Of the 2.2 million who served in Vietnam, those who came here this week for the nation's tribute to them appeared to bring a jumble of contrasting and conflicting memories, ideas and emotions. With them came anxieties and quiet triumphs, both anger and peace, a measure of resentment as well as an outreach of love for each other that can prove a wrenching thing to witness.

To understand a little of what they've endured, it helps to see the small, ironic smile of former Marine sniper Joseph White of Baltimore, ambushed and nearly shot to pieces on Christmas 1969 while on his way to see Bob Hope, as he describes the Iranian hostages returning to cheering crowds whereas he had been "snuck in at night on a stretcher. They didn't even tell my family I was coming."

Or see 5-foot former Army nurse Sarah Lee McGoran of Auburn, Wash., flinch at the sound of an artillery salute as she chokes back tears for the wounded whose faces she could never bear to see, but sees today in dreams.

Many still wonder what they fought for and why. They are finding out here this week.

Historian William Manchester, who wondered similarly during World War II, concluded in his book "Goodbye Darkness" that, in the end, "it was an act of love" for those he knew would have died to save him.

"Those men on the line were my family, my home . . . closer to me than . . . any friends had been or ever would be . . . . I had to be with them rather than let them die and live with the knowledge that I might have saved them. Men, I now know, do not fight for flag or country, for the Marines or glory or any other abstraction. They fight for one another." Jerry Hardy

One-time Army infantryman Jerry Hardy, 37, of Janesville, Wis., borrowed money to come to the Vietnam veterans salute. Hardy said he was drafted at 20, served a year in Vietnam between 1966 and 1967 and was twice wounded.

He was glad to see the names of the war victims on the memorial, but "they still put us in a hole." He also questioned the $7 million expenditure, all raised from private donations.

"I was against it from the start," said Hardy, who now is unemployed and on welfare after losing his federally funded community service job in the wake of last year's federal budget cuts. "I still don't think it's worth $7 million. I'd rather seen it spent on the widows and the veterans."

Then Hardy looked up and saw a Huey helicopter flying from the nearby Pentagon across the Potomac River. "You'll never forget that sound," he said. "Sometimes it was the prettiest sound you ever heard, coming to save your ass." Joseph White

Joseph White, 34, of Baltimore is unemployed. In 1968-'69 he was a Marine sniper in Northern I Corps near Quangtri. In one 22-day sweep called Operation Purple Martin, he says, "we went out with a battalion and came back with little more than a company."

He was shot twice in the back during a night battle in November 1969, and a month later during the Christmas cease-fire was ambushed and shot 13 times "on the way to Camp Eagle to see Bob Hope."

He was unconscious for 23 days and, now fully recovered, still marvels at "the care they took of me. I'm supposed to be dead." White helped break ground for the Vietnam memorial ("I still have my shovel") but has "too many friends on the wall" to have much hope this week of meeting those he served with overseas.

The person he'd like most to find and thank is an Air Force nurse who crouched by his stretcher and held his hand on the flight from Yokasuka, Japan, to Andrews Air Force Base in February 1970. "She stayed with me all the way, man. I don't know her name or where she's from. But she was a redhead. And she had beautiful legs." Peter Campbell

Peter Campbell, 40, of Gainesville, Fla., hitchhiked to Washington for the unveiling of the memorial, undaunted by having to maneuver on one leg.

Campbell was drafted in 1967 and sent to Vietnam to serve as a second lieutenant and, later, a captain. "I allowed them to draft me," he said. "My friends and neighbors sent me to Vietnam. Some friends, huh?" He said his leg was shot off in 1968 and he now lives on a disability pension.

Campbell brought with him to the wall his high school graduation yearbook, tucked away in a knapsack, and scanned it for a photograph of the buddy he called "the best looking guy I ever knew." He left his buddy in Vietnam.

"Believe it or not, I actually wanted to go back" after the injury, he said. "I didn't feel the job was finished . . . I think we started out to ensure democracy, but sometimes I wonder if anyone's interested anymore." Herbert Schandler

Herbert Y. Schandler, 52, a retired colonel living in McLean, is a writer and consultant. For nearly 10 of his 23 years as an Army officer, he was associated with Vietnam.

In 1965-'66 he was battalion executive near Lai Kue with the 1st Division, and in 1969-'70 he commanded the 3rd Battalion of the 187th Infantry north of Hue on the "Street Without Joy."

"We had some pretty good battles on that last tour," he said. "I lost nearly half the battalion."

From 1966 to '69 he worked at the Pentagon in the office of Strategic Plans and Policy as an assistant for Southeast Asian Affairs and was one of the authors of "The Pentagon Papers." "Daniel Ellsberg declassified some of my best work," he said.

After the war, Schandler relied on his experience in Vietnam, turning his doctoral dissertation at Harvard into a book called "The Unmaking of a President: Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam." Thursday he moved through the reunions, one pin striped suit among the fatigue jackets, handing out his business card and talking up his book. Stanley Griffin

Stanley Griffin, 34, is a maintenance man at an apartment building in College Park. A D. C. native, he dropped out of Spingarn High School in 1968 at age 19 to join the Army and fight in Vietnam.

He was wounded by shrapnel in November of that year, he said, but volunteered to finish his tour in 1970, figuring he would not have to see combat again, and the Army was the best deal an unemployed, black dropout could hope for. "I'm 21, making $600 a month, you couldn't beat it," he said of his later duty as an infantryman at an airfield.

