America honors her war dead this week, but the veterans of Vietnam are still without the memorial they want erected on the Mall in Washington.

Like so many other legislative matters involving the veterans of American's longest war, the plan for a Vietnam commemorative is caught in a congressional pincer.

In a bow to the symbolism of acting before Memorial Day, House leaders rushed last week to win final approval of a resolution authorizing a privately financed monument on the Mall.

The resolution, started by Sen. Charles McC.Mathias (R.Md.), had passed the Senate with all 100 members as cosponsors. It had 196 sponsors in the House and the blessing of the leadership for quick passage.

The resolution authorized the use of two acres of public land in Constitution Gardens, in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial, for a momument to be financed through private subscription.

But questions raised at the last moment by Rep. Phillip Burton (D-Calif.), chairman of a parks subcommittee that has public land jurisdiction, forced a strategic retreat.

Resolutions subcommittee Chairman Lucien N. Nedzi (D-Mich.), fearing a formal objection that would thwart quick passage, agreed to a change in wording, simply designating two public acres in the District of Columbia rather than specifically on the Mall.

The amended resolution then was passed by the House. But the changes meant that conferees from the House and Senate would have to get together later to work out the site language differences.

Time ran out as Congress left for its Memorial Day weekend, and hopes of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, sponsor of the project, to have President Carter sign the resolution when war dead are honored were thwarted.

Memorial Fund officials were stunned, but refused to be critical of Burton for his eleventh-hour questions about the appropriateness of Congress specifying where the memorial should be.

"From the beginning," said fund official Robert Doubek, "we have seen a prominent site as a significant part of this effort and we see Constitution Gardens as an appropriate place for this symbol of national reconciliation.

"We thought it was right for Congress to designate the site and we thought everyone was in agreement that the monument should be in an area that was the site of massive demonstrations, near the Lincoln Memorial, which also symbolizes reconciliation."

In its way, the tangle over granite and mortar symbolized the frustrations of many of the nine million Vietnam-era veterans over congressional and public tepidity toward their readjustment problems.

"The idea of a memorial is fine," said Steve Champlin of the Vietnam Veterans of America, "but it brings home the irony of the problems faced by Vietnam-era vets.

"There is no political cost in lining up behind the flag and supporting a veterans' monument, but members of Congress won't line up on more important issues like psychological adjustment aid or treatment of Agent Orange victims."

Under prodding from Champlin's lobbying group, Congress last year established a small-scale readjustment counseling program through the Veterans Administration. About 40 percent of the centers opened so far by the VA have been swamped with applicants.

"Veterans have literally lined up for help where these have been opened," Champlin said.

The reluctance of Congress and the VA to undertake a full-scale investigation of the health impact of Agent Orange, a powerful and highly toxic defoliant used for eight years in Vietnam, causes equal concern.

Vietnam veterans who served in areas sprayed with Agent Orange have attempted without success to get VA assistance for an alarming number of cases of birth defects in their offspring, cancer and nervous disorders, which they attribute to the chemical.

The VA administrator, Max Cleland, said last week that the VA would reexamine hundreds of Vietnam veterans who claim their exposure to Agent Orange caused skin disease. Cleland also said the VA has begun a study of the full effects of the defoliant on soldiers who may have been exposed to it, but he did not elaborate on what that study might entail.

In the absence of federal aid, the Vietnam Veterans of America two weeks ago inaugurated a toll-free telephone network to provide information on Agent Orange to ex-GIs.

Champlin said that calls to the number (800-424-5402) have come at a rate of 600 a day. During the first 10 days, VVA sent out 4,000 mail responses giving guidance on Agent Orange and a 12-page questionnaire that is part of an epidemiological study.

"The situation is the the VA will not do this and we are taking on the burden ourselves with the first national outreach program, which is being helped by a Ford Foundation grant," Champlin said. "We had to do it."

Champlin's views were seconded by Rep. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), a former Air Force officer who heads a caucus of 19 Vietnam-era veterans who sit in Congress.

"We have a responsibility to those veterans that is not getting support in Congress, although I detect a slight change in attitude," Daschle said. "I think I have finally got a commitment from the Veterans Affairs Committee to have additional hearings on Agent Orange. We'll move a lot further on helping these guys."

Daschle, incidentally, was not a consponsor of the memorial proposal, for what might be called reverse reasons.

"It seems to me that for every block of mortar in a memorial, there ought to be a block of support for Vietnam veterans that is not tangible. That's where the commitment for a memorial ought to be, because we tend to wash our hands of responsibility after we build a memorial."

Daschle was more concerned about the 6-to-4 defeat by a veterans affairs subcommittee 10 days ago of his proposal to create a special job-voucher employment program for Vietnam-era GIs.

"We're going to keep educating people, trying to get this idea going," Daschle said, "and I think we'll have a good program within the next five years."

But, he added, the real problem is that the Vietnam vet can't wait. "The average age of the Vietnam vet is 34 right now," Daschle said. "In five years, he will be over the hump on career decisions. We've shown that 115,000 vets would use vouchers and the cost would be less than other programs. 1

"Why doesn't Congress act? There is a perceptible response to pressure from the public. We'll just keep trying. It's all we can do."