Recently Jan C. Scruggs was taking a shower and a piece of shrapnel popped out of his leg. It had been in there since he was hit in Vietnam in 1969, and for the past few months, "like a big pimple," had been working its way to the surface. Scruggs put it in a little box and kept it.
He tells this story, out of the blue in the middle of an interview, with an engaging laugh. The war just won't go away. He remains obsessed by it -- an obsession that drove him to lead the effort to build a national monument for Vietnam veterans next to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.
Although scores of dedicated people worked hard to create it, and Congress and the president authorized it, the monument was Scruggs' idea and dream from the beginning, and he kept at it through a three-year nightmare of controversy and criticism. Now it is built and to be dedicated this week.
Scruggs often spoke of building the monument in battlefield terms. Setbacks landed like mortar rounds on his position. "This is war," he would say -- and then, again, that engaging, self-deprecating laugh.
Scruggs is only 32 today. He was 19 when he went to Vietnam out of Bowie High School because his parents, a milkman and a waitress, couldn't afford to send him to college. Also, he said, he was "just a very naive teen-ager" who "felt it was the right thing for the country, to be over there."
Assigned to the 199th Light Infantry Brigade, he saw plenty of action, was badly wounded, and saw more action. Half his company was killed or wounded. Back home, barely 20, he couldn't even buy a drink in a bar. He got a guard job, carrying a billy club around an apartment complex, and enrolled at Prince George's Community College.
He was confused about the war -- still is. Not antiwar, but no longer able to defend it. "I went to see my old friends. None of them had gone to Vietnam and most were college students . . . I never felt comfortable talking with them and I didn't know too many veterans. There was just a little hollow spot inside of me, and I couldn't get it resolved."
He took to the road with a war buddy. "We did a lot of drinking and raised a lot of hell in just about every town in southern California." They spent long periods on Indian reservations, too. He isn't sure why.
That lasted five months and finally Scruggs came back and finished college at American University. He got a master's degree in psychology and counseling and then a job in the equal employment opportunity compliance section in the U.S. Labor Department. He got married.
One day in March 1979 he went with his wife to see the film, "The Deerhunter," in Silver Spring. On the way home to Columbia he didn't talk much. "Later that night I was thinking things over and I got very depressed. I started getting flashbacks. It was just like I was in the Army again and I saw my buddies dead there; 12 guys, their brains and intestines all over the place; 12 guys in a pile where mortar rounds had come in."
That night, sitting at his desk alone with his head drooping in his hands over a whiskey bottle, Scruggs got the idea of the memorial. He thought about nothing else for months and then began pursuing it relentlessly.
"I became obsessed," he said. "I thought, 'The names of all those guys killed in Vietnam are going up on a monument!' I was so excited, I stayed up till 3 a.m. every night for months. And now their names are up there -- the guys I knew, and those I didn't. Their names are up there. They're on the Mall forever. That's it."