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The Wall That Heals

Photo by Josh Halpren.

“Everything goes back to my time at AU,” says Jan Scruggs, President of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF). Scruggs, who received a bachelor’s degree from AU in 1975, graduated from AU’s College of Arts and Sciences in 1977 with a master’s degree in psychology. He went on to spearhead the construction of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial which was completed in 1982, just five years after his graduation. It is one of the most visited monuments in Washington, DC.

“The memorial is meant to separate the war from the warrior,” says Scruggs. As a student at AU, Scruggs studied the impact of post-traumatic stress disorder on veterans of the Vietnam War and began to understand the need for a memorial to those who gave their lives in such a controversial war.   

Scruggs, a wounded and decorated Vietnam veteran who served in the 199th Light Infantry Brigade of the U.S. Army, applauded the political activism of AU students but recognized that many veterans, including himself, experienced harassment from their peers who opposed the Vietnam War. “There were times when the entire city was shut down with protesters,” says Scruggs. “It was very hard for Vietnam vets to find acceptance among other students at universities.” Before he graduated from AU, Scruggs recognized a need to help veterans come to grips with the great traumas they had experienced. “There needed to be some sort of societal acknowledgment of the sacrifices that were made,” says Scruggs.

This led Scruggs to devise a plan for a memorial that would list the names of every service member who died or was reported missing in the Vietnam War. With $2,800 of his own money and the support of other veterans, Scruggs worked to secure a site for the memorial from Congress and $8.4 million from private donors. He then launched the country’s largest architectural competition to find a design for the memorial. Scruggs and the commission charged with creating the memorial ultimately chose the simple, reflecting wall design submitted by twenty-one year old Yale University student Maya Lin out of more than 1,400 submissions. “We wanted the memorial to be contemplative and reflective,” says Scruggs “and [Lin’s] design matched this desire perfectly.”

Since the completion of the memorial, VVMF has continued working to recognize the sacrifices made by veterans of all wars and has recently partnered with the History Channel to build an education center across the street from the Vietnam Veterans and Lincoln Memorials. The Education Center at the Wall will exhibit a selection of the 100,000 personal items left at the wall and is meant to serve as a memorial to veterans of all wars. “We’re going to display images of fallen service members on their birthdays, not the day they were killed,” says Scruggs. “There was so much more to these men and women than the fact that they fought in a war.”

VVMF is still raising money to complete the Education Center at the Wall and hopes to break ground on the project in 2013. Retired General and former Secretary of State Colin Powell has helped with the fundraising process as well as Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard who recently announced a $3 million gift from the Australian people to help build the center and recognize the sacrifices made by Australian veterans of the Vietnam War.

Since its inception, VVMF has worked tirelessly to improve the emotional health of Vietnam veterans. When one veteran expressed a desire to make peace with the family of a Vietnamese soldier he had killed, VVMF connected the veteran to the Vietnamese ambassador who was ultimately able to put the veteran in contact with the family.

“This is the wall that heals,” says one veteran. “You look at the names and you see yourself.”

For more information on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund or to make a donation to support the construction of the Education Center at the Wall, visit www.vvmf.org or www.buildthecenter.org.