The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After his latest brush with death, the man behind the Vietnam Wall is back to tending it

Jan Scruggs, the creator of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, joins volunteers in washing the Wall last month. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)
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Jan C. Scruggs was on life support in a hospital in suburban Maryland, attached to a feeding tube and a breathing machine. He had been in a medically induced coma for weeks with a deadly heart infection. People were stopping to say goodbye.

His wife, Becky, was preparing for life as the widow of the creator of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and had contacted a friend about burial in Arlington National Cemetery.

After one brush with death in Vietnam, and three more from his heart ailment, it looked, late last year, like Scruggs might soon meet those departed comrades whose names are inscribed on his Wall.

But on a chilly Saturday morning last month, a thin, gray-haired man in a windbreaker, slacks and sneakers picked up a brush, splashed a section of the Wall with soapy water and started scrubbing.

It was Scruggs.

Like Lazarus, a friend said, back from the dead.

Scruggs had been invited to participate in the regular washing of the stone panels by local volunteers.

He seemed back in his element, wisecracking, holding a microphone and quoting Lincoln and the psychologist Carl Jung in a pep talk to the volunteers.

A local TV reporter who was present referred to him as “the man, the myth and the legend” behind the Wall.

Scruggs chuckled: “Slow news day and they turn you into a myth.”

Heart trouble since childhood

Last November 9, Scruggs, 68, had a fever of 104 and an appointment to see his doctor. He and his wife, who live in Annapolis, thought he had the flu.

But Scruggs also had a history of heart trouble. As a child he’d had rheumatic fever, a bacterial infection that can damage valves in the heart.

In 2005, he had developed endocarditis, an infection that can stem from rheumatic fever, and underwent a heart valve replacement.

Five years later the new valve got infected while he was on a trip to Richmond. He became delirious, and while trying to drive home he got lost and his whereabouts were unknown.

He was then in the midst of a campaign to raise funds for an underground Vietnam Education Center, a museum that he was trying to build adjacent to the memorial on the Mall.

Scruggs, who had been wounded in battle in 1969, had founded the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund in 1979 and three years later used it to build the polished black Wall that bears the names of the war’s 58,000 dead.

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But now, almost 30 years later, amid a fierce recession, he was having trouble raising money.

Police finally found him unconscious in his car on the Beltway where he had run out of gas.

He underwent another risky valve replacement operation. “Make peace with your God,” he said one doctor told him beforehand. He survived the surgery but needed a year to recover.

When he recovered in 2011, he resumed fundraising, despite limited interest in the project, and presided over a ceremonial groundbreaking studded with VIPs in 2012. (Money is still being raised for the education center.)

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But in 2015, Scruggs abruptly stepped aside as president of the fund, and began to back an effort to build a memorial to the global war on terror.

He was at work on that in 2017, and estranged from the Vietnam veterans fund, when he got sick two days before Veterans Day.

Trying to keep him alive

The morning of his doctor’s appointment in November, Scruggs could not get out of bed, he and Becky Scruggs, said in an interview in their home last month. Becky Scruggs called 911.

When he got to Anne Arundel Medical Center, he was lucid at first. Then he started talking about taking a trip to Costa Rica. “My brain was getting fried,” he said.

He was in shock and in acute respiratory distress, said Dr. Stafford Warren, a veteran cardiologist and neighbor of Scruggs who did not treat him but looked in on him regularly.

Doctors soon realized his endocarditis was back. They placed him in a medically induced coma so he could go on a breathing machine, and started him on antibiotics, Warren said.

The goal was to keep him alive so he could have yet another heart surgery.

But his condition got so bad that the doctors feared he would not make it to surgery, he said. “They did not expect me to live,” Scruggs said.

He remembers few of the medical details. He does remember the dreamlike “comedy” that was playing in his brain.

He dreamed he had flown to Portland, Ore., where filmmaker Spike Lee and the governor of Oregon were leading a bid to have the state secede from the Union.

Then he was in Tel Aviv, being cared for by Russian nurses, and then in a secret hospital in a shopping mall in Frederick, Md., that was guarded by Oakland, Calif., police officers who wanted Scruggs to get drugs for them.

“Crazy stuff,” he said, as he sat in his living room eating lunch.

“He was having hallucinations,” Becky Scruggs said.

He was also very sick. There were many visitors. One friend, author and retired Army Col. John Fenzel, brought his 11-year-old son. They both held Scruggs’s hand.

“We’ve all seen people who are right on the verge of death,” Fenzel said in a telephone interview. “Jan was right there.”

Scruggs couldn’t move his right side, and there was concern about his mental state even if he did survive, Becky Scruggs said. Bits of infected material had broken off his heart and gone to his brain, according to Warren, the cardiologist.

Becky Scruggs said she began thinking about the funeral and “how I was going to be a widow.” The couple had talked in the past about being buried together in Arlington National Cemetery.

“I never really knew: ‘How do you initiate that?’ ” she said. She emailed former secretary of defense and U.S. senator Chuck Hagel, an old friend, writing, “I thought something was going to be imminent and I didn’t know how to proceed.”

Hagel, in a telephone interview, said he agreed to help, and checked with the Pentagon about arrangements. “Just to kind of have things set up, if . . . the thing that we didn’t want to happen” happened, he said.

“You start thinking about what Jan Scruggs has meant to the veterans community, to our country,” he said. “It makes you review the last 40 years, and think about what a unique man he is and what a tremendous loss it would be.”

The Monday after Thanksgiving Becky Scruggs texted a friend about a meeting at the hospital scheduled for that morning.

“I think this will be a meeting for me to decide about life support,” she keyed into her cellphone. Jan was “full of fluid and [they] think possible abscess in valve. They cant wake him up because of all the issues.”

The decision was put on hold. And gradually Scruggs began to improve. His fever diminished. He was weaned from the breathing machine. He sat in a chair. He had grown a scraggly beard, and the first thing he remembers is his friend, John Weber, telling him he looked like General Ulysses Grant.

Months later, Scruggs said, he was told he would not need any further surgery.

“It really is almost a Lazarus-type story,” Warren said.

Two days after Christmas, Lisa Itte, a close family friend who had spent many days with the Scruggs in the hospital, got a call on her cellphone.

It was 7 a.m. “The caller ID read: Jan Scruggs,” Itte said in an email. “I assumed it was Becky.”

“It was Jan, with that chuckle of his, saying ‘Lisa Itte! So, tell me . . . just how did I get here?’ ”

“A delightful shock!” she wrote.

Back from the dead

Last month, in the chill of that Saturday morning, Scruggs mingled with the wall-washing volunteers from the Maryland mortgage firm, NewDay USA, and chatted with buddies he has known for decades.

He still looked a little frail, and his scrubbing stint was brief. But it was not bad, he said, for a guy just back from the almost dead.

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