It appears that William V. Kennedy {"Dusty's Pain: The Nurses, Too, Were Scarred by the Waste of Vietnam," Close to Home, Nov. 22} and others who advocate the installation of a statue of an Army nurse at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial cannot see the forest for the trees. If they succeed, none of us will be able to see the memorial for the statues.

Kennedy should note that the first line of the first panel of the wall states that the memorial honors "the men and women of the Armed Forces . . . who served in the Vietnam War" and that the names of the eight women casualties take their rightful places of honor in the long list. Part of the brilliance of the abstract design of the wall is its equalizing and unifying effect; all veterans are honored, regardless of rank, commission, service branch, military occupation, sex, race, creed or any of the other categories that divide us. More important, it recognized that the magnitude of the pain and sacrifice was too great to be expressed in realistic statuary.

When politics required that a figurative sculpture be added, there was only one choice of what group to depict the Vietnam veteran: enlisted infantrymen. The "grunts" account for the vast majority of the names on the wall, and they bore the brunt of the combat effort. Others, including nurses and helicopter pilots, supported this effort. All grunts were men.

The proposal to add the statue of the nurse is objectionable for many reasons, the primary of which is that it would equate a relatively small category of officer support personnel with infantry as symbols of the Vietnam veteran. The result would be the diminution of the existing sculpture symbolizing infantry alone. This in turn opens the Pandora's box of proliferating statuary that would depict each ethnic and occupational category and subcategory, as if the memorial were some kind of legislative body. If a white Army nurse, then why not a black Navy nurse?

The chief reason advanced by the proponents is that the majority of nurses in Vietnam were women, and that equality requires that women be represented. It would seem, however, that real equality might allow for gender to be subordinated to other considerations when appropriate. In fact, Congress addressed the gender issue in 1986 by authorizing a distinct national memorial to all women who have served in the Armed Forces. A statue to a specific group of women from one war can only weaken the symbolism of a long-overdue tribute to all our women veterans.

In the five years since its dedication, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial has become the most visited national shrine in Washington, an overwhelming acclamation of its appropriateness by a vast "silent majority" of Americans. On Oct. 22, the Fine Arts Commission protected the interests of this majority by rejecting the nurse statue in a four- (two women and two men) to-one vote.

Now, however, Sen. Dave Durenberger, in a classic example of election-year politics, has introduced legislation designed to circumvent the commission. There is a clear danger that Durenberger's bill will be tacked onto the continuing resolution, which must be passed by Dec. 16. Perhaps the only way to stop this is to have enough members of the silent majority heat up the switchboards on Capitol Hill.

I agree with William Kennedy that Dusty's pain is tragic. I doubt, however, that her pain or anyone else's will be relieved by adding a bronze mannequin at the site of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. We would lose a place of healing and gain at best an outdoor museum of military uniforms and equipment. -- Robert W. Doubek was executive director and project director of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, Inc.

I was raised in the Finger Lakes region south of Rochester, N.Y. In late 1966, at the age of 18, I was torn away from home and family, and in 1967 I found myself in Vietnam.

For 14 years I couldn't talk about Vietnam. I pressed on with my life, forging a career and a family, ignoring the memories and the grief. As I began to unravel the puzzle of my past, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated in 1982, and it has become a focal point of my readjustment. I did not want a memorial, but I love "the wall."

Now, deeply involved in veterans' activities, I see two struggles to build more Vietnam memorials. Baltimore, a scant 44 miles from the wall, is haggling over plans to build a Maryland Memorial overlooking the Inner Harbor. At an estimated cost of more than $3 million, it would be another wall, with the names of Maryland residents lost in Vietnam. The people of the Federal Hill community have blocked its construction, and a new site is being considered, near Annapolis. Maryland has granted $2.5 million, and a number of fund-raisers have swelled the project's coffers.

Meanwhile, another group hopes to place a statue of a Vietnam nurse near the wall, to "balance" the statues of the three soldiers and to acknowledge the service of women in war. This statue was recently disapproved by the Fine Arts Commission, but its proponents have vowed to struggle on.

The Project on the Vietnam Generation recently found that 141 Vietnam memorials were built, are under construction or are planned across the United States. As America still struggles to resolve the tragedy of that war, controversies rage.

In Rochester, a group of Vietnam veterans, frustrated by the bureaucracy and ineffectiveness of the Veterans Administration's "vet center" program, created an independent Veterans Outreach Center. The city donated a ramshackle house, which today is a beautifully restored, living memorial to the tenacity of Vietnam veterans. They raised money for the restoration by working together on numerous fund-raisers. Many vets donated their skills as carpenters, bricklayers, plumbers and painters. Members of the community joined in, volunteering time, skills and materials. Rochester's Veterans Outreach Center plays an active role in the community, taking part in charity causes, firemen's parades and many public projects. Most important, a full-time staff offers counseling and help to veterans and their families.

Recently, a wife of a Vietnam veteran called me, asking where she might find help for her troubled husband. I suggested the local vet center. Three days later she called again, sobbing. Her calls were never returned. After another three days, I found an out-of-state vet center that was willing to offer some advice and counseling. As Vietnam has resurfaced in movies and on prime-time TV, many veterans are struggling with memories long suppressed. Many families are facing crises. The horrors of Agent Orange are barely recognized by the political community, but are all too real to many families. Veterans constitute an appalling percentage of our homeless, our unemployed and our suicides.

Vietnam veterans don't need another statue or another wall carved with names. Vietnam veterans need understanding, counseling, assistance and a sense of being part of the community. Three-and-a-half million dollars would build, equip and man a Veterans Outreach Center in Baltimore for many years. We need a living memorial, one that helps to rebuild shattered lives.

-- John Ketwig