His Dream Was to Heal a Nation with the Vietnam Memorial, but Jan Scruggs's Healing Isn't Over yet

updated 05/30/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/30/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Jan Scruggs's obsession began nine years ago as he sat in his Maryland kitchen at 3 a.m. nursing a bottle of Scotch. A former infantry corporal who'd survived his tour in 'Nam, Scruggs had seen The Deer Hunter a few hours before and was now suffering through another night of flashbacks—memories of his friends dying, moaning in the darkness. Toward the end of this night, however, he finally found some peace, not in the booze, but in an idea—a dream of a memorial to everyone who served in Vietnam, listing the names of all who were killed. When he told his wife about it the next morning, she thought he was crazy. "I wondered if he'd gone off the deep end," says Becky. "I became very concerned about his mental health."

Three years later, on Nov. 13, 1982, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was unveiled on the Washington Mall. Made of polished black granite and now etched with 58,156 names, the wall became a turning point in the way Americans thought and felt about the war, the first sign of a nation's acceptance, a symbol whose power to touch the heart grows with every year. The story of the memorial's troubled genesis is recounted this Sunday (May 29) in an NBC docudrama, To Heal a Nation, starring Eric Roberts as the driven but ultimately victorious Scruggs. It's the story of a vision and a struggle so demanding that at times Scruggs seconded his wife in questioning his sanity. "You got the feeling," says Jan, 38, "of what it's like to be a mad scientist who has an idea that you know is right, but the world won't listen."

Scruggs eventually found two Washington attorneys who were interested in his early-morning inspiration—Bob Doubek, who had served in Da Nang, and John Wheeler, a West Point grad with good political contacts. The three joined forces on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, with Scruggs running the nonprofit organization 11 hours a day, six days a week.

Besides raising more than $8 million from private donors, the WMF faced extraordinary obstacles—getting the land, lobbying for congressional support, obtaining permission from various public commissions and constructing the controversial wall itself, despite the many critics of its design. More significantly, Scruggs and company had to battle the collective amnesia that wanted to block all memory of Vietnam. At times Scruggs became extremely depressed. During those three years, says Becky, 37, "Jan went from being a passive person to a very intense, ambitious man. He always seemed to be anxious."

Yet Scruggs's effort to make his dream reality seemed to focus a life that had often lacked direction since the war. A soft-spoken man who describes himself as a "redneck," Jan was born in small, rural Bowie, Md., the youngest of four children. His father, James, who died in 1973, delivered milk. His mother, Louise, worked as a waitress. Graduating from high school in 1968, Jan felt duty-bound to enlist. After two years of service, in which he was wounded by shrapnel from a rocket-propelled grenade, he came home in March 1970 "very disillusioned and disenchanted," he says. Like many Vietnam vets, he had adjustment problems. "I maybe wasted a year wandering aimlessly," says Scruggs, "hitchhiking around the country, drinking."

His stabilization began a year later, when he returned to Maryland and met Becky Fishman late one night in a 7-Eleven store. By the time they married in 1974, Scruggs was attending college, later graduating with a master's in education from Washington's American University. He worked for the Labor Department as an equal-opportunity specialist from 1977 until he left to head the VVMF.

But his uneasiness about those who'd been left behind in Vietnam never disappeared. The night he saw The Deer Hunter, one of the few American films to deal with the Vietnam experience, Scruggs went home and brooded over one particularly haunting memory—watching 12 of his friends die when an ammo truck they were unloading blew up. Other images, as well as the thousands of letters he received from veterans and their families, kept Scruggs going until the wall was finally dedicated in 1982.

While Scruggs is not as anxious as he once was, he's facing new frustrations. Since leaving the VVMF in 1985, he has been "very disappointed" in his career. Scruggs felt his experience might make him suitable for corporate lobbying. There were no takers. He has just finished his first year of law at the University of Maryland, hoping to become a prosecutor. "I decided to go to law school almost out of desperation," Scruggs says. Still, he and Becky live comfortably on her salary as an office manager of a health-care consulting firm. Two months ago, the couple bought a modest three-bedroom split-level in Columbia, Md.

Twenty-five miles south stands the memorial, today the most popular monument in the nation's capital, drawing up to 25,000 people a day. "It took a lot of the bitterness out of the Vietnam debate," says Scruggs, "but I wouldn't say the memorial healed the nation," as the title of the TV movie, and his 1985 book, suggests. "The wounds caused by the war still require a political healing, a healing on many different levels. Veterans may get solace from the memorial, but they need real programs to help them—programs for job counseling, psychological counseling, aid for homeless vets. There are many problems that haven't been resolved. There's still much work to do."

—By Mary Vespa, with Pat Gallagher in Washington

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