ALONG WITH the other burdens they bear, many Vietnam-era veterans must confront the reality that few in Congress have any special understanding of the problems they face. A few congressional allies have spoken out when legislative decisions were made on the GI Bill amendments, unemployment, health care, the upgrading of discharges, readjustment and other issues. But no organized bloc of Vietnam-veteran advocates was on hand to influence policy until a few weeks ago, when 11 members of Congress who served during the Vietnam era joined together to work collectively on behalf of the large national constituency composed of their fellow veterans.
The group was pulled together by Rep. David Bonior (D-Mich.) who was an Air Force sergeant. He said in a recent interview: "Part of the problem lies in under-representation. Although 19 of the 28 members of the house Veterans Affairs Committee are veterans, only one is a Vietnam-era veteran. Anyone claiming that the Vietnam vet has been adequately cared for simply ignores the facts."
Others joining Rep. Bonior are Sen. John Heinz (R-Pa.) and Reps. Les Aspin (D-Wis.), John Cavanaugh (D-Neb.), David Cornwell (D-Ind.), Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.), John LaFalce (D-N.Y.), John Murtha (D-Pa.) and Leon Panetta (D-Calif.). The formation of this group of thoughtful and energetic men means that in furture discussion of veterans issues the particular interests of those who served in Vietnam will be represented far more forcefully than they are today. The two congressional veterans committees, the Veterans Administration, the White House and such traditional groups as the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion are all heavily under the influence of that far larger mass of veterans of earlier, more conventional and less controversial wars. In a recent letter to Max Cleland of the VA, the new group raised its voice about issues that either have yet to be faced by Congress and the administration or have been faced only glancingly: the inadequacies of the GI Bill that cause eastern and midwestern veterans to miss the benefits provided in the South and West, the low allocation of funds for psychological care and drug and alcoholabuse treatment, and the employment problems of the 2 million Vietnam veterans with incomes below $7,000.
Not long ago, the group met with VA and White House officials. Its conclusion, predictably enough, was that the VA and White House "tended to underestimate the problems facing many Vietnam veterans." If Mr. Bonior and his colleagues can step forward to give at least an accurate estimation of the problems, that in itself would be a major advance. But the larger ambitions of the group deserve to be taken seriously: to serve as an effective legislative advocate for the veterans of Vietnam. The job promises to be arduous - but not thankless. The many Vietnam veterans who have been waiting to be recognized - and valued - by their government are likely to be grateful for almost any clear sign that somebody is determined to get on with this important piece of the unfinished business of the Vietnam War.