May 28, 1969. Xuan Loc, South Vietnam.
Two companies of the Army’s 199th Light Infantry Brigade are slogging along a trail leading out of the forest where they have just had a bloody encounter with the enemy the day before.
About 9:30 a.m., they run into the North Vietnamese again, and more fighting breaks out. Among the American soldiers is Pfc. Jan C. Scruggs, a shy, skinny 19-year-old from Bowie, the son of a milkman and a waitress. He has been out of high school less than a year.
Scruggs hits the ground looking for something to shoot at. He moves behind a tree. In an instant, a rocket-propelled grenade explodes in the place he has just vacated.
More grenades land. Scruggs is riddled with shrapnel. He has a folded poncho tucked inside the back of his pistol belt to protect his spine, where he feared he might be shot. Now, he has holes in a dozen places. He touches a spot near his right armpit, and his hand comes away bloody.
Bullets are flying. People are screaming. A buddy with part of his shoulder blown off drops his rifle and runs. The platoon sergeant dashes to bring him back. Scruggs is alone. I’m going to die, he thinks. In this stupid little battle, in this hellhole patch of Vietnam, at age 19. He says the Lord’s Prayer and passes out.
On a sunny day in Orlando earlier this year, Jan Scruggs, now 62, ambled up to Vietnam War veterans hanging around an old “deuce and a half” Army truck on display, and introduced himself.
The men were gathered in a park where Scruggs was scheduled to speak the next day, and a half-scale aluminum model of the famous Vietnam Wall in Washington was set up nearby.
Scruggs looked a little formal in his navy blazer, jeans and loafers with tassels.
The vets, in T-shirts, greeted him.
“I’m Jimmy Cregan,” said a 63-year-old Chicago retiree who was a helicopter gunner in Vietnam in ’68 and ’69. “What can we help you with?”
“Well, I’m here with the Vietnam Memorial,” Scruggs said.
“Oh, are you?” Cregan said. “You in charge of this whole thing?”
“Yeah,” Scruggs said. “I’m the guy from D.C., the Vietnam Wall guy.”
It’s not clear whether the vets realized he is the Vietnam Wall guy, the guy who 30 years ago, as a gawky-looking ex-grunt in jeans and flannel shirts, got the idea that the names of all those who gave up their lives in that war might be etched in the city that sent them to their fate.
Back then, nobody even knew exactly how many Americans the war had devoured. All most people knew was that it was over and best forgotten. Now here came this naive, unsophisticated young man striding into the jungle of the Washington bureaucracy with a notion.
Who was this guy from nowhere to intrude on the sanctity and protocols of the hallowed Mall?
He turned out to be a stubborn guy who persevered through all the jokes and the politics and the funding, and the doubts and anger and the aesthetic battles to get the shiny black granite wall bearing all those names.
In a way, he’s the guy responsible for all the war memorials built on the Mall since. The Wall is considered a precedent, an inspiration, for the Korean and World War II memorials that followed.
He was in Orlando raising money to build a new education center across the street from the Wall — a project that has him back in battle, even with a bad heart and a new set of obstacles.
Little of that was known to the Orlando vets. No matter. As if Scruggs had pressed a button, their stories began.
Cregan was with a “hunter-killer” team that flew low and fired machine guns into enemy bunkers. He said he was “working up the nerve” to go look at the mini-Wall. “As you can see, I’m all full of bumps.”
William Waterman, 65, another helicopter gunner, went right to the metal replica and searched for the name of a friend. Waterman said he helped ferry commandos in and out of hot zones during the war. He was shot down.
“I got five air medals. . . . I’d give it all back to get some of these guys back,” he told Scruggs.
Said Lester Fields, 66, wearing a broad-brimmed black cavalry hat with gold tassels and crossed sabers: “I got a buddy up there. Robert J. Henry. He was killed at Quang Tri.”
His pal was hit in the neck right in front of him. “He didn’t say, ‘Les, I’m hit.’ He didn’t grunt. Nothing. Blood splattered all over. He just dropped.”
“Ugh,” said Scruggs, pressing his finger against his neck as if to a bullet wound. “That’s sad.”
Jan Scruggs’s “whole thing” right now — which has brought him to a new cross-country crusade — is the rejuvenation of his 12-year struggle to build the Education Center at the Wall.
Scruggs is president and founder of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, which built the elegant shrine designed by architect Maya Lin that bears the names of more than 58,000 people killed in the war. It is one of the most visited and moving memorials in the nation.