IN LATE MARCH, the Department of Defense moved in the right direction by creating a program for reviewing the discharges of Vietnam-era veterans. The review, to be done in "a spirit of forgiveness and compassion," listed six categories under which servicemen with other than honorable discharges would have those discharges automatically upgraded. This special consideration was to be extended to veterans who had a satisfactory record for 24 months prior to discharge, for example, or had been wounded in achon, or had been honorably discharged from an earlier tour of service. In addition, eight other considerations were listed, such as whether personal distress "may have contributed to the acts which led to discharge," or whether the person "entered the military service from a deprived background."

Two responses to the Carter review program have materialized in Congress. The first, articulated by Rep. John P. Hammerschmidt (R-Ark.), is that the administration has established "give-away criteria" that would allow less than honorably discharged servicemen to receive the educational, health and other entitlements that the honorably discharged enjoy. Rep. Hammerschmidt finds it "ludicrous" that "non-performers" should be automatically entitled to the same benefits of those who never fell in the first place. He believes that the 'upgraded' veterans should be directed to the Veterans Administration to have their individual appeals for benefits heard under already existing standards.

With support from such groups as the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Rep. Hammerschmidt has accordingly introduced legislation to deny automatic veterans benefits from being passed out to those whose discharges are upgraded under the review program. Similar bills have been offered by Rep. David E. Satterfield III (D-Va.) and Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.).

A second reaction comes from Reps. Thomas J. Downey (D-N.Y.: and Robert W. Kastenmeier (D.Wis.). Their bill seeks tomake the administration's current program more comprehensive. One provision, for example, calls for it servicemen, not merely those of the Vietnam era, to be given the opportunity to seek relief. Except for drug abuse cases, the reasons for other than honorable discharges during the Vietnam era were generally ghe same in earlier wars. A second provision would allow an applicant to receive assistance from a Legal Services Corporation lawyer. A third provision would allow the review boards to issue what is called an "honorable discharge (limited)." This means that the individual's military record did not warrant a full honorable discharge and its entitlements. But the stigma of that record would be removed, with only the proper authorities knowing of it, on a confidential basis. Finally, the Downey-Kastenmeier bill lists a considerable number of specific categories under which persons can base their appeals for upgrading, an approach that would increase the chances for uniformity and equity among the various services.

Of these three solutions to one problem, the least helpful, to our mind, is the Hammerschmidt-Satterfield-Thurmond approach. It is an axe where a scalpel is needed. A large portion of the affected 550,000 ex-servicemen affected by the discharged review procedures are already so burdened by unemployment, poverty and lack of education that the additional stigma of a less than honorable discharge is needlessly severe punishment. If we are talking about "forgiveness" and "compassion" - as the President is - then holding down those who are already at or near the bottom is a repugnant form of vindictiveness. These are mostly the men who went into service out of a sense of duty, or who lacked the means, scholarship - or influence - to avoid military service by college deferment or whatever.

The argument is not the full absolution should be give - and still less that it should be given thoughtlessly. At issue are the criteria and the methods by which these ex-servicemen can be given a chance to be upgraded. The Downey-Kastenmeier proposal address this issue. Its provisions can be readily adopted by the Department of Defense; in fact, some of them (the call for the review boards to be regionalized) already have been. In addition, it is flexible because it calls for the department to upgrade those discharges that clearly deserve it. This avoids the "blanket pardon" approach that arouses the fears of some of the older veterans groups.

The Department of Defense is evidently committed to respond to President Carter's call for "forgiveness and compassion" and is willing to do the work. Thousands of ex-servicemen are in urgent need of being restored to first-class citizenship. All that remains is for the letter of the law to be effectively and sensitively defined. It should not be too much to ask of Congress that it produce procedures and a set of rules that reflect both the complexity of the problem and the spirit in which the President professes to be attempting to put the Vietnam tragedy behind us - once and for all.