Griffin was a mine-sweeper in Vietnam when one blew up, killing a colleague and injuring him. "Booby traps got most of our unit . . . We were all expendable. We had no rights when we were there, except the right to die.

"I got out in 1970, and been wandering ever since. Got married, separated, I went through the same s--- probably all these guys in fatigues went through . . . .

"I wanted to forget. I wanted to put it in a bottle and bury it in the ground." But he said he came out to the memorial to relive the memory just one more time. "I wanted my children to see. After Saturday, I won't ever be back." ? Jack Ferrier

Jack Ferrier, 33, works as a freelance photographer in Hartford, Conn. In 1969 he was a paratrooper with the 173rd Airborne in the Central Highlands.

He came here "to find peace with myself and spend some time with my memories . . . I lost a lot of friends. In the spring offensive that year, we lost a whole platoon."

Ferrier himself spent 5 1/2 months hospitalized with shrapnel wounds in his arm, back and legs. "We were on a small little reconnaissance patrol--five Americans and five South Vietnamese rangers. We hadn't had any contact in a couple of weeks. And this 6-year-old boy came walking across the hedgerow and threw a grenade." All the Americans were killed or wounded. "The South Vietnamese took off." Jim Everett

Jim Everett, 34, works for a swimming pool company in Orlando, Fla. In 1968 he was riding armored personnel carriers with the 25th Infantry in the vicinity of Tayninh, near the Cambodian border.

He has no idea how many people in his company were killed during his year in Vietnam, just "many. Very many."

He returned from Vietnam confused and bitter, and on May Day 1971, threw his medals on the White House lawn. "Nobody understands me," he said. "Not unless they've been through it . . . That's the principal reason I came. I've lost contact with every friend I ever made over there."

Everett heard about the week-long salute to Vietnam veterans only last week. Wednesday night, after struggling fruitlessly to explain to his boss why the trip was important, he piled his wife and two kids in his van and drove all night to Washington.

As of Thursday noon at Arlington Cemetery, he hadn't slept for 24 hours and didn't plan to. He was looking for others who would understand. Robert Nogle

Robert Nogle, 39, of Aberdeen, S.D., is unemployed because "I've been crazy, man. I'm rated 100 percent."

In 1967-'68 he was flying Caribou STOL aircraft for the Air Force around Khesanh and the DMZ. "The best were medevac missions when you felt you were doing something."

But other times he would be "flying KIAs out who'd been dead awhile. Something would happen and the body bags would break and there would be maggots and the smell all over the plane. You could hardly fly. And you'd get back to the base and they'd have to hose out the plane it would be so bad.

"And watching the whole operation would be these green kids. I would then fly right back in." Even so, Nogle said, it wasn't Vietnam that gave him his "wound between the ears"; it was coming home.

Nogle came with other South Dakota veterans to dedicate the memorial but he's not entirely at peace with it. "A friend of mine's plane crashed with four Red Cross girls on it. I wonder if their names are on the wall?" Robert Astore

Robert Astore, a 33-year-old postal worker from Hoboken, N.J., was a sergeant in the central highlands of Vietnam for one year, beginning in 1969.

He watched from a distance the crowds that came to scan the names of the dead and missing on the memorial's wall: "I got mixed emotions about it. It's a memorial to the dead. It's not a memorial to the folks who are still living.

"I'd rather see something that shows how the generation that went to Vietnam had some glory. All you see are names of dead people. They don't have any statues showing our moments of glory."

He still suffers for having served there, he said, and attends outreach programs to get over his deep mistrust of others.

"The government was the one that did the dirty deeds. We came home to what? To 'baby-killer,' 'dope addict,' and all that. I'm still trying to fit in. People hear Vietnam veteran, they want to stay away. They think I'm a wacko. You come back and you get a boot in the ass." David Gray

David Gray, 36, from Indianapolis, went to Vietnam as a 17-year-old Marine private in 1966.

"I went over feeling I was doing the right thing," he said, "and came back and found the people here didn't respect the American soldier."

Gray, who now holds odd jobs, drove down with three veteran friends to take part in a ceremony he thinks "is long overdue."

"I don't think this would all be happening now if not for the Iranian hostage thing," said Gray, wearing his Purple Heart, Good Conduct Medal, Vietnam service medal and battle fatigues. "It was the type of welcome they the hostages got compared to the welcome they gave us. They weren't real heroes. They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. And all these guys who were wounded in Vietnam got no recognition.

"We couldn't separate the politics of the war from the veterans themselves." Sarah Lee McGoran

Sarah Lee McGoran, 42, counsels families and children in Auburn, Wash. In 1967 she was an operating room nurse with the Army's 12th Evacuation Hospital at Chu Chi.

"I was young and idealistic . . . I could deal with wounds or bodies but I couldn't look at the faces. If I did I would start to cry."

When she went back to college to study counseling amid the height of the antiwar demonstrations, "I didn't tell people I'd been to Vietnam . . . . I was part of the enemy."

Life was almost normal until one day around 1980, when she began having flashbacks. "I was driving on the freeway and there was this Army truck in front of me. The truck was real, but all of a sudden it was stacked with bodies.

"Other times I'd have visions of soldiers crowded 10 in a bed. . . and there were these faces, miles of faces" of the wounded she had tried never to see.

Finally this year she was able to get together with other nurses and talk out the bottled-up pain. But the real release has come this week with those who have tried to say thank you. "Don't you see?" she said, tears welling from her eyes. "I needed to hear from these guys how they felt about what we nurses did over there. That it meant something. I've been waiting 14 years to hear that."