Vietnam Veterans' Week, May 28-June 3, arrives when Americans are beginning to come to terms with this country's most divisive foreign war. But for many Vietnam Veterans, the tributes, the wreath layings and lofty words are filled with a caustic irony .

Stephen Zardis though he made it back whole from Vietnam. He returned 10 years ago. He was a college major in business administration when he enlisted. He felt it was his duty. "I was a third-generation warrior," he says caustically. When he returned, Zardis searched for something more meaningful than business. For six years he was a social worker who helped emotionally disturbed children. Life was going alone fine.

Then one December day in 1975 Zardis felt a numbness in one hand. Then both hands and feet went numb. By the summer of 1976, he was walking very clumsily. Neurological tests proved nothing. Zardis though he was losing his mind. "I had had a fairly hard time in the war. I remember a huge truck, filled with green body bags, big stacks of dead Marines. From the bottom of the bags stuck these big Marine jungle boots." It was an image he could not blot out. Maybe there was some psychological factor for his problems. The psychiatrist told Zardis he was as sane as he was.

In the spring of 1977, Zardis was diagnosed as having multiple sclerosis. By September he was using two crutches and a brace. On his 30th birthday in January of 1978, he got his wheelchair. The speed with which MS is wasting his body puzzles doctors. So they call it "atypical MS."

Zardis is convinced his is a more sinister legacy. He feels he is victim of Agent Orange - the defoliant that rained on Vietnam for years. A significant component of Agent Orange is 2,4,5-T which contains tetra-dioxin - one of the world's most deadly chemicals. A single drop, if it could be divided equally among 1,000 people would kill them all. Agent Orange could topple a 150-foot hardwood tree in two days. Zardis says some of the areas he was in in Vietnam were so denuded that "it looked like the surface of the moon."

Just two months ago the Environmental Protection Agency ordered an emergency ban on 2,4,5-T. A study showed a "significantly higher" rate of miscarriages in Alsea, Ore., soon after the forests were sprayed with the herbicide. The emergency ban will remain in effect for an estimated two years while hearings are held.

Scientists have known for years that tetra-diaxin causes birth defects and tumors in animals. "Now we have human evidence," said Steven Jellinck, assistant administrator of EPA. "We have dead fetuses."

Vietnam veterans have filed class action suits in Chicago and New York, seeking billions of dollars on behalf of the 4.2 million veterans who were in combat or passed through Vietnam and, according to one VA official estimate, could possibly have been exposed to Agent Orange. From 1962 to 1971, 18.85 million gallons of herbicides were sprayed over South Vietnam, according to Paul Haber, M.D., assistant chief medical director for the VA.

"It's extremely toxic, no question," says Haber. "The problem is in trying to determine long-term effects, and if the ailments cropping up could indeed be due to that exposure. It is a complicated and complex problem and no single lab test can prove this." Many of the symptoms that critics attribute to Agent Orange could be caused by many other factors, he says. One animal study claims that dioxin is stored in fatty tissue - and can therefore be released years later. The VA is trying to run tests to see if this is the case," says Haber. Even EPA toxicologists believe the veterans would have a hard time proving their case.

A handful of people like Steve Zardis, members of Agent Orange International (AOVI) are pushing hard nonetheless. Zardis works out of his one-floor apartment in Marblehead, Mars. using his disability checks to finance his 'office' - a table filled with growing files. He sold his car the other day to help with expenses. It takes Zardis two hours to dress himself. Eight months ago, Zardis put in a claim at the regional VA office for a full time nurse. It was rejected. "I couldn't show enough need-and yet they have me at the highest disability rate." He is appealing the decision.

Zardis pleads with reporters to include his address and phone number. (18 Merritt Street, Marblehead, phone 617-631-0512). "I don't want some sob story about me wasted in a wheel chair. I don't expect to live too long and I want to help anyone I can. This is affecting citizens here, not just veterans." Zardis says 7,000 veterans have contacted him with a myriad of diseases that could be caused by the dioxin. "The VA says it's received few reports of dioxin poisoning-but they haven't even notified anyone that there is a possibility."

Animal tests show that dioxin causes cancer, especially of the liver. Several widows of veterans who died of liver cancer have joined. Reutershan died last December, at age 28, of liver cancer.

The questions raised by Zardis will not go away quickly. This month's Disabled American Veterans' magazine emphasizes, "it now appears that possibly millions of American troops were exposed to defoliants that "may be causing health problems, birth defects and some deaths."

