Three Southern members of Congress have introduced bills that would strip any practical value from President Carter's program to upgrade 173,006 undesirable discharges given during the Vietnam era.
The measures would prevent any veteran whose undesirable discharge is upgraded through the program from automatically qualifying for the GI bill or other government benefits.
The measures have been introduced separately in the House and Senate by Reps. John P. Hammerschmidt (R-Ark), David E. Satterfield III (D-Va.) and Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.). Rep. Ray Roberts (D-Tex.), chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, is a co-sponsor of the Satterfield proposal. All three bills would have the same effect.
A special House subcommittee hearing on the proposals and the overall operation of Carter's discharge review program is expected to be held later this month.
Hammerschmidt, who introduced the first proposal, contends that his measure was not "offered as the result of bitterness" over Carter's pardon of Vietnam war draft evaders or his subsequent action in authorizing the Pentagon to consider upgrading the discharges.
"It merely makes the distinction between 'compassion,' which is the administration's purpose in upgrading the discharges, and 'honorable service,' which is what the taxpayers of this country pay for when they extend vtterans benefits to those who earned them," Hammerschmidt said.
The Arkansas congressman, who is the ranking minority member of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, also said his bill would not "completely deny benefits to the veterans concerned." He said his proposal still allows afftcted veterans to establish their cases for benefits on an individual basis with the Veterans Administration.
Five types of discharges were given during the Vietnam war: honorable, general undtr honorable conditions, undesirable, bad conduct and dishonorable. By law, veterans with honorable and gentral discharges are entitled to full GI benefits, which provide aid for higher education, hospitalization and disability bentfits. Also under current statute, veterans whost undesirable discharges are upgraded from undesirable to general or honorable automatically qualify for full benefits.
Although a general discharge does not penalize the veteran in the eyes of the federal government as far as benefits are concerned many veterans believe anything less than an honorable discharge hurts their employment chances and potential career growth. The Carter program seeks to remedy that by giving the 259.524 Vietnam veterans with general discharges a chance to upgrade their military separations to honorable.
Upgrading discharges from general to honorable is a relatively inexpensive administrative procedure. By comparison, changing discharges from undesirable to general or honorable would cost the government $100 million in new GI benefits for every 100,000 such changes, according to a spokesman for the Veterans Administration.
So far, no veterans have received benefits under Carter's special discharge review program, the spokesman said.
Hammerschmidt said Congress must "pass a bill right way" to prevent any veterans benefits from being paid out under the discharge review program. He said he believes there is enough sentiment in Congress to win approval of his or one of the other bills.
The proposals are supported by "more than a half-dozen veterans' organizations," including the Veterans of Foreign Wars, he said.
In determining eligibility for benefits under the three bills, the administrator of veterans affairs would be required to use standards in existence before Carter's program began April 5.
Since the beginning of Carter's program, the Pentagon has received inquiries from 36,519 Vietnam veterans seeking to upgrade their discharges. Some 488 Vietnam era deserters have asked for a review of their cases under the program, according to a Pentagon spokesman.
The spokesman said 17,000 of the non-deserter inquiries were from veterans who are eligible to have their discharges reviewed individually by special military boards.
At least 254 of the deserters were judged eligible for review. So far, 62 of the deserters have been "returned to military control" and separated from service, and are now awaiting a review of their discharges, the spokesman said.
Under Carter's program, Vietnam ear deserters "must return to military control," receive an undesirable discharge and then apply for upgrading. The program, which expires Oct. 4, does not apply to persons who deserted from a combat zone.