President Carter, in an emotional speech at a White House reception in recognition of Vietnam Veterans Week, said yesterday, "The nation has not done enough to respect, to honor, to recognize and reward the special heroism" of those who served in the most divisive foreign war in U.S. history."
The president said many view the Vietnam veterans as "unfortunate reminders of the war that was different" - waged without the "shared commitment" of Americans.
To offer one's life under such circumstances, "requires an extra measure of patriotism and of sacrifice," he continued. The war took those men who were "most unfortunate," he said.
They were, he said, "deprived of political influence, could not afford to be a student in college, (they were) the relatively inarticulate."
The East Room was crowded with 400 members of Congress, Vietnam-era veterans and their wives.
Some who had been in combat were disabled - in wheelchairs or limping, missing arms or blind. Some wore the Congressional Medal of Honor suspended on blue ribbons around their necks.
Others wore the red ribbon passed out in Lafayette Park by the Ad Hoc Committee of Vietnam Veterans who are pushing the administration for more substantive job training and re-adjustment programs."
Sustained applause followed Carter's last line: "We love you for what you were and what you stood for - and we love you for what you are and what you stand for."
The carefully picked crowd of successful veterans contained, nonetheless, its share of dissenters. There was strong applause from one corner when Carter said the statistics on the majority, who were assimilated when they returned, were "no comfort to those who have not been able to overcome the psychic and physical damage of war."
Carter looked up in shock when a shout came from the crowd.
"What are you doing about Agent Orange? Thousands of men are dying! We need an epidemiological study done on the Vietnam veteran."
Many applauded in recognition of the issue. Veteran Frank McCarthy was shouting about Vietnam veterans having filed class-action suits seeking billions of dollars on behalf of veterans who may have been exposed to Agent Orange, the defoliant sprayed over Vietnam for years.
Agent Orange contans tetra-dioxin, one of the world's most deadly chemicals. One herbicide component of Agent Orange has just been banned by the Enviromental Protection Agency. Carter said he agreed with McCarthy, president of Agent Orange Victims International, that a thorough study was needed.
Carter adroitly turned aside one audience interruption with humor. "We need to substantially expand the readjustment counselling service," he said. As one veteran yelled his approval with a "Yahoo!" Carter wryly continued his sentence, "obviously too long neglected." The audience broke into laughter.
Then Jack McCloskey, who was wounded in Vietnam and decorated for bravery, shouted, "It would be a dishonor if you let this week go by without trying to reaslistically deal with the combat veterans - the ones who still have problems." His voice quavering, McCloskey went on" "I want to come home again. There have to be programs to let me come home again." McCloskey works at a small counseling center for Vietnam veterans in San Francisco.
Congress soon is expected to pass a bill to pay for veterans' readjustment counseling.
"It's only for $12.2 million - that's just a drop in the bucket - and 15 years after the war started," said Tim Kolly, who was wearing his red ribbon. Kolly is an assistant to U.S. Rep. David E. Bonior, who helped pushed through the resolution proclaiming Vietnam Veterans' Week.
Rosalynn Carter, circulating among the guests, spoke to Lupe Saldana - who happened at the time to be passing out protest literature about the adminstration's support of Hispanic veterans.They spoke cordially in Spanish. Afterward Saldana said, "She told me she read the Bible in Spanish."
Many of the veterans at the gathering said they felt they had been "officially, finally, admitted back to the United States."
But Tyrone Bailey, a clerk with the National Park Service, said it would take more time truly to change attitudes and conditions for the veteran.
"Just one little ceremony and a 20-minute speech doesn't do it." CAPTION: Picture 1, Jimmy Carter unveiling design for stamp honoring Vietnam veterans, by Harry Naltchayan - The Washington Post; Picture 2, Jimmy Carter with Bobby Meuller, by Harry Naltchayan - The Washington Post