Like so much of the nation, Washington seems to have done an excellent job of forgetting the war in Vietnam.
Although more than 50,000 Washingtonians served there, and 202 died there, and at least 25,000 Vietnam vets now live here, the city has paid them very little notice.
We hadno parades; we built no monuments; we paid no bonuses to those who returned, as 31 states did. Although the names of the city's World War Two dead are posted in the lobby of the District Building, the "Vietnamds" aren't.
Pretty shabby, one might conclude. But it's just a big a shame that so few of those who made it home from Vietnam, in however many pieces, are taking advantage of benefits they might easily receive.
Yes, it involves a tortuous journey through a bureaucracy - forms, visits, delays, hassles, all the joys we in Washington know so well. But this is a bureaucracy with a difference. It has the mission of fighting a bigger bureaucracy, the Veterans Administration, all on behalf of the little guy.
It is called the D.C. Office of Veterans Affairs. It is tucked into a back office, down a corridor and around a bend, at 941 North Capitol Street. It has a meager staff of 12, including secretaries, the same total it has had since 1953. And it is in a quandary: it would love to help more than the 32,000 people per year it now helps, but it finds Washington veterans indifferent.
The Vietnam vet seems especially indifferent, in the view of A. Leo Anderson, chief of the DCOVA.
"In Vietnam," Anderson said, "We had a new type of cat coming back. This man had his hangups, his feelings, his dreams. He tended to ask what society was doing for him. But he meant it in terms of jobs."
Jobs have been difficult to come by, and those that have turned up have tended to be low-paying. Moreover, in the last three years, the DCOVA, the Washington Urban League and the National Alliance of Businessmen have all abandoned projects aimed at meshing veterans with available work.
Private organizations run by veterans themselves have not fared much better. All three such groups listed in the D.C. phone book turn out to be out of existance Organization, run by and for D.C. veterans in jail, provides several basic services, but only to a few dozen men. And, obviously, they have other problems.
The "name" veterans organizations have been somewhat more effective, but not much.
A spokesman for the Veterans of foreign Wars said that not only don't jobs grow on trees, but his group is reluctant to duplicate job programs run by the VA. Officials of other organizations added that many D.C. Vietnam vets were not qualified for better jobs than they got.
"We still get kids in here who mark an X on their (signature) card," said Anderson. "Those are hard things to take. Cripe, your heart goes out the window."
But the illiterates are the exception. Most D.C. Vietnam vets were at least high schoold graduates when they joined the service, or were well on their way, Anderson said. After discharge, a large number chose to go on to college under the G.I. Bill.
But the G.I. Bill went the way of all flesh on New Year's Day. Now, Leo Anderson worries that his office may never see these veterans again, even if they get seriously sick.
The sick and injured, many of them World War II veterans, are the bulk of Anderson's "customers" now.He sees them "after the maturity of the guy starts to project itself. He starts saying, 'Gee, what did I miss?'"
Al Gavazzi, medical director for District 6 of the VA, which includes the Washington area, said he worries about the Vietnam vet not just because he isn't showing up for medical treatment now, but because there may be inadequate facilities when he finally decides to.
"We can meet the demand. I'm sure of that," Gavazzi said. "But the World War II veterans are getting older. A lot of them will require long-term hospitalization. There is never enough (hospital) space."
Even some D.C. Vietnam vets with war wounds do not seek VA medical treatment, Gavazzi said. "When you're a young person, I guess you don't realize how great these benefits are," he said.
One D.C veteran, still only 25, may have spoken for others when he explained why, despite a gunshot wound in his left leg that still bothers him, he has never sought free VA treatment.
"The Army never did anything for me except this," the man said, pointing at his leg, during an interview at his home on T Street NE. "Why should I hassle with all those forms and everthing? I had enough of that in 'Nam."
Leo Anderson has probably had enough of forms himself. But he is one man who can make them do what they are supposed to do. And as the saying goes, it's no money down, no obligation.