When Victor McKay tried to warn the government that it was wasting millions on a foreign aid program, he says his memo was thrown into a trash can and he was later fired.

When Clif McKenzie complained that the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Oklahoma was authorizing illegal travel advances, his supervisors soon found his work performance "unacceptable" and he, too, lost his job.

And when Shirley Stoll exposed instances of patient abuse at a Veterans Administration hospital in Missouri, she was labeled a troublemaker, she says, and confined to a tiny room at work where she could receive no visitors and make no phone calls. Four months later she, too, was fired.

McKay, McKenzie and Stoll are a sampling of the nation's "whistle-blowers," federal workers who see and report what they believe is government waste, mismanagement and fraud. Their fates, and those of others who have "gone public," reflect the adage about killing the messenger with the bad news. Blowing the whistle can be tantamount to professional suicide, and some who tell all end up wishing they had never opened their mouths.

Officially, everyone lauds the concept of blowing the whistle, calling it a taxpayer service. Presidents have proclaimed that whistle-blowers should be praised, not punished, and four years ago the government set up a special office to protect them and investigate their charges. These days there is even a hotline for reporting waste and fraud. Yet many of those who have dared to make specific allegations say whistle-blowers are no better off now than they were in 1968 when A. Ernest Fitzgerald disclosed a $2 billion cost overrun at the Defense Department -- and was fired.

Fitzgerald, the best known whistle-blower in the country, waged a 14-year court battle before getting his old job back recently. Today he says he doesn't see "any real change" in the treatment of whistle-blowers, despite government assurances to the contrary. And whistle-blowers who have waged less publicized--and usually, less successful -- struggles against job reprisals concur.

"You're thought of as a snitch, a tattle-tale," says Bill Bush, an engineer with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration who has three file cabinets full of material on his whistle-blowing case and those of other government workers. He concludes that "people who tell the truth have their lives ruined."

Of course, truth is not always easy to determine, and many so-called whistle-blowers' allegations have later proved unfounded. Some employes, according to government officials, have leveled misconduct charges after being passed over for promotion; others have sought the protection of whistle-blower status as a defense against their own incompetence. Still, for the federal employe who sees a suspected wrong, exposes it and then suffers career reprisals, the quest for vindication can become an obsession.

"If you talk to a lot of whistle-blowers long enough, you'll find some are a little bit off," says Bush. "They're obsessed with winning back what was stolen from them, and it really hurts to be encouraged to come forward and then have your head chopped off." And, he adds, whistle-blowers also want someone to act on the information they have risked their jobs to provide.

"I've talked to people who couldn't sleep at night because they knew about these problems and couldn't get anyone to do anything about them," says Bush.

Bush believes the special counsel's office set up to protect whistle-blowers is turning out to be useless and that many federal employes who have tested its support have found it wanting. Other federal workers who have turned to the office for help even suggest it has become a whistle-blower "sting" operation, helping agencies target potential troublemakers.

The office was established in 1978 after Congress, at Jimmy Carter's urging, created the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) and a separate Office of Special Counsel to defend federal employes, especially whistle-blowers, against personnel abuses. In the case of whistle-blowers, the idea was to protect them from retaliation and make sure the alleged wrongdoings were investigated and, if true, cleared up.

The strongest criticism of the office was generated during the 14-month tenure of Alex Kozinski, who resigned in July as special counsel to take a position as a commissioner for the U.S. Court of Claims. Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), who chairs the House Civil Service Committee, was so dissatisfied with Kozinski's efforts to protect whistle-blowers that she introduced a bill to abolish the office. Since his resignation, however, she has written President Reagan that she is willing to give the office one more chance, provided Reagan appoints a "determined and qualified" replacement.

That replacement will likely be William O'Connor, a former criminal prosecutor who is currently inspector-general at the Community Services Administration. O'Connor calls it "probably one of the most challenging jobs in government."

But as he awaits Senate confirmation, critics of the way in which whistle-blowers have been treated have taken to pointing out the areas where the office needs improvement.

Despite what he estimates as "hundreds and hundreds of allegations," Louis Clark, executive director of the private Government Accountability Project, says the special counsel has never successfully gone before the Merit Systems Protection Board and won a case stating that a whistle-blower suffered reprisals. He says the special counsel's records show that the office rarely seeks to stay personnel actions taken against whistle-blowers, seldom asks agencies to investigate allegations of wrongdoing and practically never orders agencies to take corrective actions.

Clark, whose organization has agitated for whistle-blower protection since 1975 and has helped the special counsel put together many of the cases, says the office was also hurt at the outset by an MSPB ruling that put the burden of proof on the whistle-blower to show retaliation. This, he notes, left the special counsel's office as little more than an attorney for whistle-blowers, with little clout of its own.

