AMONG THOSE reflecting upon the meaning of Memorial Day, we would assume, are approximarely eight million veterans of the Vietnam years. For many of them, it comes as one more painful reminder that this country still lacks a comprehensive program to deal with their needs and entitlements. It cannot have escaped their notice that a nation capable of prolonged discussion and strong emotion on the merits of amnesty for no more than 10,000 young men who did not serve - by evading the draft - is strangely incapable of dealing equitably with those who served, including two and a half million who actually went to Vietnam and 400,000 who suffered wounds.To examine some of the current attitudes about Vietnam-era veterans is to see graphically why so many of them feel ignored or frustrated. It is also to understand why those who are trying to help them are finding it so difficult.
There is, to begin with, the GI Bill itself. At the moment, many of the most needy veterans are denied meaningful access to educational assistance. The Gi Bill was inadvertently structured to provide benefits to veteran s with access to low-cost public institutions. The problem is that many states and cities have few, if any, of these institutions. Sen. Alan Craston, chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, has spoken of this unfairness and has pledged to "explore the matter and to come up with a remedy." Unfortunately, the leadership of the House Veterans Committee and, surprisingly, the new administrator of the Veterans Administration, Max Cleland, have not made a similar commitment. Another group with limited access includes some veterans who are married and have children; for them, the GI Bill's allowances are too low to be meaningful. Veterans with less than high-school educations are often left out also. Still another group is the one comprised of veterans who fought during the years 1966 to 1972; they were discharged at a time when benefits in many states were effectively so low that the most needy could not afford to go to school.
A second problem is the lack of attention given to the personal adjustment problem of Vietnam veterans, especially the disabled. Many came home unthanked and unnoticed for their sacrifice. Being forgotten became one of the heaviest emotional burdens, particularly as South Vietnam collapsed and the country's leaders were content, as President Ford urged, to put Vietnam behind us. One of the government's failures is that it hasn't conducted the research to learn how widespread the emotional problems may be. One unofficial VA estimate holds that one out of five new veterans suffers serious and prolonged readjustment problems.
From these examples alone - and there are others - it is clear that, despite the efforts of a few public officials as well as some of the more alert veterans groups, there is no coherent national policy for dealing with the problems of returned service personnel.
It is not as though solutions are unknown, or that teachers, counselors and others are unwilling to work individually with the veterans. An article on the opposite page today tells the story of a few people involved in programs that are as worthwhile on the local level as they are deserving of support from higher levels.
In other words, it can be done - it just isn't being done enough.
At the moment, Congress is considering an across-the-board increase in GI benefits. This approach, as a recent report to the National League of Cities and the U.S. Conference of Mayors notes, is far from ideal: It may overcompensate those veterans who already are receiving too much, while others will remain without access to schooling. Rep. Lester Wolff (D.N.Y.), along with 75 cosponsors, has introduced legislation that would accelerate the availability of GI Bill benefits. This bill and another - providing tuition equalization - deserve immediate attention.
Evidence suggests that the veterans have a number of supports scattered throughout Congress. But it is the responsibility of the President to pull together that support, as well as coordinate the energies of his own administration. In January, the Secretary of Labor, with considerable fanfare, announced a $1.3 billion program to provide more jobs for veterans. Four months later, unemployment among veterans remains high with veterans groups still awaiting signs of effective followup. One issue that has aroused the anxiety of these groups is that the mandatory veterans quotas - ones assuring that the jobs go to veterans rather than others - have been dropped from the administration's bill now on its way through Congress.
The president has spoken movingly of the plight of the Vietnam veterans. But his actions - efforts to provide a form of amnesty for deserters and veterans with "bad paper" discharges, the hastily assembled jobs program - fall short of the sort of comprehensive, high-priority approach that is needed. Today, as always, we salute those who served and suffered in all wars - and, above all, those who gave their lives. But our urgent concern is with the veterans of the Vietnam years - and with the unfinished business of that war.