They stress the most common symptoms attributed to dioxin poisoning: numbness in figers, toes, arms and legs; nervous disorders: loss of memory, confusion, aggression, irritability; skin rashes, altered sex drive, cancer, birth defects. Claims for disability benefits based on dioxin poisoning will be difficult to substantiate, the DAV admits, but still urges veterans to write their legal headquarters.

And Zardis, in his home in Marblehead says, "How many Vietnam veterans have to die before they pay attention? That's what frightens me."

War Shaped Life

Tom Vallely was there, among the hundreds of war heroes, pelting ribbons and medals as the statue of Justice Marshall, throwing them at the Capital terrace. It was April, 1971. Many of the soldiers wept. At that same hour, President Nixon left the White House to visit Virginia with his daughter. After the ceremony, some tourists rushed to grab the shiny trinkets of war.

Today, Vallely, a handsome, broad-faced man of 30, says Vietnam shaped his life and his politics. He came back to help elect peace candidate Father Drinan and is now a political consultant. A Marine, Vallely was in Da Nang right after the Tet offensive. "At a young age you learn that life was very short. I was very good at what I did. Surviving.

"I saw maybe three or four reprisals, three or four incidences of people going crazy, but My Lai was an abberation. It could never happen in my unit. They would have shot Calley. One guy shot up a villager after his friend hit a booby trap and was killed. Everyone grabbed him and kept him from shooting more."

Vallely shows conflicting feelings about Vietnam. At times, he looks close to crying as he remembers the horror and his friends who did'nt come home. And yet he speaks of the inexplicable mystique of war. "Combat is very exciting, once you get over your fear. Courage is reactive. You could be a coward 15 minutes later. I know times when I was a coward, but I got the silver star, too."

Vallely charged a machine gun; popping signal smoke grenades to screen himself until he could craw close enough to knock out the machine gunner. "Two grenades thrown at didn't go off." A grin spreads, "Heyyyy, what can I say? I've got a guardian angel."

He thinks about the war a lot, and thinks that movies like "Coming Home and "The Deer Hunter" serve a purpose.Most veterans interview are, in fact, surprisingly uncritical of the movies. Whatever the flaws they believe, as Vallely says, "the movies are beginning to tell the public what it is like to be a veteran. People who want to help veterans won't be organizing in a vacuum. It makes an impact. Maybe the veteran as victim is now 'chic.' But so what? So is everything else in the United States."

Others are worried that the new media awareness is just a fad. Stephen Zardis says, "It's as if they've run out of things relevant to make movies about so now they re doing us. It's sort of like the 'slow-newsweek' syndrome."

Fight to Win

It is hard to find any veteran today who thinks we should have been in Vietnam. But all the veterans interview - from colonels to grunts - still chafe at the way it was fought. Once there, they felt they should have been allowed to fight "an all-out war, fight win."

Retired gen. Richard Sweet was a lieutenant colonel who saw his battalion slaughtered in and around Hue during the Tet offensive. Less than 200 out of 500 survived. "We should never have gone in without a national consensus that it was necessary. And, if you're going to spill our youths' blood, you don't do it with 'gradualism.' We should have aimed at the heartland of the North Vietnamese and applied all our resources." Sweet, 50, joined up when "America still had a love affair with the military."

After Tet, in 1968, "I knew we had lost." Asked if he ever said as much, Sweet replied with a smile "The Pentagon didn't listen to lieutenant colonels. War and killing are immoral. But there are greater immoralities. My job was to lead American soldiers. We were committed to a war and where they go, I go."

Some veterans still smolder with anger at the doves; they play back the war as if caught in a time warp. Dr. Homer "Butch" House was a Green Beret in Vietnam from 1966 to 1967. He reenlisted for another tour. "I was more comfortable, felt fulfilled in the Army. I didn't feel comfortable being a civilian.

"I worked with amputees and paraplegics at Walter Reed - and I just couldn't believe those peace demonstrators. A 'vocal minority' made it impossible to stay and defend the borders and eliminate infiltration. The draft dodgers and those who went to Canada were chicken, okay?

"Look, our prisoners were atrociously treated - beaten, tied up for weeks. Using napalm? Dealing in an underground war, how do you get people out of tunnel? You burn them out. There were 6-year-olds wheeling bombs into our areas!

"Look at those dumb sons of bitches now. Fighting another war. They're totally incapable of governing themselves. There's no question in my military mind they were much better off when we were there."

House speaks bitterly of the public reaction to Vietnam veterans. "It's a terrible thing when a guy comes back and nobody's proud of him."

