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Vietnam Veterans Memorial marks 25th anniversary

WASHINGTON (AFRNS) -- With wounds and memories of a long and bitterly protested war still open and raw, and veterans being treated as villains instead of heroes, Army veteran Jan Scruggs conceived building a memorial honoring those who served in Vietnam.

Facing more opposition than support, those who believed in the vision saw it through to the end. Nov. 13 marks the 25th anniversary of the realization of that vision: the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Today, the memorial is a symbol of healing for some, and an affirmation of valor and sacrifice for others.

To carry out his vision, Mr. Scruggs called on several fellow veterans, including John Wheeler, who served as a staff officer at Headquarters U.S. Army Vietnam.

"Jan was wounded in Vietnam, and as he lay dying in the jungle, he prayed and said that if he survived he wanted to do 'something useful,'" said Mr. Wheeler, special assistant to the secretary of the Air Force. "Years later, after watching a movie that reminded him of fellow soldiers from his platoon who were killed in Vietnam, he began pitching the idea of building a memorial with the names of all who were missing or killed in the war."

Robert Doubek, a lawyer and former Air Force officer, helped Mr. Scruggs incorporate the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. From its inception, the memorial faced strong opposition and skepticism, Mr. Wheeler said.

"Jan held a press conference and said he wanted to raise a million dollars to build the memorial," said Mr. Wheeler. "I first heard about it on the news when a reporter said he'd only raised $144.50. When I saw the wry smile on that news reporter's face, I had to give Jan a call. He came to visit me, and I told him, 'You can do this. There are people who will help make this happen.' And that's when he asked me to be chairman of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund."

From there came the work of deciding on the design of the memorial. The solution was a competition where more than 1,400 designs were submitted and judged by a panel of artists and designers selected by the memorial fund members. The winning design came from a student at Yale University, Maya Ying Lin.

"I saw the winning design, and I felt that the winner, Maya Ying Lin, had a great gift. I thought it was a work of genius," Mr. Wheeler said.

Many, including some veterans, did not agree. Even some who had been major supporters of the memorial from the beginning disliked the design, and there was a huge controversy, he said.

With memories of the war so fresh in the minds of many Americans, fund raising was slow and opposition high; however, the controversy surrounding the design bred publicity.

"Our opponents came at us as hard as they could, and they made the country pay attention. The fierce fight created a flow of funds, awareness and clarity. We quickly raised the $12 million needed to build the memorial." he said. "The opponents put the wall on the map. For that, I'm grateful."

The wall was built in three short years. On Nov. 13, 1982, it opened before a crowd of 150,000 people near the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.

"When the memorial was built, we began to realize the impact and beauty of what had been created," Mr. Wheeler said.

Today, there are 58,256 names inscribed on the memorial, including 2,583 Airmen. The names begin at the vertex where the walls meet and continue to the end of the east wall, toward the Washington Monument. They resume at the beginning of the west wall and end at the vertex. The names are arranged first chronologically by the casualty date, and alphabetically within the date, said Mr. Wheeler.

"So, when you go from a name like Young to a name like Andrews, the sun has gone down and then risen on a new day in Vietnam," he said.

The wall also reflects the jointness that military services have displayed in combat for decades. Names of members from the Air Force, Marines, Navy, Coast Guard and Army are listed together within the same casualty date.

"Men killed within the same fight are all displayed within the touch of one hand," Mr. Wheeler said. "If an Air Force officer flying a Skyraider was killed bringing in a strike, he is listed on the same day with the men he was trying to save. It shows an equality of service and sacrifice.

"On the other hand, when people visit the wall and see their own reflection in that black granite, and they touch the names of people who were killed in a fight that they might have been killed in, there's great power in that; and there's healing," Mr. Wheeler continued. "A pilot can go to a day when he knows he was in a fight and see the names of those he was supporting. While he knows these are members who were killed that day, he also knows there are a lot of names that are not on that wall. The Air Force played a major part in keeping names off the wall."

Several current Air Force and defense leaders are part of the Vietnam veteran legacy responsible for keeping names off the wall, Mr. Wheeler said.

"As a young officer, our Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne was busy with a team at the Air Force Academy putting the first 105 mm guns on the AC-130 gunships that flew over North Vietnam. They made life really rough for the bad guys," he said. "Tragically, Secretary Wynne's own brother, Patrick, was killed in an F-4 over Vietnam."

"Also, the Air Force chief of chaplains Maj. Gen. Charles Baldwin was a rescue helicopter pilot during Vietnam; he kept names off the wall. Deputy chief of staff of personnel Lt. Gen. Roger Brady and Pentagon comptroller official Dave Patterson flew forward air controller missions, which we call the angels on the soldiers' shoulders," said Mr. Wheeler.

Mr. Wheeler also praised retired Air Force Col. Robert Carter, the fund's executive director, and Terry O'Donnell, a 1966 Air Force Academy graduate, who are both Vietnam veterans, for their service.

Senators John Warner and Charles Mathias were also key supporters of the memorial, Mr. Wheeler said.

"They believed in the mission and stayed with us all the way. They made all the difference," he said.

The wall speaks to the present as much as to the past, Mr. Wheeler said. Almost daily, sons and daughters who have followed in their parents' footsteps and answered the call of military service visit the memorial. "They are saying, 'Dad, I'm heading to combat,' or, 'Dad, I am home,'" he said.

The men and women who serve in today's military and fight today's war ensure the legacy of those whose names are on the wall lives on, Mr. Wheeler said.

"I'm so grateful for the privilege of having been a part of the building of the wall. It's a privilege for a trooper to ask an officer for help, and that's what Jan did. He trusted me with his dream, and we got it done." (Courtesy of the secretary of the Air Force public affairs office)