WHEN WE SUGGESTED that the administration might round up some of its sacred cows for a more rigorous program of diet and exercise, we singled out the budget for veterans' programs. Only a fraction of these funds goes to the especially deserving -- the victims of combat. Worse yet, while billions are still to be spent on ailments and benefits that have no connection with active military service, the administration plans to kill the one small program that is reaching out to help America's most desperate combat veterans -- the mentally shocked men and women still haunted by the horrors of Vietnam.

As described in an Outlook report by staff writer Myra MacPherson, these troubled veterans have found personal relief in a basic program of storefront vet centers. There, in the company of each other, a chemistry similar to that of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings has worked to soothe stresses that have resisted other rehabilitation efforts. There are 91 of these modest little meeting rooms, most of them manned by fellow Vietnam veterans who have known firsthand the trauma of coping, during and after, with an unpopular war.

They have known all along what was pointed out just this week in a $2-million, eight-year study; that the veterans of combat in Vietnam are plagued by significantly more emotional, social, educational and job-related problems than those who were not in battle. They have known, too, that the women in this war have been suffering from the same delayed stress syndrome: flashbacks, depression, alienation, guilt.

The penny wisdom of closing these counseling centers is obvious: You are talking here about $30 million at most, when nearly $8 billion will be spent next year on a veterans' hospital system that provides free care for any ailment, service-connected or not; and when another $4 billion will be spent on pensions for veterans with no serive-connected disabilities. With all this federal fat around for the trimming, why kill a program so financially insignificant that it doesn't even show up in the main federal budget book but means so much to so many genuinely deserving combat veterans?

There are bipartisan efforts under way in Congress to rescue the counseling centers. Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.) and Rep. Margaret M. Heckler (R-Mass.) have been pressing for inclusion of the money and so far, so good: The Senate Budget Committee has approved funds for the program, and the full Senate should uphold that action; the House Budget Committee is scheduled to take up the matter today and here, too, this proposal deserves solid support.