–A Question Worth Asking the Day After Memorial Day
From tragedy and failure bloom life’s greatest breakthroughs. It begins with that small resounding voice of courage that penetrates our core and releases our true potential or purpose. It’s the spark that illuminates a leader’s vision and demands a call to action. So it was for Jan C. Scruggs when left the theater after watching the 1979 Film, The Deer Hunter. Painful emotions, he’d tried to forget from his days in the Vietnam War exploded inside, leaving him as disoriented as if he had just been hit by the concussion of an actual mortar shell. He flashed back to his first harrowing nights in the muggy Vietnam jungle at age 18. Heavy machine gun fire burst from the trees as N. Vietnamese troops had his squad pinned down. They barely escaped because of the bravery of a comrade who purposefully drew fire in his direction.
Finally, his thoughts rested on that day on May 28th, 1969 when an explosion ripped through his patrol, killing or wounding over half of the men. He recalled the screams, the blood the carnage and his own wounds. After his tour ended he found himself back in his small town in Maryland. Memories of the devastation of war haunted him at nights while bitter anti-war sentiment from politicians, protesters and public opinion plagued him by day. People, who knew him growing up, booed him while wearing the uniform in his own town. In the face of this loneliness and pain he had to choose his reaction. He eventually pulled himself together and courageously took steps towards a productive life, starting with community college, then on to American University in DC where he secured a master’s degree in psychology and counseling. During this time he researched war-induced post-traumatic stress disorder and began formulating ideas on the importance of acknowledging veterans sacrifice and contribution as part of their healing.
With the film and these events still racing through his mind a decade after returning from the War, sleep evaded him as vivid war images flooded his mind. He found that he wasn’t alone, the movie had opened wounds all across the country as evidenced by ex-soldiers lighting up suicide hotlines nationwide. These events ignited the fuel building up in Scruggs and a powerful vision to build a memorial to the Vietnam War dead burst into view. It was not to be a memorial to glorify the war or to make a political statement, it was to be a symbol of healing —a monument designed for remembrance.
Immediately his dream met fierce opposition after publicizing his intentions. The critics, among them many veterans and even powerful members of Congress, venomously declared why the nation wouldn’t support any appropriations for such a project. However, one veteran, a lawyer named Robert Doubek stepped forward and offered his assistance. With his help and Scruggs own money, they founded a nonprofit organization. On May 28th, 1979 Scruggs held a press conference and delivered an inspirational message that rippled across the country. Letters of support rolled in from grieving parents, bitter and hopeful veterans alike as well as children who had lost parents in the war. Total donations fell far short of the projected cost, but momentum was on their side as an army of volunteers rallied to the cause. In 1980 Congress passed a bill setting aside land near the Lincoln memorial for the project, placing a 5 year deadline on raising the funds. Scruggs didn’t wait 5 years, he set his own goal for Veterans day of 1982.
When invitations for architectural submission went out more than 1400 renderings and ideas were returned. Jan had inspired a nation and one 21 year old college student won the design. The parameters had called for the monument to “be reflective and contemplative in nature… harmonize with its natural surroundings… contain the names of all who died or remain missing… and make no political statements about the war.” Maya Lin, the designer, wanted the wall to reflect the visitors standing in front in order to allow a view of themselves in the monument. An article on-line describes the monument as follows:
The Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial has become the most visited war memorial in our nation’s capital. It embodies grief, loss, and closure for the tragic deaths that were a result of the Vietnam War. It’s a symbol of our nation’s resilience and unity. [It] has become known as “The Wall That Heals,” “A Shrine of Reconciliation,” “The Healing Stone,” or simply “The Wall.”
Jan Scruggs had a dream, a courageous breakthrough that he turned into action, an action which drew severe criticism, but also healing for himself and millions of grieving individuals. I’ve been to that Memorial and met personally with many Vietnam Veterans as a part of the legislative research work I performed for a decade. I was deeply moved by both experiences.
Legendary basketball coach Pat Riley, wrote about overcoming difficult circumstances like our Veterans or Wars experience:
All of us have at least one great voice deep inside. People are products of their environments. A lucky few are born into situations in which positive messages abound. Others grow up hearing too many messages of fear and failure, which they must block out, so the positive can be heard. But the positive and courageous voice will always emerge, somewhere, sometime, for all of us. Listen for it and your breakthroughs will come.”
Jan Scruggs had a breakthrough and you’ve had them too. Perhaps, you’ve experienced the devastation of war up close and personal, perhaps your battlefield was growing up in an abusive and divisive home. For some there were foster homes, abandonment, loss, heartache, tragedy, complacency, ease and fear. While most may not experience something as dramatic as war the way we respond to adversity defines us for good or ill. The fact is you’ve heard the voices speak to you. One voice thunders, “you’re a loser, no one understands you, you’re not worthy, give up, quit etc.” The other voice, almost imperceptibly at first says, “Stand up, take heart, you have work to do, change the story, reach out and lift someone else, BUILD A MONUMENT!” Your monument may not be a polished stone wall, but your life can be a witness of the power of change, a symbol of hope that others will follow.
Jan saw his vision come to fruition and enjoyed healing in the process. You and I have the same opportunity to choose if our memorial will be one of vision & healing or criticism and reeling. It all depends on what voice we listen to.
- The Winner Within, Pat Riley (Chapter 6)