Like the 52 freed Americans, they want to come home, too. Strictly speaking, they already have returned to American soil. But for many of the 2.8 million Vietnam war veterans, the national fanfare that welcomed the former hostages back to this country has been a sore reminder of the homecoming they never had.
According to Vietnam war veteran counselors and activists, the days-long celebration over the return of the ex-hostages has prompted an outpouring of concern from veterans around the country who -- while as grateful as the next American for the hostages' safe return -- feel "left out," as one says.
"We happened to come home to a very silent homecoming," said veteran Ron Kovic, a paraplegic who organized a press conference here for veterans to air their feelings. "Of course, we want to make it very clear we're happy the hostages have come home.
"But when we talk about patriotism, when we talk about heroes," he says, "it is well to remember that there are thousands of young men and women in this country who still have not received their welcome home.
"A lot of veterans, without being crybabies, are feeling left out," he continues. "They wish some of the attention now being given to 52 people could be directed to the needs of millions of veterans. Although they might not want to be called heroes, they are victims."
What has particularly rankled them, many Vietnam veterans say, is the fact that it took nearly 10 years to get the government to provide them so-called "delayed stress syndrome" counseling -- a psycological reaction the government immediately began watching for in the 52 hostages.
It is ironic, they say, that the information the government now has on the syndrome was culled from the experiences of Vietnam vets -- and that one of the psycologists working closely with the freed Americans is Charles Figley, a Vietnam veteran who has studied closely, and written extensively onM delayed stress.
But of even greater concern are the funding problems veterans' programs now face, a situation compounded by the federal hiring freeze ordered Jan. 21 by President Reagan.
Today there are 91 Operation Outreach counseling centers around the country. Set up under a three-year program approved by Congress in 1979, the centers offer readjustment counseling to veterans to help them deal with delayed stress syndrome.
The $10 million program, which is estimated to have involved 50,000 veterans since it began, was scheduled to receive an additional $6 million to open another 30 centers nationwide -- a funding increase that was put on hold as a result of the President's hiring freeze.
"We're hoping President Reagan will grant us an exemption from the freeze," says Shad Meshad, who designed Operation Outreach and is now West Coast regional coordinator of the program.
"We're really praying to God," says the veteran, who is also hoping to get legislation through Congress this year that would extend Operation Outreach for another three years beyond its October 1982 expiration date. "We're praying to God we get an extension. [Veterans] are coming in from everywhere for counseling. And we need to continue our work."
Some veterans say they don't expect to get much from a government they claim has largely ignored their needs. But they hope they can get the public to understand that "we would appreciate some of the help [now offered to the hostages] for ourselves," says one veteran.
And despite the current political trend toward budget cutting, Vietnam vets say they believe public support is on their side. They cite in particular a 1980 Louis Harris poll that found that only 1 percent of those interviewed believed the government should be doing less for Vietnam veterans, while 66 percent believed the government should be doing more.
Activists also say they hope the support these veterans have been getting lately in news stories and editorials will continue with the release, in approximately two months, of the first national study ever done on Vietnam veterans.
Frustration remains, however, especially in the wake of the "commercialization" of the return of the hostages, says Bob Muller, executive director of Vietnam Veterans of America, a veteran's advocacy group.
"At first there wasn't much of a reaction," says Mr. Muller, a veteran who is paralyzed from the chest down. "But in the past few days it's become more and more of an irritation . . . with big companies offering the hostages free gifts, tickets, and all this hoopla. Guys are getting upset.
"I just can't handle everybody wanting to just write off Vietnam as a bad period in history, he says. "Not when I know there are so many veterans still struggling to deal with what happened to them a decade ago.
"They are somehow caught in a time warp of bitterness and resentment," he continues . "Somebody's got to reach out and bring them home."