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Testaments to Reconciliation : Determined Veteran’s Mammoth Project Took Shape in Face of Heavy Opposition

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Times Staff Writer

Toward the end of NBC’s made-for-TV movie “To Heal a Nation,” the story of how the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington came to be built, a woman approaches a veteran tearfully. “I hated the war, and I still hate the war,” she says. “But I should never have hated you.”

The veteran is Jan Scruggs. “To Heal a Nation,” which airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on NBC, is his story.

Scruggs, now 38 and a law student at the University of Maryland, is the man behind the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a mammoth project which took shape against opposition from the government, the public and even some of veterans.

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Although recent feature films such as “Platoon,” “Hanoi Hilton” and “Full Metal Jacket,” as well as the CBS television series “Tour of Duty” have aroused sympathy for the Vietnam veteran, Scruggs’ efforts to erect a memorial for those who died were opposed in 1979.

In the book he co-wrote with Joel L. Swerdlow on the building of the memorial, Scruggs, an ex-infantryman, describes the Vietnam War as “an inflamed wound it hurts to touch.” He wanted to build the memorial, finally constructed in 1982, to heal that wound--and bring a country still divided over that war’s messy politics back together.

“I came home from Vietnam just after the Kent State fiasco (1970), when a bunch of kids were killed by the National Guard,” said Scruggs. “I just kind of came home personally to a different world than the one I had left.

“My friends from high school were now two years ahead of me in college, and they were involved in one way or another in the anti-war act. Back in 1970, if you were a Vietnam veteran who was 20 years old, you were a guy who was weird--or at best a sucker. People were unable to make a distinction between the war and the warrior. It was an era when anybody who had a uniform on was the bad guy.”

Scruggs hopes that the movie, like the memorial, will serve to bring together a divided nation.

Those involved in the film stressed that the memorial should not be looked on as a monument to the heroism of the Vietnam veteran, but rather as a memorial to their deaths; that’s why Scruggs thought it was so important that the simple wall of black granite be inscribed with all 58,156 names.

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The film, to be presented as part of NBC’s GE Theater, stars Oscar nominee Eric Roberts (“Runaway Train”) as Scruggs, with Glynnis O’Connor as his wife, Becky, and Scott Paulin and Marshall Colt as men who helped Scruggs launch the memorial fund-raising effort. Michael Pressman directed the teleplay by Lionel Chetwynd; Fran von Zerneck, Stu Samuels and Chetwynd are executive producers; Robert M. Sertner is the producer.

Director Pressman, 37, who was a Vietnam War protester, said he hopes the movie will show that “the Vietnam vet is living a very different tragedy” from those experienced by veterans of other wars. “They fought for a country that did not support them, in a war that made no sense. The greatest thing that could happen (from this movie) is that a veteran and a non-vet could hug each other, and share each other’s grief,” he said.

Scruggs said that he decided to build the memorial because “I couldn’t get Vietnam out of my system.” As he details in his book, he suffered nightmares of being back in battle. After his return from Vietnam he studied sociology as an undergraduate and went on to receive a master’s degree in education. During his graduate work, he explored the effects of delayed stress syndrome, which he believed afflicted many Vietnam vets because they were denied the opportunity to mourn their wartime experiences.

“The whole basis for the memorial was what happened to the Nazi concentration camp survivors,” Scruggs said. “These are people who, research has shown, go through life in a very sad and tragic way. The part that was most appealing to me was the survivor complex, the person who blames his own survival on the death of his friends. And because of that, you just don’t have a normal life.”

Eric Roberts, 29, said he was too young during the Vietnam War to take a political stand, but said he hopes the movie will help members of his generation appreciate the sacrifices of the soldiers.

Portions of the final scenes in which the memorial was unveiled were shot in Washington and in Pasadena where the film makers erected their own memorial. Many of the crowd-scene extras used in Pasadena were veterans or family members of veterans.

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In the film, the memorial’s plain, below-ground-level design in black granite, created by 20-year-old architecture student Maya Ying Lin, caused outrage and almost signaled the end of the project after one Vietnam vet dubbed it “the black gash of shame.”

“I was prepared to have no feelings, pro or con, just to accept the memorial as it was,” Roberts said. “Then I walked out of my trailer at 6:50 in the morning--I know because I had just switched to my real watch, not the prop watch--and the sun had just come across the reflecting pool, and it just caught the top of the wall.

“And I was alone with the wall, and its polished granite was like a mirror, and I was looking at myself in that mirror. Then I put myself out of focus, and the names into focus. And it came tumbling down on me that these were essentially boys who had come home in body bags. I understand now what Jan did, and it’s really quite glorious.”

Chetwynd, who struggled for 10 years to sell his “Hanoi Hilton” to Hollywood (it was finally produced by Cannon), is equally passionate about “To Heal a Nation” a project which he said was turned down by CBS and ABC. “I really hope it (“Nation”) speaks to the veterans’ community, to get out there and put their hands on the seat of power,” he said.

“I absolutely did not want to make a film about how (the memorial) was built, I wanted to make a movie about why it was built,” Chetwynd said. “It’s a why, not a how. It was a place to go and say, ‘I loved you, I knew you and you were mine.”

Chetwynd said he was encouraged by the positive response the film got at a recent industry screening in Hollywood. “I feel very secure in my own heart that they will think again before they characterize a another Vietnam veteran as a maniac,” he said. “This (memorial) is the way in which millions of veterans found their way out of that dark closet in which they had been hidden, a way of saying ‘I do not kill and rape women and hold up 7-Elevens.’ ”

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Scruggs hopes the movie will have ramifications beyond the Vietnam War experience. “There was another message, which is why I wanted to get into this whole crazy business of a TV movie, anyway,” Scruggs said. “I want the average person to understand that the average person has a lot more power and influence than they think they have. There are a lot of things that people can do if they’re willing to get out there and take those risks.”

Scruggs is currently at work on a new project: Raising funds to erect a memorial to police officers killed in the line of duty. He says he plans to come to Los Angeles in June to “raise a little hell with the movie industry” for depicting policemen and women in unflattering stereotypes.

He pointed out, however, that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is the project which will have the most lasting personal effect. “I guess that since I left this type of legacy, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial--the irony is that now that I’ve had enough to do with Vietnam, it will never leave me for the rest of my life,” he said.

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