Thousands of Vietnam-era veterans expecting education aid checks from the Veterans Administration early next month may not get them -- at least for a while.

The VA is withholding payment to 128,000 veterans whose aid requests were cleared after Aug. 28 because it hasn't got the $40 million needed to pay them. "These drastic steps are necessary," explained an internal VA memo, "because funds are simply not available."

The VA's education fund ran dry when an unanticipated number of veterans decided to leave the labor market due to the recession and return to school, according to VA benefits director, Dorothy L. Starbuck.

The VA submitted a $40 million supplemental appropriation request to the Office of Management and Budget months ago, according to Starbuck but the request was not submitted to Congress until yesterday afternoon.

If Congress acts quickly, as Starbuck and OMB officials expect, most of the waiting veterans may get their checks on time. If the special request is delayed, however, nothing will be processed until the beginning of October, when a new fiscal year refills the VA's coffers.

In that case, said Starbuck, veterans will not get their checks -- normally due around Oct. 1 -- until the middle of the month.

"For the guy who's waiting for money, those are very dry days," acknowledged Starbuck.

Even if the supplemental appropriation is approved early next week, there almost certainly will be some delay for veterans expecting special advance payments later this month to help cover tuition bills for the coming term.

About a million veterans will receive some kind of VA education funding this year, according to the VA. Vietnam-era veterans are eligible for such benefits for 10 years following their separation from the military.

Under the GI bill, a single veteran attending school full time receives $311 each month, while a married veteran with one child would receive $422 per month.

Edwin L. Walker, a retired air force colonel who coordinates veterans affairs for the 2,500 veterans in the Northern Virginia Community College system, said that one effect of the payment delay might be that some veterans will delay their education plans.

"If they don't know when they're going to get the money . . . they may be inclined to put school off until later," he said.

Carol Elstead, coordinator for the 750 veterans at George Mason University in Northern Virginia, said any delay in payment "is definitely going to create a hardship."

"They're dependent on this check for their rent and their groceries," said Elstead. "They're depending on that to live."

Thomas Glier, a student at George Mason who served almost a year in Vietnam, called the problem "general bureaucratic bungling" typical of the VA.

"I feel sorry for the people who don't know it's coming," said Glier. The VA has notified colleges -- but not individual veterans -- that checks may be delayed.

Veterans "make plans for that money," said Glier. "When it doesn't come, they can't be thinking about where they are going to get that money at the last moment.

"Certain energies that could be applied toward school, toward education, are going to have to be directed toward making money."

But John Merck, chief of OMB's veterans branch, expressed confidence that Congress will act "almost immediately" on the supplemental appropriation request -- "certainly by the first of next week."

"There will be no delay in checks," Merck predicted. The benefits are "like food stamps or social security," he said. "There's no question that they are going to get it."

Starbuck said economic conditions, rather than VA error, were to blame for the shortage of funds. "There has been no miscalculation at all," she said.