over.
"This is the screwiest thing I've worked on in my life," he says, sighing. "Ever."