Jan Scruggs, legacy etched in the stone of Vietnam wall, ready to retire
By HEATH DRUZIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 29, 2015
ANNAPOLIS, Md. — The regal slab of polished granite that reflects the Washington Monument and brings battle-hardened men to tears was once as controversial as the war it memorializes.
In 1981, the design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was met with howls of protest, a campaign to undermine it, racist comments and even a spurious Red Scare.
At the center of the politicized melee, which aggravated a still-raw national wound just six years after the end of the war, was an unassuming Labor Department investigator named Jan Scruggs. No one had heard of him until he took a week off to start planning what would become one of the most recognizable monuments in the country.
More than three decades later, Scruggs is retiring from his post as president of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which many refer to simply as The Wall.
“I’m tired,” Scruggs said in an interview with Stars and Stripes.
Before rehashing the defining battle of his life, though, Scruggs wants to talk antiques. He takes a reporter into his home office and picks up a long, curved saber.
“It’s from the Civil War, and I found it in a yard sale for $100,” he said.
He shows off a turn-of-the-20th Century shotgun and an 1838 pepperbox percussion pistol from his small, eclectic collection. He’s much more interested in talking about old weapons than the photos on one wall of him with every president since Jimmy Carter.
“My real hero, of course, is Jimmy Buffet,” the devoted Parrothead said, picking up a picture of him with his favorite musician.
It’s not that he has anything bad to say about the presidents he’s met — “They’ve all been pretty good to me.” In fact, he doesn’t have anything bad to say about even his most ardent foes, including conservative provocateur Pat Buchanan, who tried to sink the memorial campaign by claiming one of the design competition judges was a communist.
But the 65-year-old Scruggs abhors the wheeling and dealing of Washington, D.C., and says he avoids a city that those who know him say he expertly navigates.
“No, I don’t like it,” the soft-spoken former infantryman said while sitting on the deck of his dockside home in Annapolis on a recent warm June day. “I have a Ph.D. in D.C.-nomics, but I’ve completed that course.”
‘Black gash of shame’
When Jan Scruggs first told his wife, Becky, that he was going to build a memorial to Vietnam veterans, she wondered whether he was losing his mind. She also wondered whether he would lose all their money in the process.
“I was a little worried about his mental health,” she said.
Scruggs had volunteered to go to Vietnam, was wounded as an infantryman and witnessed the aftermath of a mortar accident that left 12 people dead, an event that deeply affected him. His experience led him to study the effects of war on the psyche and, eventually, to his memorial, which he hoped would be a place of healing.
In 1979, he asked his boss at the Department of Labor for a week off to hatch his project. 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.”
After two months, Scruggs had raised $144.50, a fact used by a CBS reporter to file a less than flattering story about Scruggs’ effort. But that put him on the radar of some much more connected people, and his fundraising took off.
Backing Scruggs in the early days was a young deputy administrator of the VA, a Vietnam veteran named Chuck Hagel. Scruggs lacks a commanding presence — he’s soft-spoken and tends to look at his hands when he talks. On the surface, he’s not the obvious choice to stand up against the rich and powerful to push through a controversial project.
But Hagel, who would later serve two terms in the Senate and two years as secretary of defense, said Scruggs was “relentless” without being abrasive, which helped him navigate a politically fraught effort.
“He’s unaffected by criticism and second-guessing and never takes anything personally,” Hagel said in a phone interview with Stars and Stripes. “If most people in this town would follow the Jan Scruggs approach, we would not have the dysfunction we have today.”
Comparing him to Francis Scott Key, who wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Hagel says Scruggs has assured his legacy.
“His name and who he is and what he has done will be etched forever in history.”
That’s not to say there weren’t plenty of people upset with Scruggs.
As the campaign became more successful, donors ponied up $8.4 million for the project. But attacks leveled against Scruggs became increasingly personal.
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 in to the anonymous panel of judges. When 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.
Vietnam veteran Tom Carhart, one of the leading opponents of the design, called it a “black gash of shame.” Critics saw it as anti-war, disrespectful to troops and simply ugly. They wondered aloud why the Vietnam Memorial should be black while other monuments were white. There were racist allusions to Lin’s heritage and false rumors that she was Vietnamese. (She is American, born in Ohio to Chinese immigrants.)
“It was a roller-coaster ride from the beginning,” Becky Scruggs said. “After a while you get a really thick skin.”
After months of negotiations, Scruggs agreed to a compromise. There would be a statue of troops and a flag across the memorial as an ode to the fighting men in Vietnam. Not everyone loved it, but it blunted the harshest criticisms.
The design and plans received final approval in March 1982. Groundbreaking at the site, near the Lincoln Memorial, took place before the end of the month.
‘The Wall guy’
Today, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is widely celebrated, with about 4.5 million people visiting every year. Scruggs is proud to be known as ‘‘The Wall Guy.’’
But that legacy has gone beyond the Vietnam Memorial, serving as the catalyst for others. It wasn’t until after The Wall that memorials for World War II and the Korean War were built. Plans are under way — after a fight over the location — for a World War I memorial in Pershing Park.
“I think if we keep it up, we’re going to create a national Spanish-American War memorial,” Scruggs said with a laugh.
Even former foes speak highly of Scruggs.
“I don’t have anything bad to say about Jan Scruggs,” said Carhart, once one of his most vocal critics. “He was able to realize his dream of building a Vietnam veterans’ memorial, and it’s one that’s proven to be the most popular memorial in Washington.”
Despite his “retirement,” he’s hasn’t quit pushing for controversial projects. His latest one is an underground education center he wants to see built near The Wall. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund has raised about $27 million for the center — a tidy sum but, in his estimation, about $75 million short of what he needs.
His hopes the center, which would be a repository for the many items left at the Vietnam wall and a place where visitors could learn about America’s wars and those who died fighting them, “elevates the idea of service.” Visitors would be able to take home replica dog tags, but only if they agree to a set amount of community service. Scruggs hopes that will make museums to ask more of visitors.
“Once this is built, we’re going to change the way that museums interact with people,” he said. “More museums will require something of visitors.”
He says he won’t be involved day to day in that effort, but his plans for retirement sound suspiciously like work. When asked what he’ll do after Tuesday, he rattles off work with several charities, including No One Left Behind, which helps Afghanis and Iraqis who worked as interpreters for the U.S. military immigrate to America. Pushed on what he might do with his spare time, Scruggs points to the water from his deck and says he’ll spend more time on his 28-foot boat, maybe hike the Appalachian Trail, shoot some skeet. After 35 years of fighting, he seemed relaxed.
“I have no stress in my life for the first time,” he said.
Jan Scruggs stands at the podium during a ceremony for the unveiling of the first panel of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on July 22, 1982. The design and plans received final approval in March 1982.
COURTESY OF THE VIETNAM VETERANS