REP. ROBIN BEARD (R-Tenn.) is a member of the Marine Corps Reserve who recently did a two-week stint of active duty.Having talked with everyone from two-star generals to boot-camp recruits, he claims to have discovered strong sentiments against President Carter's program for reviewing Vietnam veterans' discharges. This is the review, to be done in a spirit of "forgiveness and compassion," that lists at least six categories under which ex-servicemen with other than honorable automatically upgraded but would also regain eligibility for various benefits - the G.I. bill, desability payments and other aid - avaible to veterans who originally received honorable discharges. According to Rep. Beard, in comments made to the Army Times, the military people he talks to are upset that "some of their contemporaries who got booted out on un undersirable (discharge) because thay were just nothing but incompetents in many cases or troublemakers are now going to be eligible for veterans benefits."
Rep. Beard has come beck to Congress so fired up today he plans to ambush the administration on this issue by offering an amendment to the Housing and Urban Development Agencies Appropriations bill. The amendments would bar the use of Veterans' Administration funds for payments veterans' benefits to those whose discharges had been upgraded. Rep. Beard's proposed end run of the usual legislative process has a number of drawbacks, any one of which be enough to warrant the defeat of his amendment.
First, hearings on the discharge-upgrade program have already been scheduled (June 20 and 21) in the House. The administration, apparently caught off guard by the opposition to its program, has not preformed well in explaining the issues. The hearings are the time and place for the administration to make its case and to explain that its program is anything but the casual "giveaway" that its opponents make it out to be. Before Congress acts, it ought to hear the argument.
Second, Congress has before it two important pieces of proposed legislation on the subject. One, offered by Rep. Thomas J. Downey (D-N.Y.) and Robert W. Kastenmeier (D-Wis), provides a thoughtful, though not entirely adequate, alternative to administration policy. The other, introduced by Rep. John P. Hammerschmidt (R-Ark.), would carry out Rep. Beard's desires by denying benefits automatically to veterans whose discharges have been reviewed and upgraded. Rep. Hammerschmidt's capacity for compassion is reflected in his stated view that "our citizens have incurred no debt to those who turned their backs, or did not perform up to the minimum standards of the service." As Don Winter wrly observes in an article on the opposite page today, you would think that a 10-year veteran of Congress like Rep. Hammerschmidt, who by virtue of his tenure bears som responsibility for U.S. policy over some part of the Vietnem era, "would be shy of mentioning 'minimum standards of performance' in the same breath as Vietnam."
Third, though Rep. Beard may find it convenient to dismiss as "incompletes" or troublemakers" those ex-servicemen who have undesirable discharges, a calmer look at the situation would reveal that two general categories of deserters exist-men who served honorably in Vietnam but who under one pressure or another, deserted upon return to the United States. (According to the administration, only a few dozen deserters actually fled the scene of battle in Vietnam ).The other category comprises individuals who perphaps shouldn't have been accepted in the military in the first place: the undereducated, victims of brokens homes, the poor and those who had civilian records.
The spirit of forgiveness and compassion of which the President speaks can be defended on its own terms. Moreover it is not without precedent: earlier administrations had similar programs for "bad paper" discharges. Finally, it is not as though the review boards will be eliminated and the money tap turned on indiscriminately. The issue turns on the manner and criteria by which ex-servicemen with "bad paper" discharges can receive the full benefits that would normally come from having their records reviewed and the sale wiped clean. Rep. Beard's amendment is wrong on both the merits and the method by which he would ram it through without even a semblance of a hearing or a debate. We hope it is defeated if it comes up for a vote as expanded rtoday.