Washington — In symbol and substance, the Vietnam veteran seems to be getting a better shake in Washington these days. Counseling centers for troubled veterans of the unpopular war -- centers which the Reagan administration had wanted to eliminate -- have strong bipartisan support on Capitol Hill and seem likely to survive the austerity blitz. There are moves to extend GI Bill education and training benefits for Vietnam vets, and Republicans as well as Democrats are pushing for more help for vets who may have been exposed to the herbicide "Agent Orange" in Southeast Asia.
As part of a public relations effort to "separate the warrior from the war," a series of national programs honoring Vietnam veterans has just been launched with strong backing from the former US hostages in Iran.
Recent government studies confirm that many American veterans of the Vietnam war suffer what is called "delayed stress syndrome." Some experts feel this is linked not only to the unpopularity of the war, but to the fact that its combatants tended to be younger, poorer, less well-educated, and more likely to come from minority groups than those fighting previous wars in US history.
Compared with their peers in the military who did not see combat, those who fought in Vietnam have higher divorce and unemployment rates, are more likely to get into legal difficulties, and have more problems with drugs and alcohol.
Faced with this growing realization, Congress two years ago finally established "Operation Outreach" to provide counseling for troubled vets. Some 91 storefront centers have opened since then with many of the counselors coming from the ranks of Vietnam vets themselves.
By all accounts, the centers have been marked success, with more than 40,000 vets and their family members seeking help. The Veterans Administration (VA) -- which had been criticized for not handling the special problems of Vietnam vets -- recently concluded that Operation Outreach is doing a good job and ought to be expanded.
Being able to discuss fears and concerns with fellow vets away from the more formal VA setting, supporters say, may be "the ounce of prevention" that deters serious problems.
Nonetheless, the Reagan administration wants to terminate the program when its current legislative mandate runs out this fall. Earlier this year, the White House "hiring freeze" prevented the VA from hiring new program personnel for positions already authorized by Congress.
Sen. Alan Cranston (D) of California and seven Democrats in the House have taken the unprecendented step of suing Office of Management and Budget Director David A. Stockman to force the White House to restore those funds already approriated for the counseling program. A house subcommittee last week unanimously restored additional three-year funding for "Operation Outreach" through 1984.
Significantly, support for the program appears just as strong in the GOP-dominated Senate. Sen. John H. Chafee (R) of Rhode Island calls it "one of the most popular and deserving programs now offered veterans of the Vietnam conflict."
Noting Ronald Reagan's assertion (during the 1980 presidential campaign) that America's purpose in Vietnam was "noble," Sen. Larry Pressler (R) of South Dakota says, "If it was a noble cause, then we should give them a noble reward."
Senator Pressler, one of the few members of Congress to have served in Vietnam, has introduced legislation extending have served in Vietnam, has introduced legislation extending Operation Outreach for two years. His legislation also provides compensation and treatment for those exposed to toxic substances (including Agent Orange), as does a bill authored by Sen. H. John Heinz III (R) of Pennsylvania.
In fact, there already may be some softening of the administration's position on Operation Outreach. A VA official last week told a Senate committee that the White House will continue to fund it if Congress so decides.