The veterans themselves seem confused by the communion beyond fellowship they experienced in Vietnam . . . the friendship, the honest human love is all they wanted to bring back from there, and it was the one thing they couldn't seem to hang on to. The guilt, the pain, the scars are intact. The lessons of friendship are lost. --Mark Baker, from "Nam, The Vietnam War in the Words of the Men and Women Who Fought There"

For more than 10 years after he came home from the Vietnam War, ex-Marine Corps Sgt. Quintin Carroll Evans said he wandered from city to city in a restless search.

"I didn't know what the hell I was looking for," said Evans, who was chosen to represent the District recently in a ground-breaking ceremony for the Vietnam War Memorial.

He is a slight-figured man with shoulders too broad for his frame, a man with graying hair and the gaze of someone older than his 32 years.

Evans said the last few years have been an odyssey that took him in and out of Veterans Administration hospitals, kept him roaming, changing jobs, dropping out of schools, taking drugs, drinking and fighting in bars, getting arrested, and attempting suicide. At one point, he re-entered a hospital "feeling like I had died."

Things got so bad, Evans remembers, he tried to kill himself by diving into into Baltimore Harbor.

But now, after months of therapy at several VA hospitals and more recently at a Capitol Hill center for veterans, Evans has come to understand his confusion. He says that much of his search was for the only positive feeling Vietnam gave him: a love born in combat, death and destruction that creates a special bond between fighting men. jump

Veterans of World Wars I and II and the Korean War share their victories, defeats and brotherhood through unit reunions and traditional organizations such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion.

Vets who fought in those three wars were welcomed home as victors. The wars they fought were popular despite heavy death tolls. And that glory still is remembered in late-night television movies of European and South Pacific battles.

But those who fought in Vietnam--most younger than their earlier-war counterparts, less educated and often poor and black--returned to a disapproving, sometimes hostile society.

Vietnam-era veterans say they have few places to turn to vent their post-combat emotions. Some of them shut their feelings away in shame; a few take out their rage against relatives, strangers or themselves.

For many of the veterans, the images of Vietnam live on--the dirt floor campsites, the beer parties, posing with a buddy for a picture near a sandbagged wall--but for some veterans, these are pieces of a puzzle that just won't fit.

Evans remembers feeling something special about each man in his reconnaissance unit. Many times at night they sat in the black void of the jungle, waiting for the enemy and possible death, afraid to make a sound or light a cigarette. They communicated by tugging on strings they tied to their hands to keep from losing each other in the darkness. The tugs also bound them together.

Those feelings superseded race and class differences, Evans said recently. His face quickened with anguish and bewilderment as he remembered one close buddy, "a blond white guy from Las Vegas. We used to talk about what we were going to do when we got back to 'The World.' And I liked him. He'd say: 'You're all right, I'm going to take you home to meet my folks.' "

Two weeks before Evans finished his 15-month tour in Vietnam, his friend replaced him as machine gunner on a hill Evans' unit had taken. That night, the hill was recaptured.

"We had to go back out," Evans said. "You could smell burning flesh, gunpowder . . . it smelled like death. I looked for my buddy. I saw his legs sticking out of the sandbags. His face looked intact, but I pulled him out by the boots. His head was pulverized, everything was liquid. I buried his brains," Evans said.

"That was the part I had been talking to. That was him."

Evans has been able to release the emotions from his wartime experience in group discussions such as those held at the Vet Center.

Located opposite the Marine Barracks on Eighth Street SE, the Vet Center is one of 117 psychological readjustment sites for Vietnam-era veterans under the VA's two-year-old program, Operation Outreach.

Thursday night rap groups there draw a mixture of men--black and white, professional and unskilled, gregarious and introverted--and sometimes their wives or girlfriends.

The vets say they come to the center because even after all these years they have trouble sleeping, keeping jobs, preserving their marriages, staying off drugs and alcohol and out of jail. They have trouble forgetting.

"We have a common bond," said one veteran who is trying to regain his government job. "How can anyone understand something like when you're out there in a monsoon and somebody has to hold a cover over you to eat or to crap? You and your buddy are stuck together on a lifeline."

