At the Vietnam War Memorial with Jan Scruggs

On the eve of Memorial Day Weekend, Alex Chadwick presents some powerful moments he recorded with Jan Scruggs some 15 years ago at the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial in Washington, D.C. Scruggs is the man who came up with the idea to build the tribute to veterans of the Vietnam War, which claimed the live of more than 58,000 American fighters.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Heading into Memorial Day weekend, why do people build memorials? Where do these things come from? We're going to replay an interview from years ago with the man who once imagined a memorial and saw it become reality, and is now imagining another one--different, but both about a war--a particular war--the one we lost in Vietnam.

That first memorial is in Washington, DC, on the great, grassy National Mall, an elongated V formed by two mournful granite wedges, their polished black surface blurred with the inscribed names of the 58,000 American dead from Vietnam.

Mr. JAN SCRUGGS (President, Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund): You might be interested to know this is actually the way the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was meant to be appreciated.

CHADWICK: Jan Scruggs, the man who first thought this memorial should be, recorded on one morning back in the early '90s, sometime before a big ceremony for the 10th anniversary. It was quite and peaceful. We were practically alone. This was what he'd wanted for this space. He was still a little stunned that he'd achieved it. He'd been a blue-collar vet back from the war, living in Maryland suburbs outside DC. He wasn't anybody. He didn't have money or connections, just a lot of determination and an idea that a Yale architecture student, Maya Lin, would use for her own inspiration. And that memorial quickly became one of the places in the city everyone goes to see and to feel.

(Soundbite of background sounds)

CHADWICK: I'd gotten to know Jan Scruggs a little over the years. I was in Vietnam, too. He'd asked me on this morning to come down to look at some small pressure cracks in these black walls for a maintenance story before the anniversary. We talked for a while, and then he moved along the walk in front of the wall to a particular panel. And Jan reached one hand tentatively toward some of the names, a gesture like a man finding his way in the dark. His fingers touched the carved letters and stopped. The moment stopped, dissolved, rearranged itself. The memorial had stood for a decade by then, and this was the first time Jan Scruggs could bring himself to this part, and to that moment 20 years earlier that had brought all this about.

Mr. SCRUGGS: The memorial was built, and I had a lot of friends on it. But I've never really went to see their names. So.

That's Michael Rootgay(ph), and he stayed behind and laid down rifle fire when we were retreating. And he was killed. He was wounded very severely, and we dragged him through the jungle. And he died on the helicopter. He was shot through the neck. So.

Pies--John Pies was also in that battle. And he stayed behind with Rootgay. But he wasn't killed that day. He was killed a different day--with all of these people: Gonzales, Gaither, Kroger, Billy Moore.

CHADWICK: Did you know these people?

Mr. SCRUGGS: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I knew them. Some--they were unloading some ammunition, and the truck exploded. They didn't put the firing pins back in the mortar rounds coming off an operation, and it exploded. And I was shaving. And I went to see the--what had happened. And I brought my little medical kit that you carry--you know, one bandage. And here are all these guys lying in a pile. And they're--Billy Moore, his brains were lying out of his head. And Pies didn't even look like he was hit, but the concussion had killed him. And I tried to save Kroger, but I was putting bandages on him and somebody said, `Forget it.' And he had a big hole right through the center of his head, just like that. So--anyway. That's it.

CHADWICK: Jan Scruggs served with the 199th Light Infantry Brigade in Vietnam in 1970. He still runs the Vietnam Veterans Memorial fund, which maintains the Memorial Wall in Washington and engages in various public education projects and works. And now he's at work on another memorial of a kind, this one in Vietnam, in the province where he and others fought on some of the war's bloodiest ground. It's still dangerous terrain. And that story, on Monday.

(Soundbite of "The End")

THE DOORS: (Singing) This is the end, beautiful friend. This is the end, my only friend, the end. It hurts to set you free, but you'll never follow me. The end of laughter and soft lies, the end of nights we tried to die. This is the end.

CHADWICK: From 1967, The Doors.

NPR's DAY TO DAY continues. I'm Alex Chadwick.

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