There are today, living in North Carolina, Montagnards from the highlands of Southeast Asia. How and why they came to settle in a place so far from their homeland is part of the story of "Vestige of Honor" (Sunday at 9 on CBS).

One of the men behind the television account is co-executive producer Gerald McRaney, who seems attracted to military-oriented roles. In CBS' detective series "Simon & Simon," he played Rick, the brother who served in Vietnam. McRaney also produces CBS' sitcom "Major Dad," playing a Marine officer stationed at a fictional camp in Virginia. The series reached No. 12 in weekly Nielsen ratings in December.

In "Vestige of Honor," he plays Chuck Phelan, a former Army Special Forces officer who helps a civilian rescue the staunch allies they had abruptly abandoned in 1975 in Vietnam. While hospital administrator Donald W. Scott doggedly battles governmental red tape, Phelan plots an unofficial mission to be carried out by his pals, former GIs who stayed in Asia.

Phelan, who left the Army and returned to the Patpong area of Bangkok to run a saloon, is a composite character, but is based largely on one man, McRaney said. Scott, played by Michael Gross, is a real businessman from Maine who had been area director for the Project Concern medical relief program in Vietnam.

The movie is based on Scott's trip to Thailand to honor a promise he made to the Montagnards, who went into battle with the Special Forces against the Viet Cong. When the Americans left, the hill people were left behind, vulnerable to their long-time enemies.

For years afterward, they were persecuted in Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. By the time Scott returned 15 years later, having learned that his translator was still alive, the Montagnard population of more than 4,400 during the late 1970s had dropped to 228, living in a displaced persons camp in Thailand. The translator, Ha-Doi (played by Harsh Nayyar), had hiked 700 miles from Vietnam through Laos and Cambodia to the camp. For nearly 17 years, the United States had refused to recognize them as refugees.

"He became very close to a lot of the people in the Special Forces and particularly where his hospitals were in the Montagnard tribal areas," said Gross. "He became allied with these people, even as many of his friends in the Special Forces did.

"Don Scott is a man of action," said Gross. "There's not a lot of bluster. He seems to have learned something from the Orientals; he has a little bit of patience. Don Scott's way is just to wear people down. People keep turning him down and he tries another way. He doesn't yell, he doesn't scream, he just keeps wearing people down, like Chinese water torture. Don Scott is a very strait-laced guy who makes the world work. I don't think he thinks of himself as a hero. He just gets things done. He has a moral direction in his life.

"Phelan, on the other hand, has no direction. I think that Phelan, poor guy, was all talk and no action. He was directionless, or his direction was bribery, alcoholism, prostitution. He can be listed as one of the casualties of that war. That's the way I looked at it."

Gross, seeking to showcase his talent beyond NBC's long-running "Family Ties" (he played Steven Keaton), analyzed his character this way:

"When I looked at the roles, I thought McRaney's character was very flashy, with all this talk and interesting turns of phrases. Don Scott is rather boring, I thought to myself. But I discovered that no, Don was interesting. Phelan, for all his bluster and banter, had his feet in cement. He wasn't doing anything, he wasn't going anywhere, he wasn't progressing as a human being. Scott, for all his low-keyed attitude, is a ball of fire; he doesn't burn things, he just melts them."

Gross described the Montagnards as "mostly five or six tribal groups who were known collectively to the French as the Montagnards, but who called themselves by different names and spoke various dialects. When they went into battle with the Special Forces, some of them used crossbows."

In talking about the movie, McRaney used the term that his character Phelan uses: 'Yards, a corruption of Montagnard (mountain people).

Many of the Montagnards settled in the Blue Ridge foothills of Charlotte, N.C., area, near Army Special Forces headquarters at Fort Bragg. The first group arrived on Nov. 23, 1986, under the sponsorship of Lutheran Family Service of North Carolina, which found sponsoring families, homes and jobs for them and for resettling Hmong tribespeople from Laos.

"A lot of Special Forces personnel retired to that area," explained McRaney. "Each family of 'Yards needed a sponsor in the States before they would be allowed in, so the sponsors were mainly Army Special Forces people. The Green Berets were taking care of their own. They {the Montagnards} made an adjustment quickly -- they are almost aggressive in their desire to fit in."

