Slice of Life: Jan Scruggs, the face behind the 58,000 names

Alex Beall, special to

WASHINGTON – A wooden coffee table with a glass top sits in the middle of Jan Scruggs’ office in the Watergate building. Inside lies a collection of antique weaponry, his Purple Heart and his draft card. Since he received that card, Scruggs’s life has revolved around the Vietnam War.

Scruggs, 62, founded the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the nonprofit Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund after fighting in the Vietnam War at 19 years old. After the war, the D.C. native attended graduate school at American University, where he helped conduct the initial research on post-traumatic stress disorder.

In honor of the 30th anniversary of the Vietnam memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund held a four-day reading in November of the more than 58,000 names of people who died in the war. Scruggs and members of the nonprofit have now turned their efforts to fundraising for an education center at the wall.

I know you were in the war, so what was your motivation behind building the wall?

I really felt that this was a mission that I had to do. At age 29, I decided I was going to do this. I was going to build a memorial with the names of all the guys who were killed.

During the Vietnam War, the people really could not separate the war from the warrior. We had to figure out a way to break through the Vietnam War’s unpopularity and the angst it had caused. So we had to get away from the Vietnam War so we couldn’t make this the Vietnam War Memorial. It’s the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

It’s a very unique design. What was the thinking behind picking that design?

The idea was to have an architectural design competition and to have a design that would display all the names and be quote unquote reflective and contemplative in character.

What challenges did you face in actually making it happen?

We had a lot of controversy over the Vietnam Memorial. The controversy surrounded the choice of the color black and, some would say, the ancestry of the designer was a factor. But basically this was a very unconventional way to remember people who had served in the war. So because of that we got a lot of guff from a lot of very powerful people, and these people can gang up on you and stop anything they want to stop so we had to fight with them. They were well funded, they were very politically savvy and they stopped the project in its tracks. But we were able to make a compromise with them, and the compromise was to add a traditional element.

And what was that traditional element?

The statue — the three guys with the rifles. That was all they wanted.

Can you tell me about the war? Just being there, what you saw there and how it impacted you?

It’s a very difficult environment, both physically and emotionally. There’s more boredom than anything else, but when the excitement starts, it’s fast and furious and a lot of things happen. You have to keep your wits about you. You’ve got to be in control of your weapon. You’ve got to find the enemy. You’ve got to find out whether they’re pointing a gun at you, and you’ve got to find that out very quickly.

War was a bad experience, but it had good qualities to it. I met some really great people and had some really great experiences, but it was kind of a tender age psychologically.

What are some of the most poignant images you can remember? I’m sure it’s not something easily forgotten.

I remember a couple of times people getting killed. When somebody dies they’re very heavy. It takes four or five or six people to carry a dead person. My friend got killed. I didn’t know him real well, but I liked him. He had dropped out of college for some reason, gotten drafted, had been wounded once before. He didn’t have much time to go, and he got killed. This big ambush we walked into, we were fighting like four hours, running out of ammunition and it was crazy. And then he was dead. So I said, “Well I’ll carry him back.” And the other guys who had been there said, “You have no idea what you’re talking about. It takes six people to carry a dead man.” So we put him in a bag, and it takes six people to carry a dead man. That was outrageous.

I had some other friends of mine get blown up. I was trying to patch this kid up and somebody said, “Wait don’t waste your time. Look at his face.” And he had a big hole through his head. It was awful.

It was a male sort of thing where you’re proving your manhood by going to a war, and I felt like I had done that. When I got shot up, I kept firing. I was trying to kill the guy that shot me, and I think I did.

How did it all affect you when you came home?

I had a lot of problems sleeping. I felt I was self-medicating with marijuana basically. I was a pothead, a complete pothead for years. I was using it like Valium.

I felt that I had been sort of damaged in my soul, my spirit, psychologically. Death, destruction, all these things that go along with war really kind of rip your heart out, but I was happy to do my part in the war. Had I come from a family with a higher socioeconomic background, I wouldn’t have gone into there.

What kind of impact did your background have on you?

I was going to high school and junior high school with the kids who were sons of engineers at NASA, and federal employees and people who were pretty significant. They had been educated, and when I was going off to Vietnam, these kids were all basically going away to college. You always need somebody to push you a little farther so I tried to kind of keep up with them a little bit.

Are there any future plans you have for yourself?

I want to do something else. I like the idea of teaching leadership, teaching about showing leadership, moral leadership, the qualities of a leader. People of average intelligence basically can do anything in the world, even if they’re a pothead for 10 years. So I’d like to encourage people to push themselves a little harder, to get out of their comfort zone.

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Editor’s Note: Slice of Life is a new Sunday feature, in which WTOP Living talks with people in the community to find out their stories, passions and what motivates them every day. Nominate someone to be featured in a Slice of Life by emailing Living Editor Stephanie Steinberg at

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(Copyright 2013 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)

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