Why the Founder of the Vietnam Wall Visits Weekly

Why the Founder of the Vietnam Wall Visits Weekly

in this nineteen eighty one photo jan scruggs architectur estudent maya lin and project director bob doubek show a model of the vietnam veterans memorial

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Jan C. Scruggs (L), President of the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial Fund, and Project Director Bob Doubek (R) display the final design for the memorial, which will be built near the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. With them is Maya Ying Lin, the Yale architecture student who submitted the winning design.

Design and controversy

They held one of the largest architectural design competitions in history, which featured an all-star jury consisting of architects, sculptors and other design professionals. Out of the over 1,400 submissions, they had to decide which best illustrated a memorial that was reflective, contemplative and featured the names of the fallen.

“We had to find a way to sell the idea that we’re separating the war from the warrior. This design is not about the Vietnam War,” Scruggs said. “It’s about the bravery of the American soldiers who went over there and did their job as their country asked them to do.”

The winning design ended up being that of Maya Lin, a 21-year-old college student with Chinese ancestry.

Scruggs acknowledges that Lin’s heritage certainly stirred controversy, but he thinks what really drew people’s ire was that the memorial did not seem patriotic enough or evoke emotions like that of Iwo Jima and other war memorials.

“The ancestry of Maya Lin, to some veterans, felt improper,” he said. “I talked to people all the time about the memorial [and told them] she’s from Athens, Ohio. Her parents were both English professors. And she said when I met her, ‘I’m as Chinese as apple pie.’”

Others who were resistant to the memorial’s design called it the “black gash of shame and sorrow,” in contrast to the other monuments on the mall, which were all white.

However, Scruggs said he thought Lin’s plans were “excitingly different. It’s got this shimmering granite. You can look in there and see your face. And the brilliance of this thing is that the names were placed in chronological order. So, the guys who were killed on the day when I was in a battle in Vietnam, their names are right next to each other, in perpetuity.”

Lin’s selection of black granite had an added advantage. At older monuments and cemeteries that used traditional stone, he said, names can often become difficult to read over time as the stone becomes weathered. But the granite used at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial should look the same hundreds of years from now as it did when it was first constructed.

An unconventional cure for PTSD

Scruggs said that as soon as the monument was unveiled in 1982, he no longer had any interest in smoking marijuana to relieve his PTSD. The new memorial is what centered him.

For the servicemembers of today who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan struggling with PTSD, he recommends finding what personally centers them.

“The average person can accomplish a lot in this country. I see it all the time — people volunteer at dog shelters, churches, everything else. People do a lot of good things, and we want to encourage that kind of behavior,” he said.

Eventually, after raising millions of dollars in private donations, Scruggs was able to secure $3 million from Congress to provide for ongoing maintenance of the grounds, which he said has kept the memorial in incredible shape as he continues to visit it every week.

“Many times, people bring in teddy bears to the Vietnam wall, they’ll have someone’s story attached to it — a letter, a photograph, a pair of Army boots,” he said. “And for me, it’s just such a wonderful feeling to know that my buddies and everyone else who was killed on the American side got what they deserved, a national monument. That was certainly all I could do for them.”

Aaron Kassraie writes about issues important to military veterans and their families for AARP. He also serves as a general assignment reporter. Kassraie previously covered U.S. foreign policy as a correspondent for the Kuwait News Agency’s Washington bureau and worked in news gathering for USA Today and Al Jazeera English.