They weren't professional artists when they left for the war in Vietnam. How could they have been? They were straight out of high school, most of them, and they were drafted because they weren't studying art--or something else--in a college haven.

But the feelings of these future artists about the war welled up and burst forth in myriad ways: in paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs and poems, 156 of which are now assembled in a wrenching show at Washington Project for the Arts titled "Vietnam: Reflexes and Reflections."

Like the black stone Vietnam memorial on the Mall, this collective memoir will break your heart. It must be seen.

So great was the impulse to express himself that helicopter door-gunner James Fornelli used C-ration coffee and grass brushes to record images of his wounded buddies being carried off, of a child POW with hands bound behind his back, of an ominous forest in a painting titled "I Dare You to Enter."

Wayne Kline marked his 18th birthday in Vietnam by making a collage about the incredible irony of his situation. Formed like an astrological chart, "4-2-68" was made from newspaper clippings, suggesting not only a nation oblivious to the war he was stuck in the middle of, but a generation of fellow 18-year-olds for whom a major issue of the day was the closing of a school snack bar during exam period. He later turned the collage into a lithograph.

To cheer his parents, electrician F.J. Howery drew wonderful anecdotal sketches on the envelopes of his letters, designed to make light of the wretched heat, the daily miseries, the persistent yearning for home. The failure of his loving, intended deceptions is poignant.

There are other, not-so-subtle works dealing with the unrelenting horror: an impaled head titled "Early A.M. Visitation Compliments of V.C."; and "Honorable Discharge," black humor in cartoon form, showing a soldier being put through a meat-grinder. The show is haunted with images of children and women, often portrayed as madonnas.

This show is to be experienced, not judged.

"Most of the art was made before the artists were schooled, which is part of its power," says Sondra Varco, executive director of the Chicago Vietnam Veterans Art Group, which organized the show. And she's right. Stylistically, the work ranges from illustrational to semi-abstract, and in quality from pure amateur to high accomplishment.

Richard Yohnka's giant pastels of half-human, half-skeletal forms are the most sophisticated works, recalling Francis Bacon. But there is no less power in the 1967 painting titled "The Wound" by Ned Broderick, now a free-lance Chicago illustrator, who back in his teens made this awkward but poignantly symbolic image of a combat soldier emerging through a torn, bloodied American flag.

There are other body blows in the form of poems, one written in 1966, also by Broderick.

Hello new friend,

We meet and you are dead

All you'll ever know of me

Is copper-jacket lead

For six short bucks

Two meals a day

Over half the earth I came

To kill you--

Who never saw my face

And never asked my name

Only 10 percent of the works by these 45 veterans were actually made during the war. Most of the rest came as cathartic exercises later on, and were then stashed in attics.

"Many of their makers--40 of whom have since become professional artists, illustrators and art professors--never wanted to see them again," says Varco.

The group welled up, like the art itself, soon after Varco set out two years ago to find a gallery for an artist friend who had been in Vietnam. She discovered a Chicago policeman trying to do the same thing for a friend of his, and spontaneous combustion did the rest. The group had its first show--14 artists in all--at N.A.M.E. Gallery in Chicago in 1981, with some of the participants enlisting in response to ads placed in Shotgun News, Soldier of Fortune magazine and the New Art Examiner.

"Thanks to the national coverage of that show, artists from all over the country began sending me slides, writing letters and asking whether they could be part of our group," says Varco, who welcomes any professional artist who spent at least one tour of duty in Vietnam. "Now I have stacks of poetry, letters, photographs, diaries, tapes stashed in my den--a whole archive about that war and the people in it.

"Our hope is that this show will tour the country, and that other artists who have work they have never shown will feel free to come forth and show it, as Washington artist Ulysses Marshall did the night we opened at WPA. We also hope that ultimately the collection will find a permanent home as an archive where scholars will have access to the most important primary source about the Vietnam war--the soldier himself."

At the moment, there are no funds for such projects, and Varco is still trying to recover the $20,000 she advanced for costs incurred in a second Chicago show last November, sponsored by another group, The Vietnam Veterans Leadership Program.

To raise the $3,000 needed to get the present show to Washington, the participating artists of the Vietnam Veterans Art Group sold raffle tickets.

"It meant so much to them," says Varco.

Thirty of the artists drove, hitch-hiked or took the bus from as far away as Texas to attend the opening, and 17 veterans and their families shared three rooms at the Harrington Hotel that night.

Five continue to share one room, spending their days at the show, talking to visitors, awaiting the opening of a one-week satellite show in the rotunda of the Russell Senate Office Building on June 20. On Sept 12, that show will go on view at the Cannon House Office Building for two weeks.

Other invitations have been received, including one from the Lyndon Baines Johnson Memorial Library in Austin, Tex., but plans are uncertain.

"We'll go if we can handle the money end of it," says Varco. "Right now we can't afford to put out another dime."

This passionate archive can be seen at WPA, 404 Seventh St. NW, through July 31. It is open Tuesdays through Saturdays, 11 to 5.