BRUCE IS 33 but he looks ancient. Deep circles; a thin, gaunt face. And, of course, the mouth. It is wired together. Bruce, drunk, carefully picked up a gun one night, sat on the john and tried to blow his brains out. The bullet went through his neck and twisted and came out, shattering his jaw.

The Vietnam veteran grew up in Los Angeles, mostly alone, from a broken family. His one interest was art. "I had taken the entrance exams to art school but I decided to go in the service. It was just something you had to do."

After he returned home, Bruce developed cancer, Hodgkin's disease. Today he wonders about Agent Orange: "Hill 327 was stripped while I was there. I watched them spray every morning."

The cancer has been in remission for several yers but Bruce, who went back to art school and got a good graphics job with a top advertising agency, eventually slid into alcohol and lost his job. One night he decided that all was pointless.

Today, eight months after his suicide attempt, Bruce has moved into a steady Thursday night rap group at a Vet Center in Los Angeles. Doctors are reshaping his jaw. One recent night, speaking through the bizarre-looking face guard doctors have fashioned for his jaw, Bruce told a group of wide-eyed college students about a war that is ancient history to them.

For years Bruce resisted blaming Vietnam for any of his problems. "I thought it was a cop-out." Only recently did he realize he had to talk out the past so that he could get on with the future.

"I had a lot of pent-up feelings against the government; how they're doing nothing on Agent Orange. It's very hard for me to become some rah-rah member of a group. I'm essentially a loner. But I have this drive to go to those Thursday night sessions. If those centers go, I would survive but I could name at least five guys who might not. They are the one place vets can let it all out with other vets."

Bruce has stopped drinking; smokes only a little pot. "I now feel I want to live." He pauses. "I don't want to "X" it . . . "

The men who come to the storefront Vet Centers across the country are in their thirties: average age, 33. Some still have the look of easy youth; others stare from haunted, old men's eyes. They are survivors of Vietnam -- our nation's most unpopular, troubled and divisive war -- and, most crucially, survivors of their hassled and hapless homecoming.

Last week, outrage raced coast to coast in the 91 counseling centers. For 10 years veteran activists had fought for psychological readjustment help. Finally, in 1979, Congress came through. Most of the centers are barely a year old.

Skeptical Republicans on Ronald Reagan's transition team toured several centers and ended up recommending that they be given a chance. But now Reagan is axing them -- his Office of Management and Budget called for obliterating them by September -- even as the president pins medals on Vietnam veterans, an act many of them an act many of them see as a see as a flag-waving attempt to prime another generation of youths for new, massively funded military adventures.

Just as the lavish homecoming for the hostages returning from Iran surfaced smoldering anger among Vietnam veterans, two crucial and intertwined resentments are reflected in the outrage of many veterans at the gutting of their centers. One is a deep distrust of the government. "If they close in September, this will be viewed as another instance of the government lying to them," says William Mahedy, a former Army chaplain in Vietnam who now runs the Vet Center in San Diego.

The veterans' second, equally deep-seated resentment is aimed at their antiwar collegiate peers who evaded the war and now turn their backs on them. David Stockman, OMB's program-cutting wunderkind , is just their age, 34. He spent the war in Harvard's divinity school -- which conveniently carried a 4-D deferment -- but never entered the clergy. "That son of a bitch," muttered a highly decorated former paratrooper, now an attorney. "There he was yelling, 'Hell no, we won't go,' but making no sacrifices for his beliefs, and now he's gutting our programs."

As federal funding goes, the $12 million annual readjustment counseling program -- operated through the Veterans Administration but away from its facilities -- is barely enough to stock the centers with styrofoam coffee cups. But the veterans were hardly in a position to quibble when Congress appropriated funds for "Operation Outreach" in 1979. After all, Congress had rejected the proposal four times previously.

