Vietnam Veterans Memorial: Healing for Generations

For nearly 35 years our military, families and others have had a place to go to make peace from tragedy

by Katherine Harris | Updated 08 Jun 2017 at 11:20 AM

Jan C. Scruggs volunteered to go to Vietnam just after graduating high school. As a young 19-year-old infantryman, he served with the 199th Light Infantry Brigade of the U.S. Army. He was wounded and witnessed the aftermath of a mortar accident that left 12 people dead, an event that profoundly impacted him. When Scruggs left Vietnam, he figured he’d left the war and Vietnam behind.

After the war, he came home and studied psychology at American University. His experience led him to examine the effects of war on the psyche. Ironically, he credits his wounds with his ability to attend college, where he earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees. He researched post-traumatic stress disorder — a condition he believes he probably had.

He has said that the creation of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial grew more out of his study of psychology, healing, and PTSD than of any incident in the war. All of this came from the work he did in graduate school, where he became an authority on post-traumatic stress disorder. He published a number of articles and even testified before the Senate.

So the theory behind this memorial was that the individuals — veterans, their families, and people who had difficulties stemming from the war — would have a place to go to make peace with a tragic event from the past.

In 1979, Scruggs conceived the idea of building the memorial in Washington, D.C., as a tribute to all who served during one of the longest wars in American history. He felt a memorial would serve as a healing device for a different kind of wound — that inflicted on our national psyche by the long and controversial conflict.

He asked his boss at the Department of Labor for a week off to hatch his project and start planning what would become one of the most recognizable monuments in the country. He recalled his boss giving him permission, saying, "Everyone needs a mental health day."

Soon, Scruggs quit his job to focus full time on the memorial, and he and his wife lived on her salary from an administrative job with Paralyzed Veterans of America. It had only been four years since the last troops left Vietnam, and the nation was in no mood to discuss a war that had torn it apart.

"The country was going to forget the Vietnam War, there's no doubt about that," Scruggs said. "It was a bad memory for the nation in many ways."

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. The wall was more of a calling: "It needed to be done," he said.

Related: The 'Troops' Who Support Our Troops

To find a design for the memorial, in 1981 he launched what he says was the largest architectural competition in history. More than 1,400 submissions poured into the anonymous panel of judges. When the time came to display the entries, Scruggs had to rent a hangar at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. The winning submission was from 21-year-old Yale undergrad Maya Ying Lin. Her design was simple and unconventional — a black wall engraved with the names of more than 58,000 Americans killed in the war.

In 1982, a black granite memorial with more than 58,000 names stretched over 70 panels took its place among the landmarks of Washington, D.C. It reminded all who visited that, as the inscription puts it, "Our nation honors the courage, sacrifice, and devotion to duty and country of its Vietnam veterans."

The message and the design borne from criteria that specifically forbade political statements was simple:  these are the service members, the sons and daughters, the old and (mostly) young, who have given everything for the nation's greater good.

The wall has been instrumental in healing not only a generation, but a nation.

Jan Scruggs had a dream, and from day one of the unveiling of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a nation long tormented by an unpopular war began a miraculous process of remembrance, healing, and honoring those who served and died.

The Wall has been instrumental in healing not only a generation, but a nation. It has had and continues to have an enormous impact on the lives of those families who lost someone . . . those who served . . . and even those who continue to serve.

Today, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is among the most visited memorials in the nation's capital. Perhaps the memorial wall's most defining characteristic is the ability to see your reflection at the same time as the engraved names, connecting the past and the present like few other monuments can.

Every name, the saying goes, has a story. And while visitors to the memorial may take away etchings or leave mementos, there is something very profound about this regal slab of polished granite that brings battle-hardened men to tears. It's a place to mourn publicly, feeling the connection between the living and dead, and feeling the way we still love and care for people.

Related: The Hidden Hurt of Military Families

Thank you, Jan Scruggs, for creating a lasting memorial to honor Vietnam veterans, for keeping the promise made in 1982 to "never forget," for working to honor, preserve, and to ensure that current and future generations never forget the service and sacrifice of those who came before them.

Here are a few facts and figures about our nation's most visited memorial:

  • 275,000 individuals donated to help fund its building
  • $8.4 million raised to build the memorial
  • 58,315 names inscribed on the wall
  • 50 states represented
  • Eight women (all nurses) memorialized
  • 159 Medal of Honor recipients represented
  • 16 clergy remembered
  • The wall officially unveiled on Nov. 13, 1982

Dr. Katherine (Kat) Harris is a veteran spouse, expat, and former military contractor with over 20 years of expertise in military/family transition, career counseling, higher education, organizational strategic planning, and international relations. An OpsLens contributor, she has conducted seminars and workshops for many Department of Army commands. She served as a translator and liaison for American, British, French, and German civilian/military communities in Berlin and Helmstedt, Germany. This OpsLens article is used by permission.

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