It’s been 57 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.
“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.
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.
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.”
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.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2015.