First Person War Stories

Remarkable stories of war told by those who fought for a proud nation. Their words. Their voices. Our first episodes tell riveting stories from World War II, then we move on to the Vietnam War and other dramatic conflicts.

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SPC Jan Scruggs: Founder of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

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SPC Jan Scruggs: Founder of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Jan Scruggs went to Vietnam in 1969 to serve as a rifleman in the U.S. Army. By the end of his service, he had received the Purple Heart, the Combat Infantry Badge, and an award for gallantry.

After the war, he researched post-traumatic stress, which led to him testify before congress in support of establishing the nationwide Vet Center Program.

In 1979, Scruggs decided he wanted to create a memorial to all the Americans who died in the Vietnam War in order to help the country heal. Three years later, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was completed in Washington D.C.

Ken Harbaugh:

I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors In Their Own Words. In partnership with the Honor Project, we’ve brought this podcast back at a time when our nation needs these stories more than ever.

Warriors in Their Own Words is our attempt to present an unvarnished, unsanitized truth of what we have asked of those who defend this nation. Thank you for listening, and by doing so, honoring those who have served.

Today, we’ll be hearing from Specialist Jan Scruggs. Scruggs served as a rifleman in Vietnam, and received the Purple Heart, the Combat Infantry Badge, and an award for gallantry. He went on to found the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C.

Jan Scruggs:

First name Jan, J-A-N, last name Scruggs, S-C-R-U-G-G-S, widely known as the founder of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which receives 5.5 million visitors per year.

I was with the 199th Light Infantry Brigade, Company D412, and I primarily shot mortars, but I was also a rifleman, and I was on the list to become E-5 sergeant, but I had to leave Vietnam. I got out of Vietnam and got out of the Army the same day. I spent a total of 19 months on active duty and spent two months recovering from wounds received on May 28, 1969. It was a year that was mostly boredom, but when there was excitement, there was a lot of it

Well, I was 18 years old, and my father had gotten a second wife, and I didn't really get along with her. The only skill I had was pumping gas and doing oil changes, and what are you going to do at age 18? For me, the smartest thing seemed to be just to get out of the environment I was in and go into the military for two years, which I did. I actually volunteered for the draft and was trained at Fort Bragg, infantry training at Fort Benning, and I was also enrolled for a while in the NCO Course in Leadership at Fort Polk. No, actually, that was Benning.

Yeah, I wanted to be an Airborne paratrooper for two years and probably a rifleman, and that's kind of what I assumed would happen to me, but somehow they were in a bigger hurry to get me to Vietnam than I thought, so I was unable to do the Airborne School.

Most of my friends went to college, and that was a big determinant, as well. I mean, if I had been with a more upper class, financially successful family, I might have been going to college instead of going to Vietnam. There's that one issue. Vietnam was a very, very divisive event. It divided the country. It divided families. There had been some political violence.

My first day in Vietnam was August of 1968. One of the first things that happened to me when I was in the Army for a month is they took me into a room with eight or 10 other guys and asked us if we would like to become infantry officers at Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia. I laughed, because I was only 18 years old. I was still learning how to shave, and I didn't really feel confident leading people into combat, so I passed on that. I was very much in a hurry to get out of the Army and get a good job and get myself financially stable and get married and have children and all that sort of thing.

Yeah, Vietnam has the kind of heat that, I mean, maybe in the summers in Louisiana or Mississippi in the very low places with very low altitude and a lot of swamps, you can get that kind of feel. It also has smells of something called nuoc mam, which is a fish sauce. They would put it on everything. A very, very unpleasant place to be, and that's even without the war going on.

But I persevered, became a rifleman and had quite an adventure there, which resulted in my getting posttraumatic stress disorder and leading the effort, nationally, for a memorial to those who served and to those who died. We had their names engraved.

On the 27th of May, we walked into an ambush by the North Vietnamese Regulars. I mean, they lived in the jungle. They saw us coming. Both of our medics were out of action. One had a bullet go right through the eye and out the back side of his head. I mean, he's still alive, but he doesn't remember much of anything.