The overall cuts in the VA's budget are modest compared to other agencies'. The White House fact sheet stresses there will be no reduction in medical personnel serving patients directly and no reduction in compensation payments for the service-connected disabled. However, the Vietnam veteran stands to lose not only the psychological readjustment counseling programs but also job development programs and Legal Services aid. "All these cuts leave the Vietnam veterans without any government-supported advocacy programs," contends David Addlestone, director of the National Veterans Law Center.

The VA itself feels the Vet Centers are expendable and argues that it is not cutting anything, merely withdrawing its pre-Reagan request to extend them. Although the pilot programs were originally funded for two years, the intent of the legislation was to review them in September for one year's further funding. The Reagan budget would kill them off without any review. The centers have seen 40,000 veterans and, as one center leader said, "More are coming out of the woodwork all the time."

There are 9 million Vietnam-era veterans. Of these, 2.5 million served in Vietnam. Even the VA, for years insensitive to their psychological problems, estimates that half a million of those veterans suffer emotional problems in varying degrees.

There is a fancy name for what troubles so many veterans -- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the bible for psychiatrists, now recognizes it as a legitimate disorder.

The stress was caused in large part by coming home to a hostile and indifferent society. Antiwar sentiment at home made this war unique in American history. The veteran faced "the antagonism and hostility of an entire people who, almost without knowing it, confused the warrior with the war," says Charles Figley, a social psychologist, Vietnam vet and leading expert on the delayed stress of veterans.

The problem was acute for those who returned from Vietnam to college campuses at the height of the antiwar demonstrations. Even the most successful today tell of being ridiculed by professors and peers.

Fred Downs, who wrote a critically praised book, "tthe Killing Zone," and works for the VA, lost an arm in Vietnam. One day as riots swirled around campus, he was walking to class when an antiwar demonstrator noticed his hook. "Did you lose your hand in Vietnam?" Downs replied yes.

"serves you right," said the student.

Many became closet veterans. "We were the fascist pigs, scorned by the girls," said one. The major sexual-favors slogan of the time said it all: "Girls only say 'yes' to boys who say 'no'.

There is a pervasive myth that Vietnam veterans are crybabies, asking for special programs not afforded past GiS. But in fact, there was extensive and prolonged treatment for the millions of World War Ii GIs who returned with war neuroses. A 1955 National Academy of Sciences study stated that one in three World War Ii veterans suffered some neurotic problems (as compared to one in four Vietnam vets). Congress passed laws providing large-scale psychiatric counseling, both federally administered and community-based. And according to the VA's official history, the program was successful "because it met with the wholehearted cooperation of local, county and state medical services throughout the nation."

Today many of the minorities and unskilled, promised a trade by the Army, face chronic unemployment, They returned when times were hard and jobs scarce. For several years after Vietnam, the GI bill was greatly inferior to that for World War Ii and Korean vets.

Congress, mirroring the public's attitude, treated the veterans' special needs with yawning indifference. Unlike the returned heroes of World War Ii who won elective office, only a handful of their generation now in Congress (the 82 members born since 1942) had any service. Just five saw combat.

One of them, Don Bailey (D-Pa.), fiercely hawkish, says, "There are Vietnam veterans who have not succumbed to humiliation as a price for acceptance in society; who do not feel that in order to be accepted by this nation they must criticize what they did in Southeast Asia."

Others came home doves, feeling the war was a total waste, but still doing a burn at the way society treated them. The centers are often filled with young men who couldn't wait to sign up at 18, hell bent to "kill a Commie for Christ." Death and destruction in a war that quickly held no meaning for them turned many into cynics. They returned saying, "It don't mean nothin.'"

"I call Vietnam an undigested lump of life," says William Mahedy, the San Diego Vet Center leader. "It just does not digest in the system. And that is what we at the centers are attempting to do."

tim is a handsome, younger Robert Redford, a successful builder and struggling Hollywood actor with several national commercials to his credit.

A year ago he came to the center. He could not understand his depressions, his inability to stick to anything. Through the center, Tim began to realize his resentment at society.

