A LONG WITH MANY others, we were disappointed that President Carter signed legislation on Saturday creating standards for awarding GI benefits to veterans whose "bad paper" discharges have been upgraded to honorable status. The bill was not our idea of what some 161,000 Vietnam-era veterans with undesirable discharges deserved, especially if they were to be treated with the same compassion and forgiveness accorded pardoned draft evaders. Many of those whose lives will be affected by Mr. Carter's decision served in combat and later deserted or otherwise got into trouble or else were men who should never have been accepted into the military in the first place. Some were wounded in combat and some were decorated for valor. These are not abstruse realities that the President didn't fully understand. Indeed, his own six-month review program - which ended last week after having fulfilled only part of its promise - was launched in the same spirit of "forgiveness and compassion" that supposedly gave rise to his pardon of the draft evaders.
Although some of the blame for the mean-minded reaction of many members of Congress to the Carter program must be borne by the administration for its failure to explain its intentions, it may well have been that no explaining at all would have succeeded. A vindictive mood was created in Congress, particularly by those who worried that deserters who fled to Canada or Sweden might be allowed to return home to collect GI Bill benefits. But in aiming for this target, Congress not only missed the Canada or Sweden contingent (few of its number were upgraded anyway) but it hit and wounded the one group that was especially vulnerable: the poor, the uneducated, the unemployed and those who were pressed into service despite their being unfit for military life. This group mosly stuck it out in the service for a time before folding, for one usually understandable reason or another, when the pressure became too much. For them, upgrading and benefits represent a last-chance shot at rehabilitation and a useful life.
With disillusionment already high among Vietnam veterans (as some of today's letters suggest), the President's decision is likely to increase the feeling of being forgotten. If a recovery can be made, it will come in some of the areas Mr. Carter spoke of last Saturday when he signed the bill. He promised to propose legislation next year that "recognizes the need for an equitable and compassionate attitude" toward "bad paper" discharges. Presumably this proposal will be pushed with a little more vigor than that with which the administration lobbied its position as the newly signed bill made its way through Congress.
In addition, it can be hoped that the languages of the new law will be interpreted by the Veterans Administration and the Department of Defense in a somewhat more generous and understanding spirit that has been apparent in Congress. In barring benefit eligibility to those who were AWOL for 180 days or more, the bill allows the VA to consider the mitigating circumstances for the absence. Much latitude ought to be present here. It should also be present when the discharge review boards meet to reevaluate the benefit eligibility of those who were upgraded under the Carter program.
Whatever directions the newly approved standards take in the next few months, it is certain they will be watched closely, not only by Vietnam veterans themselves but also by such groups as the National Military Discharge Review Project of the Georgetown University Law Center, the American Civil Liberties Union and the United Church of Christ. All have worked with ex-servicemen seeking relief. The new bill has several useful provisions - it isn't a total defeat. An effort now must be made to ensure that the setbacks this law inflicts upon deserving Vietnam veterans are only temporary.