The other medic got shot right through the neck. He was lying there, but he was telling people what to do to get the other people sewed up and ready for the helicopter ride out of there. He was from Puerto Rico, actually, and was drafted, which I found very fascinating.

The next day, I said, "Look. I know I'm going to get shot today or hit with something, so I took my Army poncho, and I squeezed it together, so that it would stop shrapnel, and I put it behind my back. That's exactly what happened. There was some shooting behind me. I moved, got behind a tree, and started firing. Some other guys joined me, and the next thing we know, two RPGs landed right in the middle of us. These guys were gone, running, because they were continuing to target us. They saved me, and I spent a couple months in the hospital and getting rehab. It was just a crazy thing to have that kind of injury, and instead of having my spine broken in half, having a big piece of shrapnel, the size of a golf ball, as a souvenir, which I should've brought home.

Anyways, I was hit pretty badly. I couldn't use my rifle anymore, because the shrapnel in my right hand had taken away my ability to pull the slide back and all that sort of thing. I did change magazines, and I thought I had targeted where these guys were and just started firing, but then I said, "I can't do this anymore, because I'm bleeding out."

Blood was pumping, and I had one of these out of body experiences, and it was kind of like I was looking down at my body and kind of on my way up through the trees. I don't know. Maybe these things just happen in your head. I don't know. I said the Lord's Prayer, and I just said, "I can't believe how unfair this is for me, a kid who just turned 19 years old, to die in the middle of a jungle, next to this gross tree and little mud hole in Vietnam. How could you do this to me, God?" I said to Him, "Look. If you'll get me out of this mess, I will do something positive in my life." I can't prove God was there or heard my prayers or anything else, but that's my recollection of it.

Right after all that happened, I returned to my body, sort of, and the guys came. Somebody yelled, "Scruggs! He's over here!" They pulled me out of the situation I was in. They actually left a sniper behind to shoot my rescuers, and apparently my rescuer shot him, so it was quite a day.

Here's the thing. I got PTSD from that, but it didn't last that long. I was able to overcome it. You kind of relive the thing. I mean, that's really what you do when something like this happens, you survive a car accident or something like that, keep replaying it in your mind. If it involves combat and guns and all that sort of thing, it's a different level, so I would just kind of keep reliving it, but to me it was kind of like this. I'm wounded, 19 years old. This is like the Red Badge of Courage, the book by Stephen Crane, about the young boy who joins the Union Army, and he finally... The Confederates yell at him, "Be careful, boy. You might get that red badge of courage," which means getting a Purple Heart, so I said, "Hey, I got the red badge of courage." The PTSD left me pretty soon, within a month or so. It was kind of nothing to it.

Most of the shrapnel actually hit my buttocks. Quite a bit of it did. It was my buttocks. My left buttock was kind of hanging off there. The medic said, "Well, goodbye, Scruggs. Tell all the girls back home we look forward to joining them, because you are not going to survive this. You're going to live, but you're going home." I said, "Oh, great. I think I'm ready."

They put me on a little improvised stretcher. I started singing “Leaving on a Jet Plane” by Peter, Paul and Mary. I was laughing, because they had this morphine, which I'd never had before, of course, and that's pretty powerful stuff. I mean, it's kind of like drinking a case of beer in about two minutes. It was just amazing stuff.

I got to this little hospital. I was next to this little Vietnamese guy, and he had been wounded, as well, and I thought he was an enemy soldier, but he said, "No, I'm with the Popular Forces." This was a local group, and he had been wounded that day.

Then they took me to a nice Air Force Hospital in Saigon. It was the 93rd Evac, and they had the surgeons there, who were very talented guys, and nurses. It was a very beautiful, air conditioned hospital. Then, once they did the surgery on me and removed most of the shrapnel, although I still have about 12 pieces in my body. I even have one that's kind of crawled up to my neck. I don't know why, but I think it's not unusual. That's what I did, and a couple months later, I was back to my unit and had to go on patrols primarily, just fired my mortar from time to time. Probably every other, third, or fourth day, we would have a fire mission, usually because someone had spotted a congregation of enemy troops somewhere, so we would fire the 81 millimeters in concert with the 4.2 millimeters and the 105 artillery, so that was kind of what we did on a daily basis.