Against the War

Eddie (not his real name) was a Green Beret also, but there the similarity ends. He came back as a Vietnam Veteran Against the War. Eddie has bad memories. Suicides - "a guy shot himself an hour after New Year's Eve, 1971" - pals on heroin and speed, atrocities. "One guy on downs started shooting in' up the camp.The MPs come and got him. I took heroin. Never shot; snorted it. I seen a guy from New York - I got this picture, you'll love this." He faded photograph shows a soldier on a bunk, holding something to his nose. "He's snorting heroin before going to guard duty." Eddie's voice is a burned out mumble. He came home and got busted for marijuana. That record affected his job chances, he said. While unemployed, "I got in with a bad crowd. Started doing a lot of dealing."

Eddie joined the Green Berets, out of curiosity and for God and country and my father who was career military, and because I didn't want to go to jail." He laughs derisively. He has been good at track. He has dark hair, a stubble of a beard and says he is trying to pull his life together.

"I just wanted to get out of Vietnam. I'd seen people abused. I had a jeep and I was chauffering some guy involved in congress and his wife. She was goin' on about, oh boy, she had a ride on a helicopter. It was a big game to them. It made me sick.

"One day I'm thumbin, and the MP picks me up. He's supposed to be so law abiding. We were going down this narrow road he beeped the jeep horn and bumps a motorcycle off and these Vietnamese on it fell down. We went through another town and the same thing happened. The third time really upset me. That time the two young Vietnamese kids on a motorcycle who worked in the military base. One of 'em died. I can still see his head hit the side of the jeep. The MP tells me if I'm questioned to say he was only going 30 miles an hour and lost control of the jeep. I didn't. I told what I saw, but I don't know if anything happened to him. He was a career soldier."

Eddie worked as a volunteer at the heroin desk of a VA office. "So many guys got messed up. The VA wouldn't recognize the problem at first. They understood alcoholics." (The number of severe alcoholics among Vietnam Veterans increases each year, according to VA statistics. Psychological problems are paramount. The suicide rate is high. Of 152,000 admissions to VA hospitals, the principle reason was mental problems; 66,518.)

Eddie says, "I was deeply involved in dealing from 1971 to 1976. Made a lot and lost a lot. The coke got so bad my nose was bleeding. The Green Beret stuff impressed this smalltime mob I was workin' with. I once delivered fourds of coke (about $60,000).

Eddie got scared for his life and got out. He is married now. "I'm actually working at my first real job." He drives a truck for $200 a week, is thinking of moving West and starting over. 'I lost a lot of time. A lot of time."

Schmaltz and Patriotism

Paula Rubin bubbles on, for she has just discovered the Vietnam veteran. A graphics designer, Rubin designed a poster for an ad hoc committee for Vietnams Veterans' Week (May 28 through June 3). "I marched in every moratorium.I was such a protestor of Nam. 'The Deer Hunter' or 'Friendly Fire' - is that what's waking us up?" Her poster motto: "Let's Finally Bring The Vietnam Veteran Home." It is schmaltz and patriotism time, plus some guilt. "I was so quick to put them down," Rubin says. "We saw them as The War - not as individuals."

They were individuals this past week, several veterans passing out red ribbons in Washington parks. An ad hoc group fo veterans and the Council of Vietnam Veterans are forming a network across the country now, pushing for better job and educational opportunities.

Ian Stirton, who works at the Federal Election Commission, said "We're not arguing the merits of the war; I just refuse to apologize any longer for having been drafted."

Horrible Reminders

Sherman B. Green said, "I'm a lawyer and unemployed like a lot of other veterans. The people who didn't go got the jobs. I went through all the right hoops when I came back - went to law school, readjusted and all that - and still can't get employed."

Some veterans take out their anger and frustration creatively - becoming writers, artists, defying their war wounds. Joseph D. Weaver, a paraplegic, shoots lyrical photographs of landscapes from his wheelchair.

Raymond J. Barkley, Jr., 29, wounded and a postal letter carrier, twists wire sculptures into horrible reminders of war. It took thousands of coat hangers and three years to construct a 6-foot body torn apart by a bomb. "You can't get a better anatomy lesson than in Vietnam," says Barkley.

His works honor his dead and wounded friends. "It is necessary that the public understand the memories our veterans brought home with them."

George L. Skypeck was wounded in the Tet offensive. "I still have nightmares every night. Without my art, I would have serious problems." He, too, cannot forget the friends who died.

Skypeck works in pen and ink and angry poetry ". . . where the cold fingers of Death's bony hand silently rapped the candence of persistent loneliness on once gentle hearts.. ." CAPTION: Picture 1, Former Marine Tom Valley; by Harry Naltchayan; Picture 2, Vietnam sculpture by veteran Raymond J. Barkley Jr.