When people visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., they can see the 58,279 names on The Wall, The Three Servicemen statue, the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, the In Memory plaque, and a flagpole that flies both the U.S. and the POW-MIA flag.

While the memorial and names provide an obvious visual reminder, Army Veteran Jan Scruggs wants people to know the story behind the memorial. It involves a poncho, a promise, PTSD, an Academy Award-winning movie and a focus on warriors instead of a war.

A poncho creates a promise

Scruggs landed in Vietnam as an Army infantryman after volunteering for the draft. He spent most of his time firing 81mm rounds at targets, also carrying an M-16 and M67 90mm recoilless rifle.

One day in May 1969, Scruggs was in his first battle. The next day, an armored unit came in to pull his unit out. Scruggs said an eerie feeling crept over him.

“You know what, I got a feeling I’m going to get hit today,” he said.

That day, he placed his poncho behind his pistol belt and tied it tight, like in basic training. That small tip was a lifesaver. Enemy shrapnel hit Scruggs in both legs and right arm, but the majority hit his poncho.

“It would’ve split my spine in half,” he said.

Severely injured, Scruggs made a promise: “As I was laying there, literally dying—I was bleeding out, I could see the blood pumping out—I knew, maybe a few minutes to go. I just said the Lord’s prayer and said, ‘Look, God, if you can get me out of this mess here, I’ll do something to pay you back.’”

An explosion that still resonates

While still in Vietnam, Scruggs experienced another life-changing moment. One morning, a huge explosion rocked his camp from multiple exploding mortar rounds. Scruggs ran from his morning shave with medical bandages to see a truck on fire.

“All these guys, they were all laying on the ground,” he said, choking back tears. “They weren’t moving. They were all dead.”

Panel 14W lists the 12 men who died, a day Scruggs still struggles to deal with 41 years later. One of those was John D. Pies, who happened to walk past as the mortars as they were exploding.

“I was with them. It’s very difficult for me,” Scruggs said, saying he’s only touched the name twice in 39 years and thousands of Wall visits. “These were all great guys.”

Army Veteran Jan Scruggs touches panel 14W.

Army Veteran Jan Scruggs touches panel 14W at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial March 15. VA photo by Tass Mimikos.

A promise kept

While at American University, Scruggs said he realized he suffered from PTSD. After writing a few articles, he testified in front of Congress for the Vet Centers program. Congress established Vet Centers in 1979 because a significant number of Vietnam combat and era Veterans were not accessing VA services at the same levels as Korean and World War II Veterans.

After going to the movie theater to watch “The Deer Hunter” with his wife, Scruggs told his wife he learned how to keep the promise he made in 1969.

“I know what I’m going to do,” he told his wife. “I’m going to build a national memorial in Washington, D.C., and have all the names on it, and it will be great, and I’m going to do this.”

His wife told him to sleep on the idea overnight. He read Carl Jung about warriors and shared memories, which lead him to the idea of placing every name on the Wall. He sold a piece of land he owned in West Virginia for $2,800, which started “this crazy idea.”

Using West Point graduates who went to Harvard’s Business School, a team went to work. On May 28, 1979, Scruggs rented a room at the National Press Club and told the media in attendance that there would be a national memorial.

“In order to get this memorial, we had the largest architectural design competition in the history of Western civilization,” he said.

Over 1,400 teams submitted, with Maya Lin’s design chosen.

Two and a half years later in November 1982, Scruggs stood at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, opening it to a crowd of about 50,000.

“Because I was so tortured by what had happened in this incident, this created the Vietnam Veterans Memorial,” Scruggs said.

Names as a tribute

Scruggs said putting the names of the casualties on the wall was a befitting tribute, albeit with substantial controversy. Some Veterans advocated for a war memorial, while Scruggs and his team wanted a memorial for the men and women who died. The 58,279 names are by date of death, with names in alphabetical order if they died on the same date. The Wall is intentionally devoid of ranks or service.

“We decided that all were equal in their sacrifice, no need to pay attention to military rank,” Scruggs said. “It would distract from the experience.”

The intention was for visitors to remember each person who died.

“They remember him the way he was when he was 19 or 20 years old, before he got killed in Vietnam,” Scruggs said. “They think, ‘what would he have done in life?’ Doctor, lawyer, fireman – he would’ve done something, something good and had a family. But at a young age, he was robbed of his youth.”

Focus on the warrior instead of the war

Because of the unpopularity of the war, Scruggs said people wanted the focus on the warrior instead of the war.

“You got to remember how divisive that war was,” he said. “The guys who were killed, it was pretty obvious to us nobody was ever going to remember these guys. Many of the people who are related to people on The Wall, they know they didn’t die for nothing. This is where the living and the dead commune.”

That fact is not lost on those who served, said then-Secretary of Defense and Vietnam Veteran Chuck Hagel during a Veterans Day speech in 2014

“This Wall means many things to many people as it records the names of the past and reflects on our hopes for the future,” Hagel said. “It also offers a reminder, a message that carries across generations. The Wall reminds us to honor those who defend our country for making sure they’re treated with the dignity and respect and appreciation they deserve.”

