CHARLES E. SMITH JR. can't figure out the unprecedented outpouring of emotion and the massive media blitz that has greeted the former hostages. He's a veteran who at the age of 18, arrived in Vietnam at about the time of the Tet Offensive in 1968 and spent two years as a medic trying to patch up people. He came home to find his young marriage in a shambles and his mind a mess. His wiry body taut as steel as he talks.

"I feel like a fool," he says. "I feel really stupid. I fought in a war for my country. But I've had to do a lot of lying the last 10 years just to get work. I don't have nothing to show for it. I'm not with my family, I don't have a job. Everybody has so much sympathy for them but I can't get anybody to help me. I don't understand it. It just doesn't make any sense."

Smith and other Vietnam veterans like him who have spoken out are right in feeling that they were virtually ignored by the American public. There is a sharp contrast between our treatment of the hostages and our treatment of the Vietnam veterans. One group gets yellow ribbons and another gets a street corner to stand on. And now that the hoopla has died down a bit, maybe we can look at this situation more clearly.

I wanted to tell Charles Smith that he and others were ignored because there was ambivalence in the national consciousness after this second most unpopular war in our history. What happened wasn't Smith's fault. He did what he was told to do because that is what soldiers do. Still, as Veterans Administration director Max Cleland, who lost both legs and his right arm to a hand grenade in Vietnam, once wrote: "The veterans . . . never had a ticker-tape parade. They were not often considered heroes. In fact, by many they were considered co-conspirators in some terrible escapade. No wonder so many of them feel confused, even guilty."

The former hostages inspire an emotional national celebration because, by contrast, it affords the country the exact opposite -- an opportunity for unmixed patriotism. No matter how one feels about Jimmy Carter, the shah, the ayotollah or oil, on a human level, one winds up feeling good that after 444 days, people many Americans thought they might never again see alive emerged as from the dead.

As hard as it is for him, Smith must try to see that at a human level, that is big drama and that's why the hostages got largely justifiable press play. There were only 52 of them, and their drama was played out in installments in the national media, with an unprecedented, made-for-television ending. By contrast, the television brought us Vietnam in scattered horrid talks each night with dinner. And about 2.5 million persons served in Vietnam.

The embassy employes in Iran were Americans working for their country, doing their job, just like the Vietnam veterans. But their safe release ends in a victory for this country -- finally -- that is not an ambivalent one.

I have nothing but respect both for the hostages and the veterans. To me, both groups are remarkable human beings who went up against superhuman odds that weak mortals like me can imagine only with horror. I share, too, some of the blame for the treatment of the Vietnam veterans; I was among the giant chorus of those who cried out that it was an immoral undertaking and that opinion has not wavered.

So the vets are doubtless double victims. And that is a great national shame.

In one sense, the situations were identical: the United States was Goliath against David in both Iran and Vietnam. In each instance, America's image was tarnished. But the Vietnam veterans bear our added guilt that not only were they shot up and crazed for their patriotism, they were shot up and crazed in vain. The Vietnam veterans represent honor lost; the former captives represent honor in part regained.

Then, too, there's a related problem with the vets. In all such wars, the lowest socioeconomic strata of the society wind up being the ones who do the fighting. This group was disproportionately black, disproportionately poor. Thus, many vets present a troublesome situation to a country that wishes to forget, not to remember.To balm their wounds, America has to solve other equally knotty problems -- unemployment, economic disparity, racism.

Charles E. Smith Jr. is the epitome of this dilemma and a double victim of the paradox. What is painful scar tissue to some is an open sore to him. He thinks America has rubbed salt in his wound. I do, too. It is one of those paradoxes of history that knows neither perfect heroes nor perfect villains.