"Hey, I was good at what I did. In any other war I would have been a hero." He felt no guilt. "Wait a minute. Well, maybe . . . " There was that one Sunday morning. A group of monks were threading through the jungle in saffron robes. Tom radioed permission to shoot. The response was that he could do what he wanted. After all, there had been stories that the Viet Cong sometimes dressed as monks. Time turned his helicopter and shot. "I looked down -- and I saw one of them crawling away from his leg. I said, 'That's enough.'" Only 10 years later did he confront that episode. "It was wrong. I can finally say it now."

Soul music fills the D.C. center on Pennsylvania Avenue SE, just a few blocks from the Congress which long ignored special bills for Vietnam veterans.

Dennis, red-haired, in his Amoco windbreaker, races in on a work break from the gas station. "I was disabled and I haven't collected on my money. I tried for six years to get it straightened out. I come here and in two hours they did more for me than any of those people at the VA did in six years."

Leon, a black from Pittsburgh, has a deep voice and has worked in broadcasting. "If they didn't have the Vet Center experience I'd probably be in jail." Out of work, he smolders with hatred at the "white system." Talking about it at the center was instant thereapy. He remained on as a vollunteer counselor. The other day he got a job offer from a local radio station.

One CETA worker, about to lose his job in the budget cuts, sits with a group across the street at Johnny's Cool Breeze Restaurant. "i was shunned by the friends I grew up with because I came out of the serrvice with $1,000 to show for three years. They're all buying homes, finished grad school and now I don't even have a job. I'm three years behind and I'm not ever going to catch up."

During the war, the government proudly reported that combat stress was down this time around. Any grunt will quickly give you one reason: "We were stoned."

James, at the Cool Breeze, said, "I wasn't on nothin' when I went there but in Vietnam you had a choice: getting high on hard drugs or hard liquor. Heroin was plentiful, falling out of trees. You see someone get blown away and, hey, you smoke some OJs (marijuana, of very strong quality in Vietnam) and hey, man, that's cool."

Leon: "we used to make pillows out of it. Fill up our back packs with reefer in its natural form. Them weeds was all over."

Unlike their collegiate counterparts, who also routinely got high, many came back addicted. The Army and, for a long time, the VA did little to recognize the problem or to help.

Jack McCloskey, a wounded and decorated veteran leader of the San Francisco Vet Center, says body counts are a recurring subject in his rap sessions. "They would set up competition. The company that came in with the biggest body count would be given in-country R & R [rest and recreation] or an extra case of beer. Now if you're telling a 19-year-old kid it's okay to waste people and he will be rewarded for it, what do you think that does to his psyche? Over there it was orders. Now, years later, they are reflecting on it."

Larry hides behind his sunglasses, never taking them off. ("I'm better now; I used to wear hats all the time.") He has a master's degree, two laboring jobs and is trying to sort out his life.

"I never talked about the war before," he says in a San Diego center, "because there was no solution. The dynamics of the war were such that we never came out of it well.

"We created a sick child."

They are mavericks, the men who run the centers. Most have some psychological training. All centers have at least one veteran. They do not fit easily into clinicians' white coats or bureaucratic pigeonholes. This is both their strength and weakness. They have the vital rapport with veterans but often lack the ability to administer in a way that pleases the VA's bureaucrats.

"Body counts," sighs Angel Almedina, in New York. "They're back to body counts." He rebels at having to make out reports. What they lack in expertise, the center men make up in irreverence and a fervent commitment that rivals "MASH's" Hawkeye.

Almedina grew up in a Harlem barrio ("I'm just a spic from Harlem, honey.") He is barely 5 feet 3, with long, curly hair. In Vietnam he developed a drug habit. Almadina rolls up his sleeve and displays an arm the color and texture of a Madame Toussoud wax figure. "Look, baby, no marks. Been clean since '72."

Almedina talks street talk to guys who know no other language. "A dude comes in the other day. The VA sent him to us. Said he was hopeless. Never talked. We gave him space, let him go. He was with blacks and Latinos and he felt at home. Now you can't shut him up."

Across the country, in Los Angeles, is Shad Meshad, who pioneered the Vet Center concept a decade ago. He turned down the job of directing the VA program, but runs the West Coast region.

