By way of introduction, Chairman Ray Roberts (D-Tex.) recited bits of his committee colleagues' war records: medals won, wounds suffered, ranks achieved.
His House Veterans' Affairs Committee, Roberts was telling a panel of Army witnesses, is a committee of veterans as well as for veterans.
He introduced Rep. Olin Teague (D-Tex.) with a smile as the most decorated World War II hero next to Audie Murphy. "He's got a great many more decorations than his chest would support," Roberts said. Teague won three Silver Stars, three Bronze Stars and five other medals in World War II.
The reason for creddentialing the members before they questioned Army Secretary Clifford Alexander and his aides was that Roberts and his colleagues who fought in World War II were facing a problem so serious that at one point Roberts told Alexander:
"You're going to destroy our whole military system."
The threat is the Defense Department's special discharge review program, instigated by President Carter to upgrade discharges of some Vietnam-era veterans.
Time and time again the congressmen asked why Vietnam-era veterans should be treated differently, and over and over Alexander and Paul D. Phillips, deputy assistant secretary of the Army for manpower and reserve affairs, waffled.
While Alexander's role was to defend the Carter plan, he ducked several invitations by the committee to explain just why Vietnam veterans should be treated differently than veterans of other wars. He also declined to criticize the discharge procedures used during the Vietnam period, even though Carter administration officials have called those procedures capricious.
Only Col. William Weber, a one-armed veteran who is deputy head of the Army's discharge review board council, addressed the "specialness" of Vietnam that Carter believed required his special program.
"No one is getting a free ride," Weber said. "Some of them were victimized and not the perpetrators." He said the Pentagon hopes "those who are disadvantaged by bad discharges and got their discharges in error" will apply for review.
"What's the difference between the Vietnam war, the Korean war and World War II? They're all bad wars," said Rep. G. V. (Sonny) Montgomery (D-Miss.,) the only committee member who was a general.
It seemed that the World War II generation of congressmen, most of whom were in Congress throughout the Vietnam war, agreed with Montgomery that there was no difference.
Rep James Abnor (R.S.D.) mentioned that some people said Vietnam was a bad, even immoral war, but he didn't venture his opinion of such people. The matter seemed Irrelevant.
Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) is not a member of the Veterans' Committee and wasn't there yesterday, but last Wednesday he told colleagues on the House floor what he perceived made Vietnam different. Said Murtha, who thinks he is the only House member who saw ground combat in Vietnam:
"There was tremendous criticism at home, and many of the men slinked back home, ashamed to wear their uniforms. They were embarrassed to admit they served in Vietnam.
". . . The people from World War II and Korea came home as heroes and the men from Vietnam came back and felt they were not heroes."
Alexander quoted Carter's explanation that the special discharge program was meant to help end the divisiveness of the Vietnam era, but several members of the Special Oversight Committee formed to consider denying veterans' benefits to participants in the Carter program remarked that it opens old wounds rather than heals them.
Although the special committee is considering the benefits question, seven members made their views known last Wednesday when they joined the majority in a 273 to 136 vote approving an amendment forbidding such benefits.
Roberts and the others made clear yesterday they haven't changed their minds. If the Vietnam veterans with bad discharges -- even only those who received wounds or served one successful Vietnam tour before getting into trouble -- are upgraded the future of the military would be threatened, several congressmen argued.
"A man would have to be insane to go to war," Roberts said, if he knew that he could skip the country and in a few years be forgiven.