Montagnards who live in North Carolina worked with the filmmakers as advisers and were among the more than 700 extras on "Vestige of Honor." Other extras included Cambodians and Mayan Indians, as well as several former U.S. Special Forces soldiers. To overcome language barriers, director Jerry London relied on Ha-Kuhn, a Montagnard who is fluent in nine languages. Ha-Kuhn and Scott's translator, Ha-Doi, also appear in the film, although not as themselves.

"All the stuff in the refugee camp was built outside of Charlotte," said McRaney. "We asked them to double as Thai extras, which was okay, but when we wanted them to double as VC {Viet Cong} extras, they didn't want to. I explained to them that we were trying to tell their story, so they all finally came across."

Gross said, "This is one of those Vietnam stories that has yet to be told, really. The dislocation of their lives is still going on. One of their fervent desires is to be reunited with their families, and they hoped that this movie might help."

From his home in Brunswick, Maine, Scott, now a consultant and real estate developer, continues to help relocate Montagnards. His work on behalf of Amerasian children resulted in legislation introduced by Rep. Robert J. Mrazek and passed by Congress as the Homecoming Act of 1988, providing resettlement in this country for Amerasian young people and their immediate families.

Scott and his wife Marilyn (played by Season Hubley) also adopted a son from Saigon, a daughter born in Massachusetts and a son from India, now all teenagers. In the film, one son (played by Kenny Lao) accompanies him back to Southeast Asia.

In making the movie, said Gross, he once crossed the line from actor to participant.

"I knew what was going to happen to those people," he said, referring to the script. "But the story became rather personal. There was a moment when we pulled away from these people in the helicopter and we gained altitude and I saw that little knot of people standing on that shore, I just started to cry. McRaney sort of teared up, too. And I said, 'What a terrible thing to happen to those people.'

"I sometimes feel that if you want allies, you treat your old allies well and people form alliances with you because they trust you."

Phelan, who is first seen with Scott at a Montagnard tribal ceremony making them symbolic brothers of the tribe, has sunk from the ideal American soldier to the ugly American, a heavy drinker running a go-go bar in the Patpong district of Bangkok. But he pulls himself and some of his pals together for one last noble gesture: to get the Montagnards out of the displaced persons' camp. As the Montagnards board the plane that will take them to the United States, Phelan declines to go with them. But his eyes brim with tears.

"For me, it was just turning another page in his life," said McRaney. "I don't think he's ready to go home again. He's still living in Patpong, the 24-hour party. I think he'd gotten out of Vietnam, tried to make a go of it for seven or eight years and then returned -- that's me as an actor talking. The guys who come back and get into their regular lives -- they're finished with an experience like that. But you meet some expatriates who went through it, they're pretty much like Phelan, frayed around the edges.

"When we were developing the script, essentially we tried to take the best we have to offer, to take somebody who was that much of an American ideal. Phelan is sort of representative of what that experience put the whole country through. Now it's time to reclaim ourselves. You do get over it, but you don't do it without working at at.

"We're never going to fully recover from Vietnam, but we never fully recovered from World War II. World War II is the perfect example of a just war and still the scars are open. It doesn't matter if it's just or unjust. When all the civilized processes have failed and you have to go to war, it's uncivilized. Basically what it means when a situation like this happens, it means that the statesmen haven't done their job right."

For all his military-related roles (he is also producer of "Major Dad"), McRaney said he never served in uniform.

"I tried to join, but I had a wife and kid and they {the military} didn't want me. I have a lot of friends who did serve, and I saw the way people did treat them when they got back. I also saw a lot of exploitation on movies and TV. But people really got on the case of people who came back from Vietnam. And still they got on with their lives. The ones who didn't aren't the bad guys."

Gross, in a separate interview, concurred: "This history is still very much alive for displaced peoples who are still not living their full and useful lives because of what happened there."

McRaney said that during a recent visit here, he took wife Delta Burke ("Designing Women") to see some of the federal monuments. There was a moment when he was overcome with a sense of history and patriotism.

"I took her around the Jefferson Memorial and there was moonlight on the Potomac," he recalled, "and the corny son-of-a-bitch that I am, I read all the words that go all the way around the top, and you think back to those days, of having all those men living at one place and one time ..."