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DOVER — Jan C. Scruggs’ calling revealed itself years after he left Vietnam.
The story of what led him to build the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in the nation’s capital begins with a prayer and promise May 28, 1969.
Mr. Scruggs said he had a feeling that his infantry unit was in danger that day.
“The north Vietnamese soldiers were everywhere,” he said. “We were deep in the jungle where they lived.”
As a precaution, he put a folded, rubber poncho under his pistol belt for protection.
“A few hours later, I was under a tree firing my M16, and my theory was tested out,” he said.
He suffered several wounds, but the poncho caught one of the largest pieces of shrapnel, one that may have severed his spine. Fearing for his life, he prayed for God to save him and promised he would do something to “pay him back.”
He describes having an out-of-body experience, floating toward the trees. “Somebody called my name, ‘Scruggs, Scruggs.’ They came and got me under enemy fire.”
Mr. Scruggs’ destiny, as it turns out, was founding the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and getting the Wall built.
What he experienced in Vietnam in 1970 and upon his return to the United States all played into his passion for the project.
“It was my role in life,” he said. “That’s what I was born to do, I think.”
At 2 p.m. Saturday, March 25, Mr. Scruggs will be the featured speaker at Kent County Veterans Memorial Park in Dover. Chapter 850 of the Vietnam Veterans of America is hosting the public event.
The park features a black-and-Indian-rose memorial stone with the names of Kent Countians who died in the war. Overlooking it is a Huey helicopter, like one that was used to evacuate Mr. Scruggs in 1969.
“Whenever I see one, I have to give it a big smile,” he said.
After recovering from the wounds he sustained that day in 1969, he rejoined his unit in Vietnam.
While at an Army base in January 1970, there was an accident in which mortar rounds exploded, killing 12 men from his unit.
Mr. Scruggs, who was nearby, was among the first on the scene.
The incident, he says, tortured him for years. It led to his research on post-traumatic stress disorders and advocacy.
In 1979, he had an epiphany after watching the film, “The Deer Hunter.”
His realization was that there needed to be a memorial with the names of those lost.
In 1979, Mr. Scruggs used $2,800 from his savings to launch the memorial effort. With the help of Harvard Business School graduates who had been through West Point, they raised millions of dollars through private and corporate donations.
An incredible design competition, with more than 1,400 entries, followed.
Maya Lin, a young architectural student, came up with the idea of the wall built into the ground of the National Mall.
The Wall measures 493 feet, 6 inches in length. It is just over 10 feet where the sides meet at the start and end of the war’s timeline, signifying a circle of its completion.
The “V” shape of the wall points in one direction to the Washington Monument, the other to the Lincoln Memorial.
It was dedicated on Veterans Day 1982.
Often, you will see family and veterans place paper over a name and use a pencil or charcoal to create an etching.
There are 58,279 names inscribed on the Wall. Of those, 123 are Delawareans.
The 12 names of Mr. Scruggs’ comrades — those killed on that day in January 1970 — are on Panel 14W.
“The names,” said Mr. Scruggs, “are there to remind us of those who died in the war.”
Mr. Scruggs, who has now retired from a law career and is enjoying retirement in Annapolis, Maryland, said he is a regular visitor to the Wall and marvels at the number of visitors from across the country and all over the world. The National Park Service estimates about 5 million each year.
“When I go there, I’m talking to people from Germany, Argentina, France,” he said. “Internationally, it struck a chord. That’s a great tribute to the design and the designer.”
Mr. Scruggs said he has no doubt that it will stand the test of time. He is thankful it is not a place where people gather to debate the war.
“The Vietnam Memorial does its job every day,” he said. “Thousands of people come, and they’re just awestruck, and they move on to the next memorial.
“And, then, you’ve got the veterans of the Vietnam War and their family members. People leave teddy bears, combat boots, dog tags. It’s an amazing place and some highly unusual behavior that occurs.”
Mr. Scruggs said the gathering Saturday in Dover — like visits to the Wall — are essential.
“It’s important for the people of our country to support the military,” he said. “We should all get involved, as these people have done in Delaware.
“We should all get involved in the same way to help people have a better understanding of the people who served in the Vietnam War.”