REFLECTIONS ON THE WALL: Memorial: People laughed when the Vietnam veteran suggested a wall with more than 58,000 names on it. Nobody's laughing now.


WASHINGTON -- Early evening and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is overrun with children. They're everywhere, running, shouting, laughing, playing tag, armies of them in yellow hats or blue T-shirts.

There will be no poignant moment today with Jan Scruggs, the Vietnam veteran who made the memorial a reality. Yesterday would have been perfect. Thousands of Hmong and Lao veterans of the 'secret war' in Laos were here with their families. The old soldiers wore jungle camouflage fatigues. Some came in flight suits.

Sooner or later, everyone touched by Vietnam comes here. And so do many for whom Ia Drang, Khe Sanh and Hue are historical tidbits. The memorial attracts a staggering 2.5 million visitors each year. In all, more than 30 million people have visited the memorial in the 15 years since its dedication. They have lingered, sought comfort, healing, understanding.

"It seems to really transcend just the people who were in Vietnam," says Scruggs, 47, wearing jeans and a windbreaker on this surprisingly cool May evening. "You can sort of see it today in all these kids."

The memorial has become more than Scruggs ever dreamed. Before it was built, one critic looked at the design and saw "a black gash of shame." Who would say that now?

It is a national icon, and Scruggs, president of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund Inc., is its steward. Thirty of his buddies are remembered here, young men like Michael Stephen Hrutkay, who died laying down rifle fire so Scruggs and a few other soldiers could escape an ambush. Memorials need someone with a personal stake in their upkeep. Otherwise, things can fall apart.

Just walk a little ways down the mall and take a look at the Korean War Memorial. It's barely 2 years old and already in need of repair. The Korean vets waited decades before the nation honored their service in a horrific conflict that claimed nearly 54,000 Americans.

"I talked to one guy, he said when he came back it was, 'Come on. We don't want to hear about that. We're watching "I Love Lucy," ' " says Scruggs, walking past the Korean memorial's broken fountain. It doesn't have a group like Scruggs' to look after it.

"You need an organization, some advocacy group to ride herd," he says. "If you don't have somebody pushing, pushing, pushing, it doesn't get fixed. That's what happened here."

Scruggs won't let that happen to the Wall. It is his life.

"I've had my day in the sun. I've had my picture everywhere. Time magazine, Life magazine, People magazine. I've done a television movie. I've hosted the 'Larry King Show'," says Scruggs, a motivational speaker and lawyer who lives in Annapolis with Rebecca, his wife of 23 years. "I came to the conclusion two years ago that what I'm doing is really what I'm supposed to be doing. This memorial is important not just to me, but to the country."

Last year his group, with help from the TNT cable channel and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, dedicated a half-size replica of the 494-foot-long memorial. Known as the Wall That Heals, it is traveling the country, stopping at towns large and small with an exhibit of mementos left at the Washington memorial. Last week it was in Pineville, Ore. This week it is in Omaha, Neb.

Last month, Scruggs joined the replica in Berkeley, Calif., along with Country Joe McDonald, the musician whose anti-war anthem, "I Feel Like I'm Fixin' To Die Rag," had the refrain: 'Well it's one two three, what are we fighting for? Don't ask me, I don't give a damn. Next stop is Vietnam."

Volunteers read the thousands of names etched on the wall -- the dead and missing from Vietnam. Reserve Officer Training Corps cadets helped people find the names of comrades, old friends and loved ones.

"It turned out to be one of the most successful things that we've done because the town of Berkeley was a hotbed [of anti-war sentiment] and sort of a small town in many ways. These people really needed to heal," says Scruggs. "It was a great way to sort of bring everyone together."

The memorial has that effect in Washington and across the country. Though a public space, it is also a deeply private place of mourning. It is a healing place where the pain of old wounds, old hurts, dissension and loss can be eased. And it is a place of history.

Another project

Another memorial-fund project is a slim volume of essays by former soldiers, journalists, a combat nurse, university professors. It is called "Why Vietnam Still Matters -- The War and The Wall." The fund is putting a copy in every high school.

"We've found high school students are really interested in the Vietnam War," says Scruggs. "They've seen it in movies. They've seen it in their families or heard about an uncle who was over there, or maybe even had a casualty."

He wants the children of today and tomorrow to understand the forces that sent us to Vietnam, to know them and be wary of their return. War can sneak up on a country, he says.

"Many times nations almost do it by accident. They slip a few troops in there, try to help out a situation that they think is in their national interest and the next thing you know, things have gotten way out of hand," he says, sitting on a park bench in the secluded space surrounding the statue of three nurses and a fallen soldier. It is quiet here, but for the not-too-distant roar of jet airliners on the flight path to National.

"I went to Vietnam because it was either that or I was going to be pumping gas. It was a job, a government job, 'Great. Maybe I can do a good job there and go to college on the GI Bill,' " he says, remembering 1968. "My expectations for life weren't high. I'd get out the Vietnam War and become a cop, or a fireman."

He became a rifleman in the U.S. Army's 199th Light Infantry Brigade, an 18-year-old from Prince George's County when he shipped out, just a couple of years older than the high school students who stop a moment near the nurses. He was wounded in a firefight in Xuan Loc in May 1969. Moments after taking cover, a bazooka rocket slammed into the patch of ground he'd left.

"It would have torn me in a million pieces," he says.

Instead, shrapnel from a rocket-propelled grenade tore into his body. He recovered from his wounds, returned home, drifted for awhile.

Getting the idea

He was working in the Department of Labor and studying the psychological effects of war on veterans when he got the idea for a wall of names. In May 1979 he held a press conference to announce his plan. The publicity brought in $144.50. A comedian joked about the idea. People laughed.

Scruggs didn't give up. Slowly, the idea gained momentum. Ross Perot donated $160,000 to underwrite the design competition. There were 1,421 entries. The winning design by Maya Ying Lin, then a 21-year-old architecture student at Yale, was called "reverential," "eloquent," "not a thing of joy, but a large space for hope." It was strikingly different and controversial, too abstract for some, not heroic enough for others.

You know how the story ends. And it is that story Scruggs refers to in his motivational speeches. His life is the example: an average guy from Bowie; a child of parents who left the cotton mills of Alabama; a soldier who finds a way to heal himself and his country.

In the dedication of "To Heal a Nation," his book about the making of the memorial, he wrote: "When you finish this book. Take a look at your life. Look at your dreams. Then look into your heart and find the courage to contribute to making this a better country and a better world."

Next year, the fund wants to put together programs on 1968, the year of Tet, the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., the year of Chicago, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. Scruggs wants to explore the nature of duty in that time.

"[Vietnam] has given me an opportunity to do things I never thought were possible," says Scruggs. "You know, go to law school, become a lawyer, get a master's degree. But no matter what I do, there's one thing I keep coming back to, the Vietnam Memorial."

It is the transcendent place, these twin wings of black granite engraved with the names of 58,209 dead and missing. As Scruggs headed toward his car with its license plate that reads "Combat Wounded," a chubby kid crossed his path. The boy's group had just left the Lincoln Memorial. Now they were on the move again. The kid turned and yelled to his group leader: "Where we going now, Vietnam Memorial?" The answer came, and he thrust his hands in the air. He was going to the Wall.

A service at the Wall

A Memorial Day service will be held at 1 p.m. today at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The service will include remarks by Joseph L. Galloway, author of "We Were Soldiers Once ... And Young," a reading of names and a laying of ceremonial wreaths.

Pub Date: 5/26/97

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