I really wanted to see the guys again, the people who saved me and we were wounded together. I just wanted to see them again. I was looking forward to going back to my unit, which I did. We were in the middle of the awful jungle, literally in the middle of nowhere. It was a terrible base camp. Anyway, we tore it down, and then moved our mortar and infantry guys to the outskirts of a town called Xuan Loc, X-U-A-N L-O-C, and I spent the remainder of my tour in Xuan Loc and in the jungles around there from time to time.

Well, it's very interesting. You have posttraumatic stress disorder, and you also have posttraumatic growth. You see, it's very important to understand that if you are the victim of a real violent crime, or you're in the middle of something, and people are getting shot, stabbed, raped, that sort of thing, it affects the frontal cortex of your brain. The alpha receptors and so forth kind of keep you on edge, sometimes for the rest of your life you're still always on edge. That's problematic. But for me, I never really thought about it. I think, to the extent I did think about it, I felt that there was something spiritual in my life and that, by saying the Lord's Prayer every day, maybe I could activate it. I still do it every day.

Yesterday, I had actually forgotten to do it, but I was in IKEA, looking for some furniture, and I said, "Oh, nothing says I can't do the Lord's Prayer in IKEA," but yes. I don't know. The thing about God and all of that is you can't prove it. You can't disprove it, but I think there's something out there, who certainly watches out for me from time to time, because I had a couple of close calls after that, that were, I mean, really close.

January 21, 1971, I'm at my mortar pit, shaving. All of a sudden, there's this huge explosion. I'm with Delta Company Mortars. Charlie Company Mortars had had a big explosion. They were unloading 81 millimeter rounds from a truck. The truck was on fire, and here are these guys who... We'd played baseball together or football or basketball. They were nice, just nice guys, most of them 20 years old. They were on fire, literally, and the truck was on fire, too.

The truck probably had about 200 rounds of mortars there. What happened was when they'd left an operation the night before, they forgot to put in... There's a little pin at the front of the mortar. That activates the explosion, so you take the pin out before you fire it. Somehow, they'd forgotten, and here I am looking at them. I've got a bandage in my hand. I dropped the bandage, and I just started screaming, "Medic! Medic! Medic! Fire extinguishers! Fire extinguishers!" All these guys came out of... from every direction, and they put the fire extinguishers on the fire on the truck. They got them out, and we started dragging the guys out. They were just... I mean, blood, guts, arms, legs, brain, everything you could imagine. There was nothing we could do. They all died. There were 12 of them, and they all died.

There was another guy named John Pies, P-I-E-S. He was from Ohio, actually, and he was just walking past the truck accidentally, and he... We couldn't find where he was wounded. We couldn't find it, but he died. So that really hurt. This whole thing really hurt me, and it hurt everybody. I mean, I'm in touch with some of the guys who were part of it, and they still have issues. I still have issues with it. I just can't... Sometimes you can't get over it. There are things you really can't get over, but you strive.

They all died, and we were all depressed. It was the worst thing I've ever seen in my life. It may be a small event. I'm not even sure. I think somebody said it was in the newspapers, Associated Press, 12 casualties. I mean, we were taking a lot more than that every day in infantry operations, so that was that.

That spun me into post traumatic disorder, not the type I had after I was wounded, which I got over with in a couple of weeks, the type that never stopped, and that really bothered me, to the point where, in 1972, I took a .38 caliber Colt revolver. I pulled the hammer back. I put it to my forehead, and pulled the hammer back, and I said, "Well, my life sucks." I was a part-time janitor and working my way through college. I have no status. I'm just a crumb. I am done. Have a nice day. Why not just end it here?

I went to... I figured I'd watch the show anyway. Could I see it if I shot myself? I don't know. Anyway, so once I actually saw the gun with the hammer pulled back, that's when I said, "This is a really bad idea." Put your finger over the hammer, let it go slowly, put the gun away. That was the end of that, okay, but that could've been the last thing that ever happened to me.