In the four-year history of the office, according to Clark, it has never been run as Congress intended. First, he complains, the Carter administration failed to seek Senate confirmation of its nominated special counsel. Later, there was feuding between the office's acting special counsel and the MSPB. And finally, although Reagan was quick to get a special counsel confirmed and in place, the office's functioning continued to deteriorate.

The irony, says Clark, is "There is a more responsive attitude here and there in the Reagan administration than we ever saw with Carter. But in the office where they are supposed to be responsive, it is absent." Kozinski's arrival, he believes, ran the program into the ground.

Kozinski, before his departure, disputed his critics, saying he had improved the professionalism of the office and cut the backlog of cases from 1,300 when he arrived to 600 today. Many cases were settled informally with agencies, which are usually asked to conduct their own investigations into the allegations. But the bulk of the reductions occurred because the office dismissed most cases, finding them not to be "pure" whistle-blowing situations under the law.

Michael Spekter, a lawyer who worked 2 1/2 years with the special counsel's office, says he finally left in July after deciding that the office was not fulfilling its mission. To succeed, he says, it needs to function more independently and to become more of an activist on behalf of whistle-blowers. While he said he doesn't blame anyone, he complained that the case selection and filtering process had become so fine that whistle-blowers "get trapped in there and tossed out with the computerized letters."

That can be a problem, especially for the federal employe who is being punished for disclosing negative information about his or her agency.

"I reported evidence of patient abuse months ago, and the special counsel's office is still telling me it is going to conduct an investigation," says Shirley Stoll, who says she started calling Congress and the media about the problem after Veterans Administration officials in Poplar Bluff, Mo., and then Washington, ignored her concerns.

The 46-year-old nursing instructor says she spent four months in a little room, prohibited from having visitors or phone calls, and was fired in December 1981. Pressure from members of Congress and a television network's report on her case subsequently won her job back for her.

Victor McKay, 58, hasn't been so lucky. The Falls Church resident complained to Congress that the Agency for International Development was wasting $5 million to $10 million a year by educating foreign students, one-third of whom were violating the program's requirement that they return to their homelands. He was fired in 1974, won reinstatement and was fired again in 1977. AID disputes McKay's allegations, noting that a U.S. Court of Claims judge ruled in 1981 that his dismissal was proper and not based on alleged whistle-blowing activities. McKay, who now works nights at the Post Office, is appealing.

Clif McKenzie, 39, who reported that coworkers at the Bureau of Indian Affairs near Oklahoma City were receiving illegal travel advances, said he was in touch with the special counsel's office "up to the day I was fired" in September 1981.

After his ouster, McKenzie won reinstatement by taking his case on his own to the MSPB, which ruled his firing was unwarranted, but took no position on whether his dismissal was in retaliation for whistle-blowing. The bureau is appealing.

Bill Bush's fight with NASA, still his employer, is now before the Supreme Court. The 57-year-old aerospace engineer from Huntsville, Ala., says he ran into trouble with the agency after complaining to Congress in 1975 about age discrimination. When Bush, who was earning $32,000 a year, was then moved to a job where he said he "just sat around," he complained about that, too, and had his salary reduced by $10,000.

Although a 3 1/2-year court battle subsequently got his old salary restored, Bush says he is still persona non grata at the agency and is suing a NASA official for his legal expenses and for damage to his career. NASA disputes Bush's whistle-blower status but will not comment further because of the pending litigation.

Jim Sugiyama, associate special counsel for investigation, commenting on the cases, said the office did not move as quickly as it should have on Stoll's situation because budget shortages curtailed travel. McKay's firing, he says, occurred nine days before the whistle-blower protection provisions went into effect. McKenzie's firing, he adds, was deemed not to be a "prohibitive personnel action." The special counsel's office has no record on Bush.

Fitzgerald, the nation's No. 1 whistle-blower, calls the special counsel's office a product of Carter's "civil service deform act" and predicts whistle-blowers will continue to be punished. Bush laments that the government still hasn't learned, "Where there's money, there's going to be abuse."

And Victor McKay, who says his legal fight for honesty in government has cost him more than $20,000, just wants some show of support. "More shocking than the millions of dollars of waste," he says, "is that to complain about it means you stand alone." CAPTION: Picture, Victor McKay and his son Patrick pose at their Falls Church home with his 1940 Studebaker, which he plans to restore. McKay was dired by the Agency for International Development after complaining AID was wasting up to $10 million a year educating foreign students, many of whom did not return to their homelands as required. Says McKay, "More shocking than the millions of dollars of waste is that to complain about it means you stand alone." By Gary A. Cameron -- The Washington Post