Jan C. Scruggs, the Vietnam veteran who 35 years ago led the crusade to build the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, said Wednesday that he is stepping down as president of the fund that built the national landmark.
Scruggs, 64, who lives in Annapolis, said he is officially leaving June 30, but he turned over day-to-day operation of his Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund to new chief executive Jim Knotts last fall.
Scruggs said he will continue to travel and raise money for the fund and the new $115 million Vietnam veterans education center, an underground museum planned for a site across the street from the Wall.
“I’ll continue to sort of be the president emeritus of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund,” he said. “I’ll continue to work with them on a part-time basis.”
“But basically, running the . . . fund full time is someone else’s domain,” he said. “And it’s good.”
Scruggs, who will turn 65 next month, said there comes a point “where, as a CEO, you need to step away and you need to let somebody else take over, get their rhythm.”
Colleagues praised his contribution to Vietnam veterans and their families.
“There would be no Wall without Jan Scruggs,” former defense secretary Chuck Hagel said Wednesday. He “came up with the whole concept of, first of all, honoring Vietnam veterans, and then had the courage . . . to make it happen.”
“It is a very spiritual place,” Hagel said of the Wall. “Certainly . . . [it] is the residence spiritually of those over 58,000 men and women who died, and I think their families see it that way, too.”
Scruggs, who grew up in Bowie, served in Vietnam in 1969 and 1970 as a 19-year-old infantryman. He was wounded in battle in May 1969 .
After the war, he came home and studied psychology at American University.
He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and he researched post-traumatic stress disorder — a condition he believes he probably had. He became an authority and testified before Congress.
He has said that the creation of the Wall grew more out of his study of psychology, healing and PTSD than of any incident in the war.
“I just saw kind of an average amount of combat,” he said in a 2012 interview. “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. It “needed to be done,” he said.
In the late 1970s, as the nation wrestled with the war’s aftermath, Scruggs became the head of a team of young, impassioned veterans and their allies who got legislation and $8.4 million in funding to build the memorial.
Architect Maya Lin designed the black granite chevron, which bears the names of more than 58,000 people killed in the war. The wall, northeast of the Lincoln Memorial on the Mall, is one of the most visited and moving memorials in the nation.
Statues of three soldiers and the Vietnam Women’s Memorial were added to the site later.
The Wall was dedicated in 1982 amid a huge march by veterans, and it quickly became a place of grieving, pilgrimage and healing. Tens of thousands of mementos have been left there over the years.
“The Wall gave people the license to mourn publicly and to start bringing things to places,” Scruggs said Wednesday. “There’s something very profound about it, feeling the connection between the living and the dead, feeling the way we still love and care for people.”
“You can’t take that away,” he said.
Knotts, 47, the fund’s new chief executive, said:
“The Wall has been instrumental in healing not only a generation, but a nation. It has had and continues to have a huge impact on the lives of those families who lost someone . . . those who served . . . and even those who continue to serve today.”
“You can’t really quantify the impact on thousands upon thousands of lives that the Wall has had,” he said Wednesday. “It all goes back to Jan.”