They Inspire

Healing A Nation

Emilee White

They say history repeats itself and those of us who live long enough get to see it firsthand.

Jan Scruggs was born in 1950, in a world of hostility with a clear and imminent threat to his nation. Growing up in the United States during the Cold War, Scruggs witnessed the fer of a possible nuclear war etched on the faces of kids and adults alike, practically right from his front door. As Scruggs said, “Life back then was pretty rough at times.”

“I remember one day coming from school and it was during the Cuban Missile Crisis,” Scruggs said. “I mean, it was the Cold War and everyone sort of lived with a bomb over their head.”

This type of living and fear didn’t ease — and wouldn’t until the end of the Cold War — and by age 19, Scruggs was being shipped off to basic training before eventually going to Vietnam. Fresh out of high school, Scruggs volunteered for the draft, and eager for more soldiers, the U.S. Army put him in a uniform and trained him as a rifleman. Once he was on the battlefield, however, Scruggs didn’t think he’d make it to see age 20.

A couple of months into his deployment, Scruggs was severely wounded by a concealed enemy, taking hits to his back, right shoulder, and both his legs. As some of his men retreated to get help, Scruggs lay dying on the jungle floor and all he could think to do was pray; all he knew was he wanted to live. Scruggs survived the attack and spent the next few months in the hospital, eventually returning to duty in Vietnam. Scruggs knew his service wasn’t going to be easy, but that never stopped him before. 

“I was 18 years old, my parents had just gotten divorced, and I really wasn't welcome to stay there anymore,” Scruggs said. “I could have become a homeless person because that's the way my life was, but I [joined] the Army. They put you in excellent physical condition. You learn how to obey orders as you learn how to fire different weapons, how to fix different weapons, how to fight without a weapon, and all those sorts of things. I did not expect it to be a pleasant experience, but it turned out perfectly.”

In total, Scruggs served 19 months in the military, 12 of those spent in Vietnam, but his work was far from over. His parents didn't have any money and fought over what little there was so Scruggs never thought of going to college. Upon his return, Scruggs obtained his bachelor's degree and master’s degree from American University, as well as a law degree from the University of Maryland — he would go on to become a lawyer in 1986. Even though he was excelling academically, Scruggs struggled with the after-effects of war, noting that what soldiers witness on the battlefield “will not change your life for the better.”

According to the VA, It wasn’t until 1980 when links between war trauma and post-war life were connected and the American Psychiatric Association (APA) extended those who can suffer from PTSD to include returning Vietnam War Veterans, in addition to Holocaust survivors, and other trauma victims. To combat what would eventually be described as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Scruggs testified in front of Congress, even spent time lobbying legislation, to create the Vet Centers, a nationwide counseling program that helps with the transition process from service to civilian life. The Vet Centers provide counseling for PTSD as well as depression and military sexual trauma (MST).

“It takes a lot of training to do this sort of thing and soldiers have to deal with it,” Scruggs said. “Remembering what it was like when a bomb went off or a machine gun started, all this very violent stuff, it takes a toll on you.” 

In January 1970, Scruggs watched 10 of his friends die in an accidental explosion. There were no survivors. This brought about PTSD and a determination to have the names engraved of those who made the ultimate sacrifice in the Vietnam War.

By 1982, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial stood tall to honor the selfless service that was rendered by Vietnam veterans. Over five million people a year visit “The Wall” — a place to heal. As Scruggs continued his pursuit to separate the soldiers from the war, his story caught the attention of Hollywood, and in 1988, “To Heal A Nation” was on NBC.

“A lot of people have seen more combat than me, but I just have this really bizarre story about how I got this memorial built,” Scruggs said. “I believe in threes. I say to myself, ‘What can I do to improve myself? What can I do to be a better citizen? What can I do to help other people?’ This gives me an opportunity to be a role model.”

Photo credits: Courtesy of Vietnam Veterans Memorial's Instagram, Jan Scruggs