ONE OF THE SADDER disharmonies in American public life in recent years has been that between the Carter administration's approach to Vietnam-era veterans, and the veteran's response. The administration has sponsored a range of programs meant to go beyond the usual benefits offered those who served and to address the particular circumstances of alienation and neglect arising from the controversial nature of the war. Many veterans, nonetheless, still feel left out and victimized, the more so that this administration professes a special insight into their needs. The Carter team, not without documentation, regularly claims that Vietnam-era veterans have achieved substantial successes in returning to the civilian society, but the very making of this claim is evidence to some veterans of an insensitivity to those whose return has been incomplete.

In a sense, the administration is merely the lightning rod for the sense of many veterans that the country as a whole has failed to give due honor to their service and to make good adequately on their personal losses. Yet Jimmy Carter has made his own contribution to the problem. It is not merely that his programs - affecting "bad" discharges, psychological services, government jobs, pensions, and so on - have come under telling criticism. Despite his acknowledgement of a "special debt of gratitude" to Vietnam-era vets and his promise to "get the Vietnamese War over with," he has conveyed a certain personal hesitation. Many veterans, at any rate, sense it. And Congress has been most responsive to the old-line veterans groups that sometimes look upon Vietnam vets merely as competitors for federal largesse.

It is a proud boast of Jimmy Carter's that he has sent no American soldier into combat. That cannot be taken as a devaluing of the service that other Americans performed. Last fall the administration asked Congress for a $250 million package of improved benefits for Vietnam-era veterans. The moral heart of this package is a $10 million item for psychological counseling that has been rejected on Capitol Hill no less than four times since 1971. The small Vietnam-veterans congressional caucus, which understands these matters better than most, believes the package to be minimal. The public has meanwhile had the opportunity to have its consciousness of the travails of veterans raised, or created, by several Hollywood movies. Memorial Day is the right occasion to think through again what the nation owes these men.