Twenty-five years after dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, “The Wall” is still an awe-inspiring symbol—and is especially honored on Veterans Day 2007.
Like wars the United States had fought before, its involvement in Vietnam began with the support of the American people. But, as casualties escalated, that support eroded. By the late 1960s, many Americans of all backgrounds and political leanings actively, vehemently, and publicly opposed the growing conflict and the government’s policies in waging the war.
With the loss of public support for the war in Southeast Asia, Americans who had served in Vietnam suffered the most when they came home to a disdainful country. Divided by the conflict, this country did not honor those who put their lives in the line of fire. Instead of parades and speeches, returning Vietnam veterans often encountered hostility and ridicule.
This treatment haunted many Vietnam vets, who also faced recurring memories of their time “in country” and of their comrades who were killed or missing in action thousands of miles from home. They sought recognition for their service and for the sacrifices they and their colleagues had made.
Capturing a Vision
One of these veterans thought recognition wasn’t too much to ask. In March 1979, less than four years after the fall of Saigon, this former Vietnam foot soldier who had been wounded in combat in 1969, conceived the idea of a national memorial that would pay tribute to the more than 3 million Americans who had served in the Vietnam War—and the nearly 58,000 men and women who had died or were lost during the war.
The memorial would not honor the war or make a political statement about it. The veteran simply wanted the brave men and women who served and died to be remembered, and to give their families a place to remember, mourn, reflect, and heal.
That veteran, Jan C. Scruggs, a native of Bowie, Md., and a federal government employee, began what many of his peers believed was a quixotic quest to build a Vietnam veterans memorial.
“This treatment given to Vietnam veterans was nothing less than a national disgrace,” Scruggs said. “It would certainly take something more than a memorial to right this wrong, but it could be a beginning.”
The task was imposing. The war had ended less than five years earlier, and it remained controversial. In May 1979, Scruggs committed $2,800 out of his own pocket as seed money to get the memorial project and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF) off the ground.
“I had a dream,” Scruggs said, “that most people viewed as unattainable. It was to create a national memorial that would bear the names of those 58,000 Americans who died in the war, not to politicize about rightness or wrongness, but to honor service rendered. In 1979, I was told the dream and the plan were too radical to succeed.”
Scruggs began seeking supporters and contributors. CBS News carried a story that funds were slow coming in. The story caught the attention of several key people. Within a few months VVMF was aggressively moving ahead. Senator John Warner (R–Va.) co-sponsored, with Maryland Senator Charles Mathis (R), the legislation that set aside for the memorial three acres near the Lincoln Memorial and Constitution Gardens, in Washington, D.C.
More than 275,000 individuals, corporations, and organizations ultimately raised $8.4 million for the memorial. The critics had been proved wrong.
A ground-breaking ceremony took place on March 26, 1982, and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated less than eight months later, on November 13, as part of a week-long national salute to Vietnam veterans.
“A memorial now stands that will forever honor the more than 3 million Vietnam veterans who had to wait more than a decade for their nation to show some appreciation for their sacrifices,” Scruggs said. “Future generations will visit the memorial and see their reflection in the names of the Americans who died in Vietnam.”
In three and a half years, not the decades it took to get other memorials built in Washington, Scruggs’s vision went from a dream to reality. The national and individual healing he foresaw began—and continues to this day, 25 years later.
The Wall’s healing powers have made it the most popular memorial in the nation’s capital, receiving more than 4 million visitors each year. For many, The Wall has taken on religious significance, and it has become more a shrine than a monument. It beckons people to a place where they can share their feelings and their pain.
Few visitors are left untouched by its symbolism. While thousands of children and international visitors may know little about the U.S.’s involvement in Vietnam, most are awestruck by the memorial and the sheer number of individuals who lost their lives in battle or are still missing.
As of May 2006, the names of the 58,253 men and women killed or missing during service in Vietnam are inscribed on The Wall. The Department of Defense is responsible for decisions about adding names to the memorial. Names are added annually in May, just before Memorial Day.
VVMF Founder and President Scruggs said, “I think [the memorial] will make people feel the price of war.”
The Next Step
VVMF is committed to educating Americans—especially the younger generations—about the service and sacrifice of those who served in Vietnam. It launched an effort earlier this decade to create an educational center, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Center. This facility will allow the memorial’s visitors to learn about The Wall as well as encourage young people to discover more about the Vietnam War.
The center is slated to open in 2010. It will be built underground in land adjacent to the Vietnam Veterans and the Lincoln memorials. It will serve as a collection site for written and digital remembrance of the individuals whose names are inscribed on The Wall. The underground facility will house displays relating the memorial’s history and a timeline of the Vietnam War, as well as other exhibits.
It is hoped the center will foster an appreciation for all who have served in the U.S. military in the past—as well as today.
Veterans Day at The Wall
On November 11, 2007, a special Veterans Day observance marked The Wall’s twenty-fifth anniversary. Scruggs was master of ceremonies, and General Colin L. Powell, USA (Ret.) gave the keynote address. The proceedings were Webcast live on www.USVets.tv.
PVA National President Randy L. Pleva Sr. led his organization’s delegation, which also included Immediate Past President Joseph Fox Sr., Treasurer Craig Enenbach, Senior Vice President Gene Crayton, and Sports Director Andy Krieger The PVA wreath was one of many placed at The Wall to honor the servicemen and -women whose names appear on the memorial.
It was truly an occasion of remembrance and tribute.
The historical information for this article was provided by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, 202-393-0090 / 393-0029 (fax). For more coverage, visit www.vvmf.org.