A spate of recent books and movies tells one part of their story, but for thousands of former soldiers Vietnam is still the war that stays in the closet.
Many of the 9 million Vietnam-era veterans see themselves as scorned strangers in their own land, targets of lingering resentment over a war that pleased no one.
They also see themselves abandoned by the Carter administration, which 25 months ago held out hope and promise of reconcilation and special help for a special kind of veteran.
White House and congressional committee statistics paint a picture of a Vietnam-era veteran doing well in the job market, getting betten medical and educational benefits than World War II and Korean War vets.
The picture is not only wholly inaccurate. But the story has another side, a side of intangibles of the spirit.
"Their perception is that they are rejected by society or, at best, treated apathetically. The combat veteran feels he was exploited. He feels alienated and 'used' by the society that sent him to war," says Dr. John Wilson professor of psychology at Cleveland State University.
Those perceptions are heightened by political wranging at various levels of government.
The White House has no full-time staff assistant assigned to veterans' matters, and plans to have none. Veterans complain that the president has not taken the lead in hiring Vietnam vets or in arguing their case.
A Department of Labor program to provide special employment help to Vietnam vets became entangled in politics and personality clashes, which left it without a director for seven months will Carter picked one last month.
House and Senate veterans affairs committees have been hung up over health-benefits programs tailored for the Vietnam vet, and Senate conservatives have succeeded in cutting back proposed spending levels.
Rep. David E. Bonior (D-Mich.), chairman of a congressional caucus of 19 Vietnam-era veterans, comments that the rosy statistics of progress miss the point.
"One of the problems is that Vietnam vets have a low priority with the administration, a low priority with the traditional veterans' organizations, and there is only one Vietnam veteran on either the House or Senate veterans committees," he said.
An insider's view is provided by Roland R. Mora, who quit the Labor Department last summer, bitter about his experience as the presidentially appointed chief of veterans employment programs.
It was not that way in 1977, when the new Carter administration made Mora its main man for putting unemployed Vietnam vets to work.His credentials seemed to underline the promise of greater help on jobs, benefits, medical care.
He was a Vietnam combat vet, former Marine Corps captain, half-Apache, half-Hispanic, a college graduate, active Democrat, Carter campaign advance man, one-time organizer for Cesar Chavez's farm workers. And he had been an unemployed veteran three different times.
President Carter made him assistant secretary of labor for veterans' employment, a new post. In the federal hierarchy, he would be outranked on veterans' matters only by Veterans Administration chief Max Cleland.
A year later, Mora was again a jobless veteran. Frustrated by battles of the bureaucracy, disillusioned by lack of progress and funding cuts, and under pressure from his superiors, he quit.
Also gone now from the department are the four Vietnam veterans Mora put on his staff to assist and advise on the job programs. The last to go was David Christian, one of the country's most-decorated vets.
Christian's controversial departure-actually, the department refused to make his job permanent-was the last straw for Mora.
"I said I would be quiet if they would not go after the people who had been loyal to me." Mora said. "But promises have been violated . . . It is clear that Dave's strong advocacy for veterans was bringing visibility on the department and demands on programs that the department had not been able to implement."
He added, "The Christian case is only symbolic of what is happening generally to Vietnam-era veterans."
An irony of this is that, by the time Mora quit last year, veterans' unemployment was going down and the administration was beginning to move with development of new proposals for legislative programs.
Bonior and his caucus of veterans met with Carter last year and came away with good feelings, but the Michigan congressman still is critical-as much for the intangibles of spirit as the tangibles of programs.
"The president has some senstivity to the problem, but they are a long ways from resolving this," Bonior said.
The caucus is introducing a package of legislation providing extended education benefits, job incentives and medical-psychological, alcohol and drug-abuse assistance programs that go beyond legislation pending before the committees.
"We do not have a psychological-adjustment program for Vietnam veterans," Bonior said. "The traditional groups haven't demanded it, and a lot of the senior committee members are very sensitive to our criticisms. We are raising questions that they do not want to face."
Robert Muller, 33 a disabled Marine combat vet, is executive director of the Council of Vietnam Veterans, a small group that lobbies for improved benefits and works closely with Bonior's caucus.
His group is changing its name to Vietnam Veterans of America, with the aim of working as much for improved benefits as for directing a change in the country's attitude toward the Vietnam military generation.
"Every time I go to a meeting, people ask me 'what do you guys want?" They do not understand that we are not a bunch of 'give-me's' and that we are not looking for the buck. We want people to understand that these veterans are a resource to society, not a burden," Muller said.
"The feelings that have kept the Vietnam issue in the closet for so long have begun to dissipate," he continued. "I think the nation is ready to start to come to terms with what that war meant to us. And I don't know if the remedy really is in Congress. That's why I am upset with Jimmy Carter."
Muller continued, "The White House says, 'What do you want?" This misses the point. Why isn't the president effecting a reconciliation in this country? He has an obligation and a mandate to do that, to call it into the public eye. He could have done something different, but his first official act as president was to honor those who did not serve by announcing his draft pardons."
Joseph C. Zengerle, another veteran, Washington attorney and council member, sees the situation in another context.
"Last Fall, Carter came up with these legislative proposals, and Vice President Mondale was sent out to announce them. Why not the president? Why not explain that these veterans are not stupid or evil? He hasn't done that so far," Zengerle said.
He, Muller and others see the White House refusal to have a full-time staff person to deal with Vietnam veterans' issues as a symbol of neglect.
Zengerle also surveyed Carter's appointments to the top 700 positions in his administration in 1977. He could come up with only five names of Vietnam-era vets.
"I contrasted that with the number of people from other movements-civil right, environment, antiwar, antipoverty, consumer, feminist. Veterans were out-ranked by about a 20-to-1 ratio: a huge proportion of people who were not in the armed services and who shared an antiwar spirit. It is difficult for them to perceive the thoughts and problems of Vietnam veterans," he said.
Statistics such as those and such as the administration cites as evidence of improvements in the vets' situation don't take veterans like Bonior and Mora very far.
"I think we have gotten ourselves into a very serious situation. Lives were affected tremendously by the Vietnam war-deep psychological scars were left, and we do not help anyone by delaying remedies," Bonior said.
The bill drawn by his caucus proposes extending and increasing GI bill educational benefits, doubling the administration's proposed $10 million program for psychological readjustment counseling, establishing new home-loan and employment schemes
He sees nothing but hard times ahead for the proposals, however. "It was time to do these things years ago, but we are facing a very austere budget now. It is going to be difficult," he said.
The problem, as Mora sees it, is the attitude in high places. "Vietnam veterans don't think the government owes them anything special," he said, "but they do believe that anyone who supported the war is responsible for the damage and for caring for those veterans."
"Because of what's happened and because of the attitudes they see, I estimate there are about 1 million veterans out there who have checked out of the system-and I don't know if we'll ever get them back," Mora said.
Mora though his own experience symbolic in another way of attitudes in high places.
Carter's written response to Mora's letter of resignation did not say "thank you." Rather, it said, "You may be sure that you have my best wishes for your every success and happiness."