THE VETERANS Administration was founded to carry out Abraham Lincoln's admonition, quoted on the plaque at its headquarters: "To care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan." A recently completed Louis Harris survey of Vietnam-era vetarans, and of the public perception of them, underlines poignantly the words of Lincoln's statement. It is combat experience, especially heavy combat, that sets some veterans apart from their military colleagues not subjected to battle, as well as from those who did not serve. Many veterans with heavy combat experience are plagued by persistent memories of death and dying. They suffer considerably more emotional, drug and drinking problems, family difficulties and health problems than do other veterans. They are the ones who continue to express the greatest isolation from American society as a whole.

Although the age and race distribution of the Vietnam-era veterans in general who was different from that of the nation as a whole, those who were in heavy combat were disproportionately poor and young -- both black and white. The responses these veterans gave to the survey show that, even for the vast majority of them who are outwardly doing well, the fact of their experience in battle is a continuing negative -- not quite a disability for most, but a psychologically indigestible experience they underwent for sake of their country.

This crucial aspect of the veterans' experience is not reflected in the administrative and legal structure of the military or of the Veterans Administration. People flow through the VA on the basis of formal paper categories that can be tracked in formal paper records. The fact is that neither the Defense Department nor the VA knows precisely who was in combat. And even among those who served in Vietnam, experience varies widely. The administrative difficulties of matching eligibility for benefits with having "borne the battle" leads to the growth of other categoreis like "service-connected disability," which overlaps only partially with "wounded in battle." The categories never fit real experience. Such mismatching is probably inherent in the response of large institutions to complex individual situations. Certainly the government is full of programs that aim generally in the right direction, but somehow don't quite reach those they are meant to help, amidst the details of statute and the regulations and the program administrative guidance and the reporting forms. But if any part of the government is to be made to work better, we have to move beyond simply feeling exasperated with large organizations.

Trying to design some aspect of the massive VA structure -- spending some $20 billion each year -- to take account of the unique distinction of combat veterans is a good place to start. These veterans went through something that none of the rest of us has experienced. And they did it because we as a nation ordered them out here.