IT IS NOT HARD to understand why Vietnam veterans are looked upon differently from veterans of other wars. The war was different: limited in its objectives, unconventional in the way it was waged, bitterly controversial even in its early stages, eventually overwhelmingly unpopular - and in the end unwon. And so there is a natural tendency to want to walk away from the wreckage and not to tend to the part of the unfinished business that has to do with the emotional, psychological and economic problems of hundreds of thousands of those who served in the Vietnam era. Many of them are out of work, in need of education or vocational training. The employability of many has been burdened by less-than-honorable discharges, meted out in many cases to men who served in combat, were wounded and even won decorations, but fell victim to the war's pressures and got into trouble after honorable service. The plight of those who served is well documented. But somehow it has never seemed to merit the swift and sweeping attention accorded to those who did not serve - the draft evaders, whose blanket pardon was the first order of business for the Carter administration.
This state of affairs, the careful reader will recognize, is something we have been deploring in this space on a fairly regular basis. Early in January, we urged the incoming administration to balance the pardon of the draft evaders with comparable compassion and forgiveness for deserters, and with redoubled efforts to deal with the other problems afflicting Vietnam veterans. Last-week, at Veterans' Day ceremonies in Arlington Cemetery, Mr.Carter gave what amounted to a thumbnail report on what he believes he has done subsequently to discharge what he called "a special debt of gratitude on the part of American people to those . . . who served in Vietnam, because they have not been appreciated enough."
Now those are fine and welcome words. But if you closely examine the President's summing-up (an excerpt is printed For the Record on this page) - and if you look at what seems to be happening to a piece of legislation directly affecting Vietnam veterans that is now before a conference committee in Congress - we think you will agree that the problem of the Vietnam veteran is still something that far too many people would rather talk about than do much about.
Praising Congress for having "responded well," the President talked in a general way about his efforts to increase Veterans Administration compensationand pensions, spoke specifically of increased GI Bill coverage and a Carter administration jobs program for veterans, and took credit for revering an effort to reduce from 10 years to eight the deadline for veterans to use their educational entitlements after they leave the service. On this last point, it need only be noted that this was a Ford administration economy gesture that needed no reversing since it had no prospect of congressional approval.
As for the jobs program, announced with much fanfare in the first month of the Carter presidency, the results to date would argue against even bringing the subject up. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment in the Vietnam-era age group is higher now than it was when the President's Program was announced, and there is little evidence that veterans themselves are having an easier time finding jobs; only a tiny fraction of some $140 million appropriated in May to help private industry offer training programs for Vietnam veterans has yet beenobligated.
The President did not mention his special program for reviewing and upgrading "bad paper" discharges. Administered unaggressively, it reached only 16,000 of the 161,000 who were potentially eligible. And its usefulness was seriously undercut when Mr. Carter, against the advice of key administration figures, refused to veto legislation that will make it markedly more difficult for those whose discharges are upgraded to restore their entitlement to benefits.
Finally, when the President speaks approvingly of increasing GI Bill coverage, he obviously isn't referring to the current effort by Senate conferees - without administration support - to win acceptance of a complex restructuring of educational benefits. This amendment would not only give Vietnam veterans an extra two years to take advantage of education benefits, but would also permit accelerated use of total tuition entitlements to allow for heavier tuition payments over a shorter period. This latter provision would remove a severe disadvantage imposed upon veterans in the Northeast and Midwest who lack access to low-cost public institutions where the most effective use of GI benefits can be made. It would also be a big help to unemployed veterans, many of them with families, whose greatest need is not a university education but relatively short vocational and technical training. But the lastest word is that it is in imminent danger of being quietly scuttled in conference.
If the President is seriously looking for ways to discharge that "special debt" he spoke of, he could begin right now by throwing his weight on the side of the Senate conferees in an effort to rescue the accellerated tuition bill. Representatives of the Vietnam veterans believe that, with congressional approval of the immportant changes that this bill would make in the existing program of educational benefits, much of the remaining unfinished business of the Vietnam war could probably be dealt with by forceful and compassionate administration of programs already provided by law.