From Chicken Soup for the Veteran's Soul

A Monumental Task

The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional as to how they perceive the veterans of earlier wars were Treated and Appreciated by their nation.

George Washington

Everyone has had a dream. Some people dream of fame, some of political or military success. Some achieve their desire. Some do not.

More than twenty years ago, I had a dream that most people viewed as unattainable. It was to create a national memorial honoring Vietnam veterans: a memorial that would bear the names of the fifty-eight thousand Americans who died in the war—not to politicize about rightness or wrongness—but to honor service rendered by the veterans.

It would not be a government-sponsored edifice. It would be the “people’s memorial,” built only if individual Americans contributed the necessary funds.

In 1979, I was told that the dream and the plan were both too radical to succeed. Yet in November 1982—just three years later—the national Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated on the Mall in Washington, D.C., in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial. Vietnam veterans, at long last, were recognized by a nation once too bitterly divided over the war to thank those who served.

Having been an infantryman in Vietnam, I knew firsthand about how Vietnam veterans felt. Many returned to be ostracized for serving in that controversial war. Many returned physically disabled, condemned to spend lives in wheelchairs. Others, with emotional problems or concerns about Agent Orange, returned to an indifferent and seemingly uncaring nation. Others never returned at all.

Vietnam veterans had not been treated well. It would certainly take more than a memorial to change this, but it could be a beginning.

The effort was not an easy one. I remember how my heart sunk when, on July 4, 1979, Roger Mudd announced on the CBS Evening News that only $144.50 had been raised for the planned national Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

The story, however, attracted the attention of the right people. One was Jack Wheeler, a West Point graduate with an M.B.A. from Harvard and a Yale law degree. Coincidentally, he had just completed a memorial effort at West Point. He assembled a group of extraordinary Vietnam veterans in Washington, D.C., and within a few months our organization, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, was moving at full steam.

One goal was crucial to success—approval to build on two acres near the Lincoln Memorial. We moved into the political arena and soon found that the United States Congress could be a rather difficult group to deal with. After eight months of exasperating effort, President Jimmy Carter signed the legislation into law at a ceremony in the White House Rose Garden on a hot July day in 1980.

Next we considered the design. The Memorial Fund held a competition and set four criteria: The design had to (1) be reflective and contemplative in character, (2) harmonize with its surroundings, (3) display the names of all who died or remain missing in Vietnam, and (4) make no political statement about the war. Of the 1,421 entries, one submitted by Maya Ying Lin, an architecture student at Yale, was the unanimous choice. Her design was a chevron-shaped, polished black granite wall to be built below the earth’s surface. The winning design of the largest architectural competition in U.S. history was unconventional but beautiful because of its size, simplicity and the prominent display of the names of our war dead.

With the design chosen, the next hurdle was to find money to fund the project. The prospects of the massive effort to raise the $7 million needed for construction were not good. Previous efforts had not shown Vietnam to be a popular cause. Saving wildlife, conquering disease and funding political races were proven money raisers. But not Vietnam.

Yet the project gained momentum. Two large donations brought in $1.5 million. All at once, tens of thousands of individuals began contributing. The American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars sponsored fund-raising events. Individual Americans organized bake sales and yard sales.

Then controversy struck. The memorial’s unique design became an object of angry debate. Suddenly we felt as if we were fighting the Vietnam War over again. In January 1982, twenty-seven members of Congress asked President Reagan to stop the memorial from being constructed.

Thanks to Senator John Warner of Virginia, a compromise was reached, incorporating a flag and a statue in the design. Political opposition subsided. The groundbreaking took place on March 26, 1982, and less than eight months later, America gave Vietnam veterans the homecoming they deserved.

Thousands of Vietnam veterans crowded the nation’s capital for “National Salute to Vietnam Veterans,” a week of reunions and reconciliations climaxing with the dedication of the memorial on November 13, 1982. Two years later, Three Servicemen, Frederick E. Hart’s heroic-size statue, was dedicated on the memorial site, and a flagpole was added nearby. Finally, on Veteran’s Day 1984, President Ronald Reagan accepted the memorial as a gift to the nation from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.

The Wall, which will forever honor the more than 2 million Vietnam veterans who served and sacrificed for their country, has become one of the most visited national shrines. It is a thing of beauty that one can only truly appreciate by experiencing its strength and power and by viewing one’s own reflection in the names of those who fell in Vietnam.

I knew many of those who died in my infantry unit. I have found their names among the many thousands inscribed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. They will never see their memorial, but they will never again be forgotten.

The dream is now reality.

Jan Craig Scruggs

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