TOn THE SECOND DAY of his presidency, Jimmy Carter issued a pardon to Vietnam draft evaders, thus restoring access to the rights and benefits of full citizenship for perhaps 10,000 or so self-exiled young Americans who refused to serve. Early in April, the President attempted to provide equal treatment of a sort for tens of thousands of men who saw service during the Vietnam years and received less-than-honorable discharges. To simplify the upgrading process, he defined the criteria for favorable consideration to include: a trouble-free combat record in Vietnam prior to discharge, a military decoration, a wound received in action. Last week, the House of Representatives voted 273-136 to deny any veterans' benefits to those veterans whose discharges are upgraded under the President's accelerated review process. We think the following excerpts from the debate preceding the vote tell you all you need to know about how much a minority of the House has learned from the Vietnam experience --and how very little a majority of that body has learned:
MR. MURTHA (D-Pa) . . . Let me tell this House something. I served on the ground in Vietnam. I saw the criticism in this Congress. I saw the criticism in this country. I saw these young fellows, not understanding, but they went as they were sent and the people in this House appropriated the money to fund them and they sent them to fight on the ground and in the mud to their knees, in the water up to their waists. They did not question it. They worked. They fought and died.
I had a young fellow in my district. That young fellow was in combat for over 13 months. He came back home. His father was dying of cancer. The young man had a very serious wound in Vietnam. He deserted in [the] technical sense of the military. He never came back. He had only 30 days to serve. He never came back. He had only 30 days to serve. He went back into the service after seven years. He was put into the brig. He had been decorated, wounded and was kept in the brig and given an undesirable discharge. His discharge will be upgraded.
Nobody who sat in this House served in Vietnam. They cannot tell me that this young man should not get his proper benefits and should have to wait two or three years. All we are saying is to expedite the benefits. . . . These fellows have had as much as they can stand. . . . I do not in any way condone desertion or those on AWOL. This is merely upgrading an undesirable discharge of a fellow who has this type of discharge.
I think if we pass this amendment, we are slapping the man in the face who has served in combat, been wounded in combat, and is going to have his discharge upgraded. . . . I do not know that there is one other person in this House that has served with the ground forces in Vietnam and saw the tragedy and suffering these young fellows went through, while everybody back here in this Congress were in their air-conditioned offices telling these soldiers what to do. . . .
MR. KOCH (D-N.Y.): . . . I will not even try to evoke in this House the same sense of outrage which I feel along with [Rep. Murtha] at the thought that this House might lend itself to another vindictive act against so many of our young men who served in the war in Vietnam and lived, and have been nearly destroyed by that immoral war.Today an overwhelming majority of the American citizens would agree that we never should have been in that war and that our involvement was unjust, indeed immoral. To punish the young men whose lives have already been so severely damaged when President Carter is seeking to ameliorate the damage and end the divisiveness in our country simply makes no sense. The servicemen who are eligible under the April 5 special discharge review program are for the most part the poor, the uneducated, and the marginally qualified because the selective service system of deferments and exemptions favored the rich, the educated and the well counseled. And it is these service-men who did the fighting who also received a disproportionate share of undesirable discharges. . . .
MR. EDGAR (D-Pa.): . . . I would like to have us focus for a minute on just whom we are talking about. From some of the comments that have been made, it sounds like we are talking about people who have deserted in combat situations, or it sounds like we are talking about people who have committed violent crimes, who have criminal intent, and who have used force to get out of the service. But, in fact, the President's program specifically states that people who have left the service under conditions of violence or criminal intention, or use of force, or who have deserted in combat zones, are excluded from the categories of the President's program. . . .
We are talking about some individuals who may in fact have served an active tour of duty in Vietnam over a 24-month period, who have come home from a satisfactory service of duty to our country and who in the waning months of that service may have in fact picked up one joint of marijuana and were arrested.
MR. MONTGOMERY (D-Miss): . . . I do not see the difference between the Vietnam war, the Korean war or World War II. They are all bad wars. The persons fighting the war cannot tell any difference. I cannot see why the amendment discriminates. It says that in the Vietnam war we should not reward those persons who got a less than honorable discharge.I just cannot find the difference.