Vietnam memorial founder looks back on 30 years

(CBS News) WASHINGTON - It was 30 years ago, this week, in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial. A groundbreaking ceremony was held for a monument unlike any other - the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Known to many as "the wall," nearly 3.5 million people visit it each year. CBS Correspondent Barry Petersen went there with the vet who founded the wall - and pored through the decades of mementos left behind.

Jan Scruggs conceived the idea of building the Vietnam Veterans Memorial but he never dreamed so many mementos would be left by visitors to the wall that a warehouse would be needed to store them.

"When people leave things at the wall, people let go of their grief and that was what a lot of what this was about people saying goodbye," Scruggs said.

Some 300,000 items have been left at the memorial - a pair of boots, a letter about Henry Lee Bradshaw, hats, purple hearts, and many dog tags that used to be around the necks of the soldiers while they were in Vietnam.

Scruggs, a Vietnam veteran, started the memorial project with $2,800 of his own money. He went on to raise $8 million.

"When anybody died in Vietnam you just had a feeling nobody would ever remember," Scruggs said. "That's why I had to have their names up there."

There are more than 58,000 names - one of them is Lt. Col Anthony Shine. The Air Force pilot was listed as missing in action in 1972. His daughter Colleen Shine was only eight years old at the time.

When asked what it is like to see her father's name there Colleen said "I think one of the most amazing qualities of the wall is you see yourself in it I see my father's name here and he's no longer living and his legacy is living that reflection is me."

The wall is also for those too young to remember Vietnam but old enough to learn about the troops who died there.

On the day CBS News visited the Memorial, we found letters left by elementary school students -- one written by a sixth grader named Michael - was addressed to marine "Michael Vasquez."

It read, in part, "Thank you once again from Michael."

"Would you ever imagine 30 years later that a schoolchild named Michael would write a letter to a casualty of Vietnam and say thank you?" Petersen asked.

"It's an amazing thing," Scruggs replied.

For Jan Scruggs, remembering those lost was a comrade's debt of honor, and with every touch, and with every memory left behind - that debt is being paid.

For more information: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF) continues its mission to honor, educate and heal by building the Education Center at The Wall.