Jan Scruggs of The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall: Life and Leadership Lessons I Learned In The Military

Authority Magazine Editorial Staff
Authority Magazine
Published in
7 min readMar 3, 2022

… Being in the military taught me to “Struggle Well” against the odds. I saw Americans show courage when facing personal danger. The importance of teamwork is paramount in a combat environment. Serving the nation was a duty.

As a part of my series about “Life and Leadership Lessons Learned In The Military”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jan Scruggs.

Jan volunteered for the US Army in 1968 and was sent to Vietnam in 1969 as an Infantryman and received the Purple Heart, the Combat Infantry Badge, and an award for gallantry. Upon his return, he began a research project in graduate school on Post Traumatic Stress and testified before Congress in support of establishing the now nationwide Vet Center Program. From that, his dream for a national memorial on the Mall in Washington DC was born. Jan is the founder of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?

I grew up in rural Bowie, Maryland. I was the son of a waitress and a truck driver; my parents divorced when I was fourteen. My life became a bit unstable after that, living back and forth with one parent to the other. After graduating high school, I was restless and thought that volunteering for the Army was my best alternative.

And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?

I remain involved with my life’s work, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. I enjoy visiting there, meeting visitors and school groups. I also stay busy conducting interviews on my podcast, Vietnam War Stories: The War and the Wall. I enjoy writing and am currently writing my memoir. I am now fortunate to be living an easy lifestyle in Annapolis, Maryland, the sailing capital of the USA, and enjoy many friends here. My hobbies include boating and skeet shooting. I also do some speaking as well to groups visiting Washington DC.

Can you tell us a bit about your military background?

I volunteered for two years in the Army in 1968 at age 18. My two years were filled with extremes of both boredom and excitement. I was trained as a rifleman, and I spent my time in Vietnam with the 199th Brigade.

Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?

I saw a dozen US soldiers die on January 21, 1970, despite all our efforts to save them. Those of us that were witness to the explosion and fire on an ammo truck risked our lives to evacuate the wounded. Sadly, that day, I learned All Blood is Red. Latinos, Whites, Blacks, Asian Americans. I saw the best of American courage on that day with GIs, most of whom were draftees.

I’m interested in fleshing out what a hero is. Did you experience or hear about a story of heroism, during your military experience?

On May 27, 1969, we were in the deep jungle of Vietnam. Claude Van Andel of Nebraska was an experienced infantryman almost finished with his tour. He was asked to inspect a wire that was discovered, which led to a huge mine mounted in a tree. Claude wanted the patrol to stop, but was ordered to continue on. He did not have to, but he took the lead of the patrol. The explosion was loud. Claude was dead. We put him in a body bag after the fighting ended.

Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain? Can you share that story with us? Feel free to be as elaborate as you’d like.

Unlike a celebrity, a hero, to me, is a person who puts his or her life on the line or takes other risks to save others. The story of Claude is one example. One who faces danger, pain or difficulty. The hero is willing to endure pain or intimidation to help others. A hero is unselfish and brave.

Does a person need to be facing a life and death situation to do something heroic or to be called a hero?

Bravery in soldiers is important to recognize. Others show courage and leadership in different ways by starting endeavors to help the homeless or battered women. They may not be risking life and limb, but see people in need and reach out to help them. They are everyday heroes too.

Based on your military experience, can you share with our readers 5 Leadership or Life Lessons that you learned from your experience”? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. There is no “I” in Team. You will not succeed unless you have the right team.
  2. Keep Your Team Motivated. Give your team credit for the progress made.
  3. Be Slow to Anger. Take a deep breath before seeking a confrontation.
  4. Be Quick to Apologize. A quick apology can end hurt feelings.
  5. Lead by Example. Work harder, longer and smarter to attract others to your plan.

Do you think your experience in the military helped prepare you for business? Can you explain?

Being in the military taught me to “Struggle Well” against the odds. I saw Americans show courage when facing personal danger. The importance of teamwork is paramount in a combat environment. Serving the nation was a duty.

Surviving the jungle facing a skilled enemy helped me reset my life. I gained skills in the Army that no college degree could have prepared me for.

As you know, some people are scarred for life by their experience in the military. Did you struggle after your deployment was over? What have you done to adjust and thrive in civilian life that others may want to emulate?

PTSD is a common reaction to an event with extreme danger. Some people, like me, when I first returned from Vietnam, self-medicated with alcohol or drugs. I had PTSD and came close to shooting myself in 1972. I took a novel approach by becoming an expert on the disorder and doing research. I wrote articles in the Washington Post and testified before Congress in 1977.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I’m excited about celebrating the historic 40th Anniversary of The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall this year. I am engaged in a number of activities that will perhaps help people grasp the enormity and impact of current world events.

It is a pleasure to host my podcast, Vietnam War Stories — The War and the Wall, and to interview veterans who discuss their experiences in the Vietnam War Zone. I also have established a web site, Founder of the Wall, to teach about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. History is important. As the founder of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, much of my life has revolved around education about the Vietnam War. Our nation struggles forward, as always, with optimism and the Can Do Spirit!

What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?

Always show enthusiasm and courage.

What advice would you give to other leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

Have clear missions and competent people assigned to each mission. You will need a second in command. Choose wisely.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

John P Wheeler III was a graduate of West Point, Harvard and Yale Law School. I met him in 1979 when I first announced the effort for the memorial. He worked to get me what I needed — a team of talented people. Several were grads of Harvard Business School. Wheeler was an emotional and brilliant person who worked with great energy. An unsolved mystery, he was found murdered in Delaware in 2011.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

My life’s work has been building The Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The Wall has a universal message of the human cost of war. The sea of names on The Wall brings over five million visitors annually. The Wall will forever remember these soldiers and move people. It also shows that war should not be undertaken until a close review takes place. Historians need to be consulted. Nations like Afghanistan have a history of fighting each other and defeating those like Alexander The Great, England and Russia, as one clear example.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I am greatly disappointed in America’s political discourse. The unity that preserves us as a free nation and as a light to the world is being dimmed. There is tribalism and even political violence. Some feel we even need a Civil War. Go to the Gettysburg Cemetery. There is nothing Civil about war. Instead, let’s accept others with different beliefs. I recall that Ronald Reagan would often have his political adversaries over for a cocktail in the Oval Office.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“If you are patient in one moment of anger, you will escape one hundred days of sorrow” — Chinese Proverb

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)

I would have lunch with Vladimir Putin to persuade him to seek economic opportunities for his people and bring an end to his military threats.

Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was truly uplifting.