I get to college, and I take a course called The Psychology of Death, and we learned all about how people react to death and grieving, and that many people are changed when they see death. Posttraumatic stress disorder starts from events that are very frightening. They are traumatic. They're bloody. They involve cars, firearms, explosives, combat, sexual crimes. I started to study it, and there really wasn't much written on it, so I did my own research with a questionnaire study, and I found that people who, Vietnam veterans, who saw a lot of combat had much bigger problems than Vietnam veterans who saw no combat, which is logical, but it needed to be documented, so I wrote a couple of articles for the Washington Post, an article for Military Medicine, and I testified in front of the United States Senate to start the Vet Center program, which has been very successful.

The Vet Center program, by the way, you can go there if you're a World War II veteran or a Korean veteran or Iraq, Afghanistan. You can go there and have a little group therapy and talk to counselors and all that sort of thing. So I became an expert on PTSD, and when my wife and I went to see a movie one night, and it was with Robert De Niro, The Deer Hunter, and it almost sounds like a movie, the story almost sounds like a movie. I decided that night that I was going to build a National Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and it was going to have all the names on it, and that this was going to be a great success. This would be magnificently easy to do this, et cetera, but it wasn't easy to do. It was very difficult.

I started it and made kind of a fool of myself. I started this in 1979, and by Memorial Day 1979, it was a little bit of a laughingstock, because we had only raised a couple hundred bucks, actually less than that, to build this memorial. So I didn’t really… I was naïve. My heart was in the right place, but I didn't realize one thing. I needed a team. I needed a lot of people if I was going to actually get this thing done. How would I get these people?

Well, what happened was the publicity of us being such a failure in raising money, the publicity caught the attention of a guy named John P. Wheeler III. John P. Wheeler III is one of the most brilliant men I've ever met. He not only went to West Point, he went to Harvard Business School and he went to Yale Law School. How many people do you know who have those kind of qualifications? Probably not many, but a brilliant guy. Interestingly, he was actually murdered, an unsolved mystery in Delaware in 2011.

But he said, "Look. Let me get my group together," so we had several of these Vietnam veterans, who were also graduates of Harvard Business School, which is where they send their top cadets, many of the top cadets after they become officers, because the Army needs to keep track of a lot of things, and you know these business school guys are great at that.

They said, "Look. Why don't we do this like a Harvard Business School problem? What do we need to solve this problem? Well, we need a site. We need a design. We need a competition of some sort to get the best design," et cetera, et cetera. "If we start in 1979, we get the ground from Congress in 1980, by November 1982 we'll actually have it dedicated," and we actually did that.

We had the largest architectural design competition in the history of western civilization. That's a lot of designs, and who was the winner? Well, she comes from a little town in Ohio called Athens. Her name is Maya Ying Lin, and a Chinese-American. Often, when I would kid with her, she would say, "I'm as Chinese as apple pie," because they were the only Chinese family in their neighborhood. Both of her parents were professors of English and history and a very talented family, one of the first families from China to actually be educated in Great Britain and the United States, and they left after the communists took over in 1949, I believe. Chiang Kai-Shek was defeated and moved to Taiwan, and they came to America and became teachers. Stunning design, but very problematic.

This was seen as very modernistic, and all of a sudden, the Right Wing of America, conservative America, declares war on this design. It was black, black granite, not white marble like the rest of Washington, so because it's black instead of white... White is pure, black is not, and it's underground, the black gash of shame and sorrow shall not be built. One conservative columnist put in writing that there's rumors that a member of the American Communist Party was involved in the design selection. I mean, this thing was completely going out of control. This controversy started in October 1981 and continued on, but we were able to get the groundbreaking permit.

On March 26, 1982, we broke ground. Once we broke ground, nobody was going to be able to stop this. Even I was unsure whether this design was going to work. All I knew was, if we failed, it was going to take another 10 years to do it, and we were not going to fail. That was the can-do spirit we had, and we did it, and dedicated the memorial in November 1982.

We had a huge crowd of Vietnam veterans, tens of thousands of them, and everyone embraced this memorial, because black granite is so beautiful. You can see your face in the granite, you know? It gives you an experience, a psychological experience, much unlike other memorials, which you appreciate by getting back and looking at it. I mean, this one, you're going to go right next to it and touch it with your hand. That's the difference.

