ORLANDO – Jan Scruggs recalled that just two months ago, Americans across the country were uniting to honor members of the armed services for Veterans Day.
“It was a wonderful day in Orlando, and all over the country,” Scruggs said as he stood in the northeast corner of Lake Eola Park.
And yet, not long afterwards, he got the news, about a tragic death that had happened overseas on that day. The U.S. Military announced that Theodore B. Rushing, 25, of Longwood, was killed after his unit was attacked by an improvised explosive device. He had joined the army in March of 2011.
“Theodore Rushing, private first class in the Army, lost his life on Veteran’s Day in Afghanistan,” Scruggs said, a reminder of the enormous sacrifice that soldiers are willing to make in the defense of this nation.
“Courage doesn’t mean you are not afraid,” Scruggs said. “Courage just means you can look your fear in the face, and do what you have to do.”
This morning, Scruggs – a motivational speaker who served as a corporal in the 199th Light Infantry Brigade, and the founder of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial – was in Orlando to take part in a ceremony called “The Wall that Heals: Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Call for Photos.” It’s a national campaign to locate photos of the 58,272 service members memorialized on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. At the Lake Eola event, the guest of honor was The Wall that Heals, a traveling half-scale replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, on display at the park for city residents to view.
As the VFW Post 2093 Band performed patriotic standards like “God Bless America,” Scruggs joined Mayor Buddy Dyer to pay tribute to those who had served in one of this nation’s longest, and most controversial, wars.
It’s a period, Scruggs said, that a lot of young people are only vaguely aware of.
“It was a very bitterly divisive time, our involvement in Southeast Asia,” Scruggs said. “We know as well that four out of 10 Americans were not even born during the Vietnam War. Time moves on.”
Dyer said a lot of credit for this event should go to the city’s Veterans Advisory Council, which organized it as a fitting tribute to the soldiers, men and women alike, who died serving in the Vietnam War.
“Today we remember their commitment, we remember their dedication,” Dyer said. “Thank you for your service to our country.”
During the course of his graduate studies, Scruggs came up with the idea of a memorial to honor the veterans of the Vietnam War, and began raising money to get it built. He started with $2,800 of his own money and he eventually raised more than $8 million from private donations. The memorial was dedicated in November 1982.
“It’s taken quite a while and quite a bit of personal investment, too,” Scruggs said, noting that many of the names on the wall are people sent to the war from Florida.
“There were nearly 2,000 from Florida and nearly 100 from Orlando, which at the time was a small town, not like it is today,” he said.
The memorial honors them for the tragic sacrifice they made.
“We appreciate what they did,” Scruggs said. “But when you think about it, this shows the high cost of war. It will bring the people alive, in a sense, all the people who died in the war.”
But having a memorial doesn’t mean the honor and tributes go solely to those who served in Vietnam, he added, noting that the memorial should also serve as a reminder of the great courage and dedication that the soldiers serving in the war in Afghanistan are demonstrating today.
“We’re all praying for them and hoping that they make it back,” he said. “That’s why we’re here today.”
Paul Hay, chairman of Orlando’s Veterans Advisory Council, said it was an honor to have the replica of the memorial at Lake Eola.
“This is quite a historical event we’re having here today,” he said. “This represents something we really have to remember, the Vietnam War.”
Retired Veteran Richard Ortega urged the crowd to take a moment to remember all veterans who had lost their lives defending this nation.
“To keep America free, we ask that you stand for a moment of silent meditation, please,” he said.
There is now a major fundraising effort under way to build an underground education center next to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, that will place faces and stories with the names etched in the black granite known simply as The Wall. Scruggs wants it provide interactive exhibits and primary source materials to help visitors better understand the impact the Vietnam War had on servicemembers’ families, communities, and hometowns. That’s why he’s collecting the photos.
Scruggs urged anyone who lived through the Vietnam War era in the 1960s and 1970s who lost a loved one in the conflict to search their family albums to see if they have photos of that soldier to contribute to this program.
“We hope to get more from Orlando,” he said. “We need another 70 or so.”
That effort is ongoing, Scruggs said.
“Everybody who visits this education center will get a dog tag with someone’s name on it – perhaps Theodore Rushing’s — and on the back it will say ‘He Did his Duty, Now Will You Do Yours?’ “
It will be given to visitors to encourage them to go back to their community and do something positive that improves the lives of the people living there, “standing up to a bully, something as simple as that,” Scruggs said.
Most of all, he thanked the city of Orlando for taking part in this effort.
“I want to thank everybody for the opportunity to be here today,” Scruggs said. “Courage is willpower.”
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