Another, a law student, who used to feel alone, remembers going into a rage over something as small as "seeing a roach in the kitchen sink. A number of guys here, I feel close to. We haven't just talked about it, we shared problems."

The rap sessions are free-wheeling, unstructured and sometimes cause confrontations. Sometimes the vets talk about their guilt over friends who did not survive, and anger over the war's political implications.

But beneath their words of hurt and loss, anger and continuing turmoil, flows a certain nostalgia, a sense of something valued but lost. Many acknowledge they are looking for the sharing they had in combat and have not found since.

"When we were . . . in Vietnam, the guys in your unit, you automatically became very close to, because you depended on each other for your life, whereas back in the States there is no situation that warrants that type of relationship," said Vet Center director Donald Gooding, a professional counselor and former Marine. "I think it's typical for veterans who are having problems. That's what they are looking for. That's what they need."

Dr. Lee Crump, a clinical psychologist and assistant director of Operation Outreach, said that bonding "often is a key and critical component of the therapeutic process associated with the rap groups." About 106,000 Vietnam-era veterans have been counseled in Vet Centers since the program began two years ago, and Crump said that three out of four finish with less stress than before.

"When they sit alongside a fellow combatant in a rap group, there is an intense bonding of soul, heart and mind with someone that has shared a life-threatening situation, a horrifying one," Crump said.

"I felt like I wasn't alone no more," said Quintin Evans, who often articulates feelings that others in the rap sessions seem to have trouble expressing.

Mervyn Twyman, a Navy veteran and full-time volunteer counselor at the center, said: "To the people in our rap group Quintin is one that everybody looks up to, knowing what he did in Vietnam, what he's done since and knowing how he has had to fight since Vietnam just to survive in America."

Coming home, Evans said, he felt "out of place, like I didn't belong in America, like I belonged in Vietnam." When he met friends on the street, some said, "Where've you been?" or, "I thought you were in jail." If he told them he had been in Vietnam, they might ask, "How did you like it?" So he stopped telling people he had been to war.

"I joined the Marine Corps to earn my place in American society," Evans said. "I had the American dream, but it was only an illusion."

He joined the Marine Corps and went to Vietnam in 1967 when he was 18 years old.

"I knew I'd be going to Vietnam when I volunteered," Evans said. "I didn't know anything about Vietnam, except it was something I had to do, and that it was possible I would get killed."

Evans said he was "proud to be a Marine. I believed in what the U.S. was doing. I felt dedicated. There was no question about the pride and dignity.

"Reconnaissance is like this," Evans said, recalling the tense jungle patrols and entwining his fingers in a tight grip to illustrate the bond. "The relationships get pretty close. You train together, fight together--there is integrity in that.

"I did very well in the Marines," said Evans, who earned the Navy Commendation Medal by singlehandedly defending his 20-man unit from an automatic weapons and grenade attack by 40 to 60 Viet Cong. His patrol leader was killed and eight other Marines were seriously wounded, according to his citation.

When one of the enemy jumped into his foxhole and shot the machine gunner, he acted "immediately and with complete disregard for his own safety," the citation reads.

"We couldn't see anything, but we could smell the cordite from the grenades, or garlic or opium . . . the machine gun got blown up in my hand. I used a .45 .45-caliber automatic pistol ; it ran out of ammunition. I attacked him, and pistol-whipped him, then stabbed him, he wouldn't die.

"Finally, the sun came up. I was a bloody mess, they thought I'd been hit. I had been fighting hand-to-hand."

Echoing the resolve of many in his group at the Vet Center, Evans said his goal is to "salvage the rest of my life, to be constructive, to help myself and help others when I can.

"I feel like a great portion of my life has been wasted," said Evans, who now lives alone in a rented room in Southeast. He was laid off from his stock clerk job the same day he participated in the ground-breaking ceremony for the Vietnam War Memorial.

"For years I had no primary relationships. I like to love women and to have women love me, but during my courting years I was fighting a war. It took years to get myself together to have a relationship.

"I have a long way to go. . . . I still make mistakes, but I'm not isolated no more, with the support I get from the center, the comradeship, the love."