They are finally getting their parade this week. And like the Vietnam war itself, veterans of that conflict view it with decidedly mixed feelings. Pride, sorrow, maybe some embarrassment, not much joy.
Is it simply an attempt to separate the warrior from the war, a nation's belated thanks to the 2.7 million men and women who served there, especially the 57,939 who didn't come back? Or, as some suggest, is it a revisionist justification of America's longest and least-popular conflict?
They smile at me now from curled and fading snapshots. Jim Dooley. Dean Smith. Larry Stevens. Smokey Tolbert. Behind the barracks in Pensacola. Beside airplanes. Aboard aircraft carriers. We were fiercely proud of our skills as young naval aviators, jet pilots, tail-hookers.
We were ''officers and gentlemen,'' barely out of school, agreeing with a young Winston Churchill that ''nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.'' I remember them now, these friends and squadronmates whose names are chiseled in black granite.m
America this week is holding a National Salute to Vietnam Veterans. It started with a candlelight vigil at the Washington Cathedral, where volunteers have been reading, in alphabetical order, the names of the men and women who were killed or are still considered missing in Vietnam.
Jimmy Stewart, Wayne Newton, and other celebrities put on a show (tickets $20 ). There was a wreath-laying at Arlington National Cemetery. Units that fought in Vietnam are holding reunions. Vietnam veterans in Congress have convened panels on Agent Orange and ''post-traumatic stress disorder.'' The American Legion, Gold Star Mothers, and other service organizations are holding receptions.
The highlight of the five-day affair will be a parade down Constitution Avenue Saturday and dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Organizers expect a quarter of a million people to observe and take part.
''One thing we hope this salute and memorial can do is make the country a little more proud of the veterans and make the veterans a little more proud of their service,'' said Jan Scruggs, the former Army corporal who started the memorial fund on his own three years ago.
I look for their names among the thousands on this controversial and moving memorial, and think back. Jim Dooley, the redheaded Irishman and expert ski instructor from Vermont. Dean Smith, the intellectual and humorous Georgian. Smokey Tolbert, the open and friendly Oklahoman who flew with the Blue Angels before returning to Vietnam for his second combat tour.
The morning after Larry Stevens was shot down one night over the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos, I sat in the cockpit of an A-4 Skyhawk aboard the USS Coral Sea off the coast of Vietnam and wrote his young wife a letter. She wrote back from southern California, saying she was sure he would be rescued or repatriated. That was February 1969. He is still listed as missing in action. I find his name here on the black granite. Panel No. 32-west, Line 33.m
''Public art, particularly art that commemorates a political event, is unavoidably political,'' James Webb, a Vietnam veteran and author (''Fields of Fire''), said recently. He is one of many Viet vets who complain that the controversial memorial on the Washington Mall is too negative, ''a black gash of earth . . . a tribute to Jane Fonda.''
''Opinions about the war will continue to differ as long as the human power to rationalize remains,'' says US Rep. Don Bailey (D) of Pennsylvania, a Vietnam combat vet. ''We cannot be honored if indeed we participated in an immoral endeavor, unless we are excused as victims,'' Mr. Bailey insists. ''We were not victims. Rather we did fight for proper political goals, for proper human and national goals.''
Officials agreed to add an American flag and statue of three soldiers to the site. Bailey and others worry that these additions may be hidden in the trees over toward the Lincoln Memorial. They vow to design and build their own memorial somewhere else if that happens.
I wonder now what my friends would have thought of this memorial, designed by a young Asian woman from an Ivy League school. They might be surprised to see the bumper stickers proclaiming, ''I'm a Vietnam Veteran.'' Or to know that reserve officer training enrollments at Harvard are the highest since ROTC was kicked off campus 13 years ago.
''Part of it is that tuition funding is getting more difficult,'' said an Air Force major there. ''But it's also become more socially acceptable to be in the ROTC, more than it was in the early '70s.''
m As a presidential candidate, Ronald Reagan made news when he declared the Vietnam war to have been ''a noble cause,'' yet he will not attend the memorial dedication, officials say. Many Vietnam veterans have criticized him. They protested the administration's attempt to cut back counseling centers for veterans, some of them setting up a ''tent city'' and fasting in Lafayette Park across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House.
They charged that the Veterans Administration was dragging its feet on studying the possible effects of the defoliant Agent Orange on vets and their children. They were never happy with VA chief Robert Nimmo, who recently resigned under fire. The administration's first choice for a new VA administrator came under heavy criticism from many in Congress urging the President to appoint a Vietnam vet.
I think I'll come by to see this black granite, these names, again tomorrow. I'll bring my six-year-old son. He'll like the parade. Maybe later, when he's older, I'll tell him about the names.m