FOR MANY of our fellow citizens, we are too dangerous to rehabilitate. Forget for a moment that the overwhelming majority of us have managed to put our lives back together, and have moved beyond the trauma of our wartime experiences to lead productive lives. Think instead of those with a vested interest in keeping uncomplimentary adjectives in front of the words "Vietnam veteran." The lexicon is as dreary as it is long: "scarred," "addicted," "crazed," "unemployed," "victimized," "brutalized," "racist," "alcoholic." Somehow we cannot be mentioned without words such as these creeping into the discussion.

It's of little use to try to paper over the worst aspects of having served in Vietnam. They've been reported to the exclusion of almost everything else about that war. More important, we know better than most that any war brings out the worst, as well as the best, in those who fight it. But regardless of the nature of what we've been through, it is past time to take back our good name. It is past time to educate the American public to the fact that we made great personal sacrifices in good faith by serving in Vietnam, and that the tempering our ordeal imparted has not destroyed us, but left us stronger. It is past time to affirm a positive image of the Vietnam veteran. The catch is that we have to do it ourselves.

Arrayed against us are people, some famous and influential, who have profited at our expense and can't afford to see us portrayed in a positive light. They are too thoroughly caught up in their self-created body of antiwar mythology to have it any other way.

More insidious are the liberals. The more astute among them long ago figured out that there is more political mileage to be gained by patronizing rather than openly vilifying us. There is no need for them to recognize the validity of our service. After all, we did do the trigger pulling. Instead, their intent is to turn us into another welfare constituency. Their unofficial motto: "Your best bet -- pity the vet." Their means to insure an expanding collection of politically marketable, if underfunded and poorly administered, benefit programs is to insure an ample supply of wretched victims to benefit from them.

"You're not really to blame. It's the war, you know," they say. They don't really enjoy making us out to be losers (or so we would believe) but, after all, it is for our own good. All we have to do is smile, shuffle, and be grateful, and they're fulfilled. Just don't let any uncontrolled self-respect slip out. It's not in the plan.

If it weren't so painful to watch, our treatment at the hands of the so-called entertainment industry would be almost laughable. Antiwar protestors and newsmen are the heroes of the Vietnam cinema. We're the backdrop. So rare as to be virtually absent are the courage, compassion, self-sacrifice and genuine anger so many of us displayed both in combat and at home. Drug addiction, suicide and homicidal rampages are apparently better sellers. We're cinematically acceptable only if we confess our guilt (tears are the preferred accompaniment) and embrace the antiwar myth as atonement.

In combat, a grunt's horizon is 15 yards away. He fights and dies for his buddies, not for causes. Wounded men gurgle, moan and scream -- they don't make speeches. None of it is neat or organized. This we know too well. But when this reality comes in the form of a war in which The Rules, as laid out by previous generations of scriptwriters, didn't apply, the result is a retreat into ideologically acceptable allegory and fantasy by moviemakers and TV producers. We will wait a long time to see the truth about ourselves on the screen or the tube. The people who manufacture movies and TV programs are not capable of understanding what really happened to us, much less portraying it. Keep in mind that this will not prevent them from declaring their version to be reality. In Hollywood, anything is possible.

The largest group we have to face in our battle for genuine recognition is our peers, our own generation. Their views of us cover a broad spectrum. Some harbor antiwar views still, and to them we are still criminal, victim, or both. To others we may be suckers, or even envied for our experiences, no matter how bitter. Some are vaguely guilty at their role in relegating the fighting to the many poor, the many less educated, the many nonwhite among us. A lot simply don't care, and never will. In many cases, our peers gained a career advantage by getting started while our education and work were put on hold by events. As we reach the point in life where competition for promotions, positions and other forms or recognition intensifies, don't expect many of these people to give us an edge for having served in Vietnam. Some may appreciate what we've done, but others will prove perhaps the hardest of all to convince of the respectability of our sacrifices.

We are entitled to some grim satisfaction in that time and history seem to be on our side. Yellow rain is dropped on Laotian tribesmen and consigns them to indescribable suffering before it kills them. Cambodia is a graveyard, but it is still fought over. Soviet warships and warplanes rest from their imperial missions in the harbors and on the airfields we built. Everywhere in Southeast Asia armies still march, and those dominoes that never were are apprehensive once again. Whole populations vote with their feet against the misery and death that have consumed millions of human beings since our departure. The assumptions that form the foundation of the antiwar myth are beginning to show cracks. There is an uneasy awareness at large in this country of the consequences of our failure of national will in Vietnam.

More to our credit is the restraint we've shown since returning. No "stab in the back" theory has gained our credence. We have not formed the alienated, antidemocratic veterans' organizations that plagued Germany after World War I and provided such fertile ground for the seeds of Nazi hatred. Our spokesmen are largely reasonable, capable men. Their message is not that we seek restitution or revenge, but that we have more to offer our country.

We have seen war, and know that it produces no saints, but neither does it leave its survivors with an indelible evil mark. We bore the sacrifice when it was popular and easy to be self-serving. We have nothing to apologize for.

The most important thing to remember is that we have a lot to teach our children. They should learn that the purveyors of the antiwar myth offer a selective history that is tailored to justify their own expedience. They must know, too, that their government can fail massively, even with their lives in the balance. We owe them a healthy skepticism for every word from the mouth of every politician and ideologue.

Finally, we should know well enough to teach them that there is no glory to be had in war, but that there will always be times when war will threaten. When it does, the only true preventive is preparedness, and the burden of that preparedness must fall equitably on all segments of society.

In a very real way, we've been on our own since the day we first set foot "in country," and enough of that awful time still dwells in our souls that we can never really DEROS (Date of Estimated Return from Overseas Status). But we can take back at least some of what's been taken from our lives. Now, as then, it's up to us. No one else is there to do it. We have to do it for each other. For ourselves.