Vietnam veterans say a hawkish congressman of World War II vintage who controls the House Veterans Affairs Committee patronizes the younger vets and then gets in the way when they need help.

Rep. G.V. "Sonny" Montgomery (D-Miss.) is fast replacing the Veterans Affairs Department as the thing vets most love to hate.

Montgomery served in World War II and Korea and supported U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Some veterans of that unpopular war now say Montgomery lords over them like a stern parent.

Congress has grown more amenable to Vietnam veterans, in part because it is the politically prudent thing to do. Movies such as "Platoon" and "Born on the Fourth of July" have aroused public sympathy for the Vietnam vets and their post-war needs. And Congress now has a growing number of Vietnam vets in its ranks.

Even in the executive branch, snubbing Vietnam vets is no longer the norm. Edward J. Derwinski, the first Cabinet-level secretary of Veterans Affairs, is making friends among the vets. His stock went up last month when he declared that exposure to Agent Orange, the defoliant widely used during the Vietnam War, may cause cancer. Veterans groups had been looking for that acknowledgment for a decade. It means they can gain compensation for Agent Orange-related illnesses.

The Agent Orange issue has done more to alienate Montgomery from the Vietnam vets than any other matter. He believes there is no conclusive proof that Agent Orange causes cancer, and he fought for years against veterans' efforts to win compensation. Derwinski's gesture leaves Montgomery looking like the bad guy.

Montgomery's supporters argue that he has done plenty for the vets. But by controlling his committee with an iron fist, he forced the vets to work hard for recognition of Agent Orange as a carcinogen.

Last July more than 50 members of Congress wrote to Rep. Douglas Applegate (D-Ohio), asking him to hold a hearing on benefits for Agent Orange victims. Applegate chairs a compensation subcommittee of Montgomery's Veterans Affairs Committee, but Montgomery controls the subcommittee staff.

Applegate did not get the letter asking for a hearing until October. And when it finally arrived on his desk, it was attached to a draft response from the staff saying it was too late in the congressional session to schedule a hearing.

Sources told our associate Scott Sleek that Applegate was furious. Other members of Congress who wanted the hearing suspected that Montgomery's loyalists on the committee staff deliberately held up the letter to avoid a hearing. Undeterred, Applegate held the hearing this spring.

Montgomery apparently is knows when to give in. He saw the popularity of Derwinski's decision on Agent Orange, and he did not dispute the decision. Now he is singing a new tune, and he says the issue should be left to the VA, not Congress.

Montgomery's backers say the problem between him and the Vietnam vets is simply a slight generation gap and that the younger vets distrust him because of his hawkish stance on the war.