More information

Read about the Vietnam memorial walls releasing schedules, with COVID restrictions.

Are you a Veteran with PTSD? Download the COVID Coach app on iOS or Android.

Download the 30 Days of Self-Care with COVID Coach guidebook that has all of the different suggestions for self-care practices.

VA Secretary Denis McDonough testifies at the House Veterans Affairs Committee March 25 during a virtual hearing.Veterans see help through American Rescue Plan, says SecVA
VA Secretary Denis McDonough visited Born the Battle.Borne the Battle #235: VA Secretary Denis McDonough

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14 Comments

  1. SA Ivey April 4, 2021 at 1:38 pm

    Great article! Although I agree with Elvis; I too would like to know how Jan Scruggs escaped death on the battlefield after he was wounded.
    I am a veteran (2006-2012) and never knew the backstory of how the Wall came into existence, other than Maya Lin winning the design competition (another interesting story in itself).
    Jan Scrugg’s inspirational commitment to his fellow warriors bears repeating. I am sure the vast majority of vets and Servicemembers don’t know this information either. I have been to the Wall and it is powerful. It is like the Grand Canyon -you must experience it in person; pictures and videos do not do it (or any other memorial) justice.
    Thanks for sharing.

  2. Debra Taylor March 31, 2021 at 6:27 pm

    I have never been to the National Memorial place. I would love to some day go there.

  3. Debra Taylor March 31, 2021 at 6:21 pm

    I’m confused at the dates for Vietnam veterans. I came into the military May of 1976. I was told I was in the last cycal of Wacks. Therefore I was considered a Vietnam Veteran. Could you answer what service I’m considered as?

    • Terry Caldwell April 2, 2021 at 12:01 am

      Debra, I believe what you are referring to is “WAC” which stood for Womens (or Womans) Army Corps. It is an old term and really has nothing to do with the Vietnam War. It referred to a grouping (or branch?) to which all females who were active duty were part of. Over time, as women were incorporated into all branches of the Army use of the term WAC went away – there became no official differentiation for women’s versus men’s military/Army service. I believe that in the 1960s and early 1970s, the Army Nurse Corps was part of the WAC. However, that changed as more men became Army Nurses and I suppose around mid 1970 the WAC went away (and why you were told you were in the last cycle). Hope this helps.
      P.S. I was one of those male nurses 1971-1996.

  4. Drawer 22 March 30, 2021 at 2:25 am

    Because of the nature of our missions in Command & Control Detachment, North (CCN), I never knew any of our American Recon Team (RT) members who may have been listed as KIA (Killed In Action), though I inventoried the personal possessions of 3 who were killed in “Indian Country” just before my arrival in-country; a Bright Light mission was able to recover their bodies and return them to CONUS. Those who didn’t make it back to the “Land of the Big PX” are on The Wall as MIA (Missing In Action), an inclusion for which I shall remain eternally grateful.

    De Oppresso Liber

  5. Wayne M. Gatewood, Jr. USMC (Ret) March 29, 2021 at 10:32 pm

    Thank you Jan Scruggs! Thank you for your vision, your leadership, for your perseverance, for the unyielding commitment to the memory of your fellows, our fellows, who paid the ultimate price. Many blessings your way indeed Jan!

  6. David Trujillo March 29, 2021 at 3:19 pm

    Thanks for this story, I never knew how the wall actually came about. I am a100 per cent disabled veteran for PTSD. I have several names on the wall that I knew personally.I’ be never been to the wall in D C. But have seen the traveling wall. Would like to go to DC sometime,before I leave this earth behind. Thanks again!

    • Billy Nicklas March 29, 2021 at 5:39 pm

      David,
      Thank you for your service to our country. If you would like to go to DC for free, look up your nearest Honor Flight hub at http://www.honorflight.org and find out if or when they could take you. All you have to do is fill out an application to be scheduled for a trip. It’s a rewarding experience you will never forget!

  7. Charlie Thompson March 29, 2021 at 2:00 pm

    I have visited the Memorial Wall once, the Moving Wall twice and The Vermont Vietnam Memorial many times. It is always very emotional. I appreciate the Vermont memorial and one in my home town of Bradford in the old Bradford Academy auditorium because they list all Vermont Vets who served. It was often only a moment of good luck or bad luck that made the difference in coming home or not. So I appreciate being recognized for serving even though I had my moment of good luck and am here to write this.

  8. Elvis March 29, 2021 at 12:31 am

    Hey, adam, that was a fantastic piece you put together. But, I wish you completed the story about what you said on “poncho creates a promise,”
    the section that says
    “As I was laying there, literally dying—I was bleeding out, I could see the blood pumping out—I knew, maybe a few minutes to go. I just said the Lord’s prayer and said, ‘Look, God, if you can get me out of this mess here, I’ll do something to pay you back.”

    How did he escape such a terrible situation? I am curious to know more about the story.

    Scruggs did an amazing thing by building the national memorial to remember those who lost their lives defending their country.

  9. Jesse Johnson March 28, 2021 at 10:18 pm

    How can I find out if my brothers photo is or not on the wall, his name is Sgt. James Earl Eskridge USMC

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