RICHMOND, FEB. 6 -- William E. Kirkland, a former Washingtonian who helped organize this weekend's commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the Tet offensive, remembers the moment the longest battle of the Vietnam war began:

It was 3 a.m. on Jan. 31, 1968, and 2d Lt. Kirkland, a medic with D Company, 4th Infantry, was asleep. "A shell blew the roof off our tent and went into the tent behind ours. Another guy from D.C. was bending over, putting on his boots, and it grazed the top of his head" before it "blew up in the lap of a guy from Pennsylvania named Porter."

After Kirkland treated the wounded GI, the frightened young man ran to his commanding officer and, in an apparent attempt to get shipped home, said that he was homosexual.

Red tape delayed the man's departure about nine months. "He was within two weeks of a year {in Vietnam}, when he would have been sent home anyway," Kirkland said, "when he was discharged as unfit."

Kirkland said he hoped this weekend's "welcome home" reunion here would help Vietnam veterans, homosexual and otherwise, "come out of the closet. That poor guy may be wandering around 14th Street with part of his head missing, thinking he did something wrong."

Sponsors of the Richmond event said it was one of a growing number of parades and parties, periodically held around the country, designed to heal the emotional wounds of veterans of that unpopular war.

The major attraction here is retired Army Gen. William C. Westmoreland. The white-haired, square-jawed Westmoreland, 73, was greeted with chants and hoots of "Westy, Westy," when he was introduced by former Virginia governor Charles S. Robb, a Marine Corps veteran of Vietnam.

Westmoreland noted that it was Robb's father-in-law, President Johnson, who elevated him to commander-in-chief of U.S. forces in Vietnam.

"Kicking the hell out of the enemy at every opportunity" during the two-month Tet offensive in early 1968 was the proudest accomplishment of his long career, Westmoreland declared.

About 80,000 North Vietnamese troops simultaneously attacked 100 cities and towns in South Vietnam at the start of the lunar New Year holiday known as Tet. When the offensive ended on March 31, 1968, South Vietnamese and American troops had held Saigon and regained Hue.

Who won the long battle is still debated -- Westmoreland calls it a victory "turned into a psychological defeat" -- but many historians agree it was the turning point of the war.

Johnson was "unable to take advantage" of the battle, Westmoreland said, because "he didn't have the support of his advisers, or the American people, to escalate the hostilities."

Westmoreland blamed former CBS newscaster Walter Cronkite, who, "while neither elected nor appointed, took off his media hat and put on his secretary of state and secretary of defense hats and announced there was a stalemate and we had to pull out."

"When he {LBJ} lost Cronkite, he lost the public's support," Westmoreland said.

Robb said that serving in Vietnam "affected all our lives; it was the most important single event" for many.

"Even though we didn't all come to Vietnam with the same hopes and expectations, and we certainly didn't leave with the same point of view, I respect you all," said Robb, who is now running as a Democrat for the U.S. Senate from Virginia.

While promoters had predicted that up to 20,000 veterans and their families would attend the reunion, today's crowd was estimated at about 500. Reminders of a bitterly divided nation were evident in some of the memorabilia for sale in the nearly empty Arthur Ashe Athletic Center.

Bumper stickers baited activist actress Jane Fonda -- "I'm not Fond'a Hanoi Jane" was one of the milder ones -- and a book, "Matter of Survival, the 'War' Jane Never Saw," by Chris Noel, compares Fonda to Axis Sally and Tokyo Rose, World War II propagandists who went to prison for war crimes.

Noel, who as a miniskirted starlet serenaded the troops in Vietnam via Armed Forces Radio, sang "Amazing Grace" at a candlelight vigil Friday night at the Virginia War Memorial, honoring 59 Virginians still listed as missing in action. She also starred in a concert here tonight.

One booth featured a poignant poster bearing a 1960s-vintage photograph of Sgt. Robert B. Ray, who disappeared in Vietnam on July 15, 1968. Attached was a note -- "Please, does anyone remember Bobby? I have to know" -- and a plea to contact the Vietnam Women's Memorial Project in Indianapolis.

Dr. Dang Vu Chan, 32, of Falls Church distributed literature for the Northern Virginia chapter of the National United Front for the Liberation of Vietnam, which he said is "a resistance organization" dedicated to overthrowing "the communist regime now in power in Vietnam."

Chan, a psychiatric resident at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington who left Vietnam in 1980, said, "We ask the American people to understand our just cause, but we don't want it to be Americanized. No more American blood should be lost in Vietnam."

A disconsolate Kirkland, now a 45-year-old lawyer here, was unable to locate the injured veteran despite a computerized "buddy locator service" that includes 16,000 names.

As for the crowd, he shrugged, "If people didn't want to show up, that's their problem."