TWO GENERATIONS of veterans are complaining that they are being treated unfairly by the government when it comes to health and disability care for injuries that may be service-related. Vietnam veterans, whose duties required them to come into contact with the herbicide Agent Orange, claim that a wide range of illnesses, from skin disease to birth defects, has been caused by the chemical. They want medical treatment and more information on the predictable effects of exposure, and some want permanent disability pay.

Less noticed until recently was a group of veterans who served a generation earlier and who participated in the early testing of atomic weapons in the western states and in the Pacific. According to a doctor at the Communicable Disease Center in Atlanta who studied one group of these veterans, the incidence of leukemia in the sample is significantly higher than it is in the general population. Thousands of "atomic veterans" have filed disability claims for illness they blame on exposure to radiation, but the VA has approved only 29 of them.

Disability is a difficult claim to establish and an expensive one to cover. Each case must be considered individually--in both the Agent Orange and the atomic test cases--and a specific connection demonstrated between exposure and illness. The extent of disability must be assessed and, once it is established, the government assumes a permanent and costly liability. But medical care and information are easier to provide. Broad rules can be written and presumptions made in favor of the veteran.

For two years, medical care has been provided for the Agent Orange vets, and work has been undertaken on an epidemiological study of the effects of the chemical on human health. Until this week, however, no such help has been offered to the older veterans. Now the VA has announced that free health care will be given in government hospitals to all the atomic-test veterans whose illnesses might have been caused by exposure. It will be assumed that unless an illness is one for which another cause has been demonstrated, it has been caused by radiation.

These veterans, just as the Agent Orange veterans, also need information about the possible dangers of having been exposed. If there is a disproportionate incidence of cancer in this group, all need to be warned. Steps can be taken to adjust life styles and minimize the risk; early warning signs can be caught; prompt treatment may save lives. And, of course, if clear epidemiological evidence is produced that these men have in fact suffered injuries that are service-connected, disability claims can be filed and must be paid.