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Remembering Vietnam: The Story Behind 'The Wall'

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It's been 56 years since the ground campaign of the Vietnam War began. It was a conflict that would drag on for a decade, take thousands of lives and forever change America’s mentality about war.  

Following the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, the U.S. increased its military presence in South Vietnam. The first U.S. regular combat units arrived in Vietnam on March 8, 1965.  When the conflict ended 10 years later, 58,220 of the 3 million Americans involved had lost their lives. The weary troops who returned faced a largely unwelcome homecoming.  

American flag reflected in Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall.
Flag Reflected
The American flag is reflected in some of the names etched into "The Wall" of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C., July 22, 2015.
Photo By: Army Sgt. Ken Scar
VIRIN: 150721-A-ZU930-020

"When they came back, there was a lot of anger about the war. Some [veterans] were spat on in airports, and that hurt a lot," said veteran Jan Scruggs, who is also the founder and president of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. "Psychologically, many people couldn’t separate the war from the warrior." 

Scruggs and the VVMF were instrumental in helping change the public's mentality over time. The fund was also vital in getting Washington's iconic Vietnam Veterans Memorial built. The Vietnam Wall, as it's commonly known, stands as a tribute to the war's veterans, who consider it a tangible symbol that the American people recognized and honored for their service.   

Scruggs said his foundation began efforts to get the wall built in 1979. It was opened to the public three years later. 

"That's warp speed in Washington," Scruggs said.  

Rose sits beside wall
Vietnam Wall
The Vietnam War Memorial in the nation’s capital was the site for a wreath-laying event to observe the second anniversary of Vietnam Veterans Day, March 29, 2019.
Photo By: Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith, DOD
VIRIN: 190329-D-SV709-0171

He said Congressional hearings to get it done were the easy part. The struggle came from opponents who thought it was controversial as a work of art.  

"It was unconventional. The argument was, 'Why are all the other monuments in Washington white, and this one's black?'" Scruggs said. "They viewed the color black as making a political statement about the relative merits of the war." 

Scruggs said the opposition, for various reasons, generated public support against the memorial. 

"They stopped the legislation and construction and forced us to make a compromise," he said. 

A group of people lower red, white and blue banner to unveil a statue of three men in a park.
Statue Unveiling
Retired Army Brig. Gen. George Price; John Piltzecker, National Mall and Memorial Parks superintendent; Lindy Hart, widow of sculptor Frederick Hart; and Jan Scruggs, Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund founder and president, unveil the Three Servicemen Statue during a rededication ceremony at the National Mall in Washington, July 8, 2010. The statue, which originally was unveiled in 1984, underwent six weeks of restoration to repair damage and restore the original patina.
Photo By: Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael J. Carden
VIRIN: 100709-A-D0439-100

That compromise actually turned out to be a good one. It was the Three Servicemen Statue. 

"It's the statue of the three guys with their rifles and other weapons. They're looking at the wall," Scruggs said. "It provides some context. You see what these guys looked like at the time they were fighting." 

A nurse cradling an injured soldier, a woman looking skyward, and (foreground) a kneeling woman holding a helmet.
Women's Memorial
The Vietnam Women's Memorial is seen on Veterans Day, Washington, D.C., Nov. 11, 2013. The memorial depicts a nurse cradling an injured soldier, a woman looking skyward, and (foreground) a kneeling woman holding a helmet.
Photo By: Lisa Ferdinando, Army
VIRIN: 131111-D-BN624-003W

The Vietnam Women's Memorial was added in 1993 across from the Three Servicemen Statue to represent the thousands of women who served. A plaque was then added in 2000 to honor those who died of non-combat injuries after the war was over.

(This article was originally published in 2015.)

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