A colonel with a Kojak cut and a top sergeant veteran of three Vietnam tours with Special Forces are working on one of the Army's last Vietnam programs here - the return of its deserters.
In a cluster of small white buildings chosen for its remoteness from other base activities, Col. Ed Weber and 1st Sgt. Robert F. Dunn, with 48 Army years between them, spend each day talking with the trickle of young men with civilian length hairstyles and beards who nervously give themselves over to Army custody - briefly - after years in exile or underground.
Army deserters come here (and those from other services to other bases) for one-day processing from which they emerge with a special discharge "under other than honorable conditions."
The deserter program and the accompanying opportunity for Vietnam era servicemen with undesirable or general discharges to get them upgraded are part of the second phase of President Carter's effort "to heal the wounds of Vietnam." They follow his pardon of draft evaders.
Both programs will end Oct. 4 and both can be entered by making a telephone call.
The tensions of the unusual situation, deserters walking onto a military base facing no punishment, is felt on both sides. "This is designed to be low key," Weber said. Dunn said he watched for possible trouble from soldiers on the base.
There hasn't been any except for hostile stares and a couple of curses, according to deserters who have been through the processing. Still, many of them come to this base in the Indianapolis suburbs fearful of a trap.
One taped a skeleton key for handcuffs to the small of his back, Weber said. It showed up on the Xrays that are part of the physical exam given here.
The deserters end their one-day processing here with an invitation from Weber or his deputy, Lt. Col. Boyd Hess, to unload anything they want to say about the Army.
"If you want to kick the desk on your way out, go ahead," Weber invites them. None has, he said.
The Army also worried that deserters might be attacked or harassed by resentful soldiers and deliberately chose to isolate the deserters from other base life as much as possible.
The people working in the deserter program wear special blue plastic badges and deserters are cautioned not to go anywhere without a bluebadge escort. Special forces veteran Dunn is a principal escort and said he "positions" himself to ward off possible trouble while walking deserters to lunch or their physical exams.
Does it bother Dunn to spend his days working with deserters?
After three tours and marriage to a Vietnamese, the sergeant said, "I was pretty involved in Vietnam."
"But, you have to look at why people do what they do," Dunn said. "What amazes me is that quite a few of them went to Vietnam and deserted when they got back." Dunn has met a deserter who did 14 months in Vietnam and won the Bronze Star. Another deserted after 4 1/2 years in Vietnam because "he couldn't adjust to stateside life," Dunn said.
He is reluctant to give his personal view of the program. "I've been a soldier, the Army's been most of my life," said Dunn, who married late. "But now that I have a family. I can understand the gratefulness and the importance of these people being able to come home to their families again."
The Pentagon and deserter organizations both are seeking more publicity for the return and discharge upgrade programs.
Miller heard about the deserter return program from his mother, who lives in Pittsburgh. He is an airplane mechanic who, if he is so advance needs access to advanced instruction available only in the United States, so he phoned Ft. Benjamin Harrison even though he had little information about the procedure.
Two of his friends are waiting in Vancouver to see how he fares, Miller said. When he returns safely, they will sign up.
Jack Colhoun has been a leader of American exiles in Canada for years and one of the editors of the magazine AMEX-Canada. He went through Ft. Benjamin Harrison two weeks ago and is trying to spread the word to other deserters.
"We're in the difficult position of trying to publicize a program of which we're highly critical," Colhoun said. His criticisms are not of how the program is run here, but that it wasn't a blanket pardon for Vietnam deserters and automatic upgrade of discharges.
A new issue of AMEX-Canada explaining the program is at the printer, exiles have been putting up posters in Canadian cities and they are trying to raise money for newspaper advertisements in major Canadian cities, Colhoun said.
He is frustrated that the Pentagon isn't doing more to publicize the six-month program.
There has been no paid advertising by the government, but the Pentagon sent texts of radio spot of 6,500 U.S. radio stations and has tried to interest newspapers in doing stories, said John Becher, special assistant to the director of defense information.
Becher has given radio interviews to the Canadian Broadcasting System and others in an effort to publicize the programs.
According to Becher, 2,600 deserters are eligible and there were 432,000 undesirable and general discharges given from Aug. 4, 1964, to March 28, 1973, the period Carter's program designates "the Vietnam era." Bad conduct and dishonorable discharges are not covered by the program.
Only a small portion, about 36,000 including about 800 from the Washington area) have inquired about upgrading their discharges and about 23,000 have been found eligible, according to the latest Pentagon totals. Ft. Benjamin Harrison has inquiries from 266 eligible deserters and has processed 131.
"The key to the whole program is the phone numbers," Becher said. "They've got to get out to the people."
In a spot check of 7,500 who inquired, the Pentagon found that 20 per cent learned of the program from television, 18 per cent from radio, 29 per cent from newspaper, 15 per cent from government agencies, 6 per cent from parents, 6 per cent from veterans affairs groups and the rest from miscellaneous sources.
The Pentagon argues that those who have the most to gain are participating at a better rate. More than two-thirds of the inquiries have come from men with undesirable discharges who would qualify for veteran's benefits if upgraded and only one-third from men with general discharges who already qualify for benefits.
A number of members of Congress, however, are seeking to deny benefits to anyone who only qualifies because of Carter's program.
Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) and Rep. Ray Roberts (D-Tex.) have introduced bills to bar benefits. Rep. Elwood H. Hillis (R-Ind.) supported a ban. saying: "President Carter must understand that this time he has gone too far - that this time the American people are going to say 'No.'"
The deserters, after receiving their "other than honorable" discharge here, can also apply for an upgrading.
While the political battle over benefits shapes up in Washington and the discharge review boards consider their thousands of cases, the efficient, quiet operation Col. Weber established here is getting a slightly higher number of returness each week apparently as word of the program spreads.
Deserters make their appointments by phone. When they arrive at Indianapolis airport, train or bus station, they can telephone the base for a car to pick them up and they can spend a night in a small barracks reserved for them if they choose. Few do.
There is even a second barracks for women because two women show up in the records as eligible. Neither has been heard from.
After their one-day processing the deserters get a ride back to town, $25 plus travel cost from their home of record and they can stop looking over their shoulders.
One young man who arrived here was asked to sign in and paused. He hadn't signed his real name for nine years, he said. It took him a minute to remember how.
Col. Weber has two jobs on this base, providing a strange symmetry. In addition to commanding the deserter return program, he avaluates new soldiers just beginning their training.
Weber said he never had any trouble with his deserter assignment. There were divisions in his family over the war, he said. Deserters are accepting this program who refused President Ford's because it doesn't demand an apology from them, he notes.
The colonel with 25 years of service also asks a question which troubles many in the military.
"How is this going to impact on the future?"