An image haunts my mind this Memorial Day. It is far afield from one other meaning of this day, when we herald the first swimming and picnic of the season and officially don our summer white shoes and dresses.
It is an image of a man whom I saw on one of those recent bright May days when the sun played on trees, even through the concrete and steel of downtown Washington. He was a muscular man who wore camouflage fatigues with a matching camouflage-patterned band tied around his forehead, and a black T-shirt.
He may have been a Vietnam veteran. He was standing, stiffly and self-consciously, in front of one of the new downtown office buildings, as if awaiting a friend or relative.
He seemed out of place, yet formidable, and his presence had an unsettling effect on the office workers scurrying about in their executive looks: suits and ties, crisp dresses, and briefcases.
People seemed to be fearful of what he might do. I confess to a sliver of apprehension myself.
In a real sense, his presence symbolized the mix of emotions left with us by the Vietnam veterans: guilt, fear, remorse.
The image that he represents is a reminder that while we have, in recent months, rightly paid attention to the 57,939 Americans who died in Vietnam and whose names are inscribed on the luminous black memorial on the Mall, we also need to pay some attention to the Vietnam veterans.
For as wonderful as the Vietnam veterans' memorial is, as cathartic as it was to join with the thousands of veterans who came to Washington late last year to parade and dedicate the memorial, it is too tempting to let that palliative be sufficient.
The Vietnam veterans came to pay tribute to the dead. We must pay tribute to the living.
Much of the recent attention that we have paid to the Vietnam veterans was wrested from us by the veterans themselves.
Ex-army enlisted man Jan Scruggs got the ball rolling for the memorial. His efforts unleashed a movement among the veterans, who raised money for the monument.
The veterans insisted on marching down Constitution Avenue. But the hostile reproach that they had felt for so long cannot be erased with a memorial and a march.
Now the American people, for whom Vietnam servicemen died, must help to heal the scars of the survivors and end their pain. After all, it was not these veterans' decisions that took the United States into the conflict in Vietnam, but decisions by our leaders who sent them to fight.
And yet, so many of their cries for help have gone unheeded.
Take Agent Orange, for example. Nearly 16,000 vets have asked the government to compensate them for health problems that they attribute to the herbicide sprayed by American forces to defoliate jungle battlefields, and half claim they have been disabled as a result, suffering from cancer, psychiatric and neurological conditions or disorders.
But the Veterans Administration says proof is lacking that Agent Orange was the cause of their illness and is unwilling to pay out disability compensation.
The disapproval that Vietnam veterans encountered when they returned home kept many from getting jobs, and severe and continuing unemployment exists among them.
Many of those who fought were less educated than their counterparts in earlier wars and often were poor. A disproportionate number of them were black.
A proposed new measure, the Emergency Vietnam Veterans' Job Training Act of l983, with $25 million authorized for fiscal 1983 and $150 million for l984 and l985, would go a long way toward helping this problem.
Introduced by Rep. G. V. (Sonny) Montgomery (D.-Miss.), this bill would establish on-the-job training programs under which incentives are provided to employers to hire and train such veterans.
The program would be administered by the VA and the Department of Labor.
It is time to stop smothering the cries of the living.