The names were chronological in order, instead of alphabetical. I mean, how many John Smiths or Jose Garcias do you have on the wall? A lot. By having the names together... The guys who died together in Vietnam, their names are right next to each other. They all are alphabetized by day, so when veterans come there, and this was Maya's dream, they will sort of be brought back in time, and this will help their healing process.

That's the crazy story of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. I did it. It's there. A lot of people deserve credit and thanks for it. I've thanked West Point and Harvard. I've thanked everybody I could thank, and thank the American people. We did this whole thing for almost chump change. The entire project was $8.4 million. I mean, everything is billions, 100 million. This is not even $10 million.

So after the memorial was dedicated, I wrote a book called To Heal a Nation. Some guy in Hollywood read the book and said, "Oh, man, we need to make a movie out of this," so they made a move called To Heal a Nation, which is free. You can get it on YouTube. It's free, and played by Eric Roberts, the brother of Julia Roberts.

I feel that I did have an opportunity to get to know her, but we ended up having a very contentious relationship because, as we explained to her, I said, "Maya, you may not like this, but we're going to change your design. We're not going to change the design itself, but we're going to put some additional elements there. We're going to put a statue," which is now the statue of the three fighting men, another statue of the nurses at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. There are two groups of statues there, and also an Agent Orange plaque.

She's very artistic and, "This is not right," and very idealistic. "This is not right," so we kind of went to war with the press and everything like that, but anyway, I still consider her a friend. She lives in New York. She's done great. Unfortunately, I think her husband died three or four months ago, but a very charming person and has done some great things. Maya Lin: A Strong, Clear Vision, is a PBS show that won the Academy Award or something like that, and a fantastic person, yeah.

She definitely knew the reflective quality. That was inherent in her design. She wanted everybody to see their own reflection among the names. This would help the healing process. No, she's a certified genius. I mean, very little of this came about by accident. We had some brilliant people involved, and one of the most brilliant people I've ever met, Maya Ying Lin.

Well, for me, it was a very cathartic thing. It helped heal my wounds from the Vietnam War. I think she really knew what she was doing. Many individuals get some degree of healing there. I mean, tens of thousands of people will tell you that. In a larger sense, my plan was for this to help the nation to recover from the Vietnam War, according to... Jungian psychology led me through this project. Carl Jung was a student of Sigmund Freud. He believed that collectively people had a mind together, the collective unconscious. Certain things were sacred, and the one thing that was especially sacred was the idealized version of the hero, societal hero. It's the guy who goes off to battle and fights Hercules and gets wounded by Hercules and comes back and says, "Well, I tried, and look at my wounds," so because he was wounded, fighting to preserve the society, he's the hero.

The plan was... I mean, it was kind of half-baked. The plan was that these people who died in Vietnam would be enough to get this memorial built. People would see that this was really important, and they would remember these guys. Here's the whole deal. It was not hard to raise the money. It was easy. It was easy. I mean, we got a million dollars from the American Legion, about the same from the Veterans of Foreign Wars, but most of this money, we got from direct mail letters signed by Bob Hope. It was easy to get the money.

It's funny. Whenever I go down there, it seems like I meet somebody who's in the middle of something. Last time I was there, I met a fellow. He was a big guy, a Chinese-American guy. He had this big Brooklyn accent, you know? I said, "What are you doing here?" He says, "Well, I'm here to recognize the highest ranking Asian-American who gave his life in the Vietnam War." This guy was the navigator on a B-52, I think, which was shot down, and no one survived. I helped him take a picture, and put in a little video of him talking. There's always something like that, something very dramatic. The Muslim faithful, they go to Mecca. All the Catholics go to Rome, but Vietnam veterans and people touched by that war, this is their Mecca, this is their Rome, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

I mean, whenever I look at it, also, I can't believe that I pulled this thing off. Senator John Warner of Virginia, he's dead now, but he always said, "Providence... God works through Jan Scruggs." At least He did for this.

It just kind of happened. I mean, we weren't really prepared by it. People brought their own paper and crayons and pencils. Pretty soon we said, "Okay, let's work through the Park Service, and let's have a little piece of paper this long and have some people there with pencils." Within a year or so, we had volunteer guides, pencils, paper, et cetera, et cetera.

