How the Vietnam Memorial came to be. Drama tells saga of a veteran who overcame enormous obstacles

To Heal a Nation NBC, Sunday, 9-11 p.m. Actors: Eric Roberts, Glynnis O'Connor, Laurence Luckinbill, Brock Peters. Writer: Lionel Chetwynd, based on the book by Jan C. Scruggs and Joel L. Swerdlow. Producer: Robert M. Sertner. Director: Michael Pressman. Ever since the conflict ended in Vietnam, the soldiers of ``Nam'' have had to fight for recognition of their contribution. Probably because they fought a losing battle, the nation for a long time seemed to want to block them out of its memory, to forget their sacrifices, and ignore their problems. But eventually the stark, controversial Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C., was built as an amazingly effective reminder of the sacrifice of these veterans.

Now, in a superb Memorial Day dramatic special, NBC digs deeply into the feelings of the forgotten veteran by telling the harrowing tale of how the memorial came to exist. Based on the book of the same name by Jan C. Scruggs and Joel L. Swerdlow, ``To Heal a Nation'' is the story of Mr. Scruggs's obsession with the fact that the public - including himself - was starting to forget even the names of those who had given their lives.

So, starting in 1979, without any fund raising or political experience, he announced plans to raise $1 million for a memorial. Eventually, Scruggs managed to find support from all sides of the political spectrum - those who supported the war in Vietnam as well as those who opposed it - but only after battles with the Washington bureaucracy as well as veterans who disapproved of the monument's unorthodox prizewinning design. The memorial was opened to the public in 1982.

Since that time it has become one of the most beloved monuments in Washington, with long lines of visitors searching for the names of their relatives and friends, and caressing the inscriptions in the black marble. The existence of this simple roll of honor has done a great deal to help heal a nation embarrassed by its own uncertainty about that questionable war.

According to Scruggs, his effort was a populist one. ``I hope our story will remind people that individual efforts do make a difference and inspire people to continue to do things on their own,'' he says.

He declares that he was driven to see the project through, despite the seemingly impossible odds. ``When you make people remember, you're keeping a piece of history alive. The Vietnam experience is one we would be unwise to forget.''

Eric Roberts portrays Scruggs with an unforgettable kind of tortured energy. The story is often stilted, simplistic, and awkwardly episodic. And, of course, from the beginning we all know how it ended. But it still has a powerfully moving impact as it tells the story of one man's crusade to engrave the names of 55,000 Americans in their nation's memory.

``To Heal a Nation'' is perfect Memorial Day fare. It carries an important message for every day, too.

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