A medical service officer in Vietnam, Meshad was shot down in a helicopter. "I split my head. I was scalped." Meshad pulls back the bangs he wears to hide the scars. "I could feel my whole face slipping. Like an old basset hound, my face just kind of fell down. I tied a bandana around it to hold it up."

Years of painful operations on his head and back, six months of "terrible readjustment problems," turned Meshad into a zealot for the veterans. "You know the $12 million for the centers? I figured it out: That was about what it cost for 12 minutes of firepower back in Vietnam in 1969," he says caustically.

There is some inevitable ego tripping and hyperbole in Vet Center leaders, but for the most part they have functioned well in one very crucial, neglected area. It is that amorphous ability to make "contact," to reach people when others cannot. It is the same mysterious value that Alcoholics Anonymous has for people who went through years of psychiatry to no avail and then became faithful AA converts.

It is a quality that seems lost on the present VA administration. Reagan has not even appointed a head of that lumbering institution to date.

One VA spokesman, Stratton Appleman, says, "We figure the centers aren't that productive." Appleman, career Air Force for 23 years, shows no enthusiasm for the centers. "When people need psychological help they can certainly get it from the VA"

Center supporters argue that the VA dumps a lot of their patients on the centers and that the reason the centers were needed in the first place is that the VA makes no attempt at outreach. They claim that one-third of VA physicians are foreign-trained, that much of the personnel are not Vietnam veterans and that in many cases there is resistance to the concept of delayed stress.

Some Vietnam veterans feel the centers call attention to only the troubled. "Most veterans are funcitoning, productive members of society," says William Jayne, a former Marine rifleman. "Operation Outreach -- which I see as a 'too little, too late' program -- may be very helpful in some cases, but what bothers me most is that the program seems flawed by its predisposition to view the veterans as helpless, hapless victims."

The Vet Centers will not go away without a fight. For the first time, both public sentiment and lobbying clout is turning toward the Vietnam veteran. The American Egion -- once anathema to turned-off Vietnam vets -- is now on their side as Vietnam veterans sign up as members.

Bills were, in fact, voted out of the House Veterans Affairs Committee last week for a two-year extension of the Vet Centers.

James Webb, a Vietnam combat veteran and author of the Vietnam novel, "Fields of Fire," is minority counsel for the House committee. "My hope," he says, "is that all the members who called at the time of the hostages and said, 'Is there something we can do for the Vietnam veteran?' will realize this is at least one small place where they can put their money where their mouth is."

In the '60s, 16 million young Americans beat the draft through student deferments, exemptions, legal technicalities and systematic evasion. Vietnam was a class war -- and the blue collar and ghetto soldiers of yesterday do not forget.

The talk in many centers is of another draft. Veterans are divided. Some are for it as the only fair way out of the grossly inequitable volunteer Army. Others -- including blacks and Latinos who were drafted the last time -- are sending another message.

Angel Almedina sits with a group of Vietnam vetrans in Manhattan's West End bar, near Columbia University. Twelve years ago, all was unrest there -- sit-ins, occupying dean's offices, marches, demonstrations. Now all is quiet. Two young men, with bookbags and peach fuzz, drink beer. The Vietnam veterans suddenly look very, very old.

"for the next war," says Almedina, nodding to the college students, "he don't go and he don't go." Then he looks across the counter. "The guy making the pizza, he go; the guy in the kitchen washing dishes, he go."

The argument for the draft is a good one: If everyone has to go, senators' sons and bank presidents' sons, maybe that will slow down the next involvement.

"but hey, man," says one black vet, "it just ain't gonna happen. The ones with pull ain't gonna go."

America lost the upper middle class in the Vietnam War. They may have lost the working class today. The legacy of Vietnam veterans -- unemployment, psychological problems -- is a far greater deterrent, some believe, than a new souped-up GI bill is an incentive for joining.

Spending billions for hardware while cutting programs for Vietnam veterans is hardly the way to sell a whole new generation on signing up for the next Big One.