I was with a guy named Alex Chadwick. He was with National Public Radio. I mean, he's a really good journalist. For the 10th anniversary of the wall... You can find this on the internet. He said, "Jan, have you ever been to look at the names of these guys who flipped you out so much?" I said, "Well, no, I haven't really done that yet." He said, "Well, it's been 10 years. Let's go." I said, "Well, I don't think I can get out of this," so I went to it. My reaction was pretty predictable. I mean, I couldn't, just couldn't... fell apart. Yeah, you can find it, Alex Chadwick, Jan Scruggs, National Public Radio.

It was a bad, unpopular war, and we were kind of blamed for it. In 1969, the average Army infantry company was composed of 88% draftees. People weren't tripping all over themselves to fight in that war, and that's for sure, but we did our duty, and others are doing their duty, as well. I'd always personally hoped that the nation would learn some lessons from Vietnam and to be careful before they commit the entire nation and our B-52s and our ships and our carriers to fight some war somewhere, somewhere like Afghanistan, for example, $2 trillion. We need to be more careful.

I was hoping that the wall would maybe be a nice place to have a debate or something. I don't know. Be it as it may, the wall is a great monument, and while it may not stop future wars or anything like that, I continue to encourage everyone to visit it and to bring their family, because this is a very positive, uplifting place, where you and your children can have some really exciting and deep, penetrating conversations.

There's one group in particular. It's called Boulder Crest in Virginia and in Arizona. They bring groups of guys with their wives, even, for three or four days of very intense talking. It's a little bit of archery, some physical fitness activity, and they also teach some meditation. I think meditation's a really important thing for people. If you do nothing else, if you have PTSD, take the deep breaths, get these, one of the little meditation apps, and you'll see. In a period of a month or so, you'll see a little difference in your temperament.

Look. Posttraumatic growth is really important. It's worth thinking about, because what they've found is that many people who have this PTSD from combat-related things, sexual trauma, that sort of thing... Basically, 11% of the U.S. population has or will have PTSD. That's from the Mayo Clinic. They point out panic. People who get PTSD, many times they'll have panic attacks, outbursts, aggression, but under posttraumatic growth, you can actually get a better appreciation and strengthening of close friendships, relationships with your family, your spouse, your parents. Many people have an increased desire to be altruistic, to do something positive for other people or for animals.

A lot of these veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan and other wars, you know what keeps them sane? Getting a dog, a dog or a cat. You say, "I can't leave my cat. I can't leave my cat and shoot myself," so animals play a really important part in people's lives. I wish everyone the very best.

People say, "How did you get the Vietnam Veterans Memorial built?" I say, "Listen. Did you ever see Dan Aykroyd in The Blues Brothers?" I'm Dan Aykroyd in The Blues Brothers. I was on a mission from God. I mean, in my mind, this is what God wanted. God wanted this to happen, and somehow I ended up at the steering wheel of this thing. A deep commitment to doing something helps remove a lot of obstacles. It was a very difficult project, had a lot of terrible things happen to me as a result of doing this. You get in little fights in Washington and people have a long memory, and they do things to screw you over, so it's not been pleasant, but the hard part's over now. It's the 40th anniversary of the memorial and life is good.

Actually, my wife and I are getting a... We live in Annapolis. We're getting a little apartment near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, so I can walk there in 15 minutes, instead of fighting traffic and all that, so it's a good thing.

Ken Harbaugh:

That was SPC Jan Scruggs. To learn more about Jan, visit his website, founderofthewall.com

Also, check out his podcast, titled Jan Scruggs VIETNAM WAR STORIES - The War and The Wall.

Thanks for listening to Warriors In Their Own Words. If you have any feedback, please email the team at [email protected]. We’re always looking to improve the show.

For updates and more, follow us on twitter at Team_Harbaugh.

And if you enjoyed this episode, don’t forget to rate and review.

Warriors In Their Own Words is a production of Evergreen Podcasts, in partnership with The Honor Project.

Our producer is Declan Rohrs. Brigid Coyne is our production director, and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our Audio Engineer.

Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers, Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.

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