LONG the troubled baby brothers in the family of soldiers who have fought United States battles, the survivors of the Vietnam conflict have become ``sad big brothers to another generation of veterans,'' says Ken Smith, president of the New England Shelter for Homeless Veterans. Sitting in his cramped office on Court Street, Mr. Smith moves from one crisis to another, a little wild-eyed, fielding phone calls and answering interruptions. He was an army medic in Vietnam, but now he provides respite from wounds caused by economic hardship and drug and alcohol dependency. ``My clients,'' he says of the 100-plus veterans who use the 14-month-old shelter, ``represent the effect of combat violence on the human psyche - untreated.''
Despite their own concerns, residents of the shelter have watched closely the unfolding of the Gulf war. The night of the first US attack on Baghdad ``this place was unbelievably quiet,'' recalls Randy, a Vietnam veteran who declines to give his last name.
Shelter clients, most of them Vietnam veterans, are determined to voice support for ``the brothers in Saudi Arabia,'' as Smith puts it, so that history does not repeat itself. They want to make the way home smoother for the men and women who return from the war in the Persian Gulf.
So ``support the troops'' is a common, fervently used phrase in the shelter, but it's a sentiment that sometimes masks more complex reactions to the war.
In interviews, some of the veterans here say that a divided country, where protesters cheapen and undermine the sacrifices of those in combat, makes war, already bad enough, unbearably worse. Rick Cirrone, a Vietnam-era veteran who works at the shelter, is concerned about the antiwar demonstrations. The ``kids'' in Saudi Arabia ``need to know the US is backing them,'' he says. ``Just support ... the war.''
Another employee - at the shelter's front desk - is Gary Harding, a nonveteran whose brothers served in Vietnam. Mr. Harding won't go so far as to say that domestic divisions make war worse than it already is, but he says ``that's been the experience'' for the men in the shelter.
Mr. Cirrone says again, later: ``Without the support, these guys are dying.''
In Washington, Sen. Steven D. Symms (R) of Idaho is organizing congressional support for ``Operation Homefront,'' a mostly volunteer effort to help the families of those in the Gulf and ``to create the atmosphere for a rousing return'' for the troops, says Senator Symms's press secretary, Dave Pearson. ``What we are trying to avoid is the same kind of reception Vietnam veterans got.''
In the cases of veterans who oppose the war in the Gulf, the desire to avoid a repetition of the Vietnam experience is deep enough to stifle protest. Mary Stout, president of the Washington-based Vietnam Veterans of America, says the vast majority of her organization's members supports the Gulf war. ``Even the few who don't feel we ought to be there have a very strong feeling of support for the troops,'' she adds.
Kevin, a shelter resident in Boston who was a helicopter machine gunner in Vietnam, finds himself in a difficult situation. ``I really don't think Desert Storm was a good idea, but now that shots have been fired, I'm in an uncomfortable position - I have to support what's going on.'' He declines to give his last name.
Wearing a light-blue T-shirt and an idle Walkman tape player, Kevin is sitting in the cafeteria area of the shelter, a collection of bright-yellow, tight-fitting booths that must have come from a fast-food restaurant. He presides over a day-old copy of the Wall Street Journal and an ashtray that he steadily contributes to, along with a worn paperback of ``Lake Wobegon Days'' - he's reading the book for the third time.
Kevin took part in a prowar demonstration a few days ago, to show his support for the troops. But as far as the war itself goes, he says, ``I could just as easily have been marching on the other side.''
Most of the veterans in the shelter say they support the war, he says, ``but deep down I wonder.'' He adds: ``There's not much talk about the cause itself; it's more about supporting the troops.''
Part of Kevin's concern is about what may yet happen. ``I really think it's going to be a disaster before it's over.''
At a meeting last week attended by many residents, shelter president Smith, explaining that he's been besieged by reporters asking him to convey the feelings of his clients about the war, takes an informal poll. ``I'm telling them that every one of us supports the brothers in Saudi Arabia. Am I right?'' he asks, and the response is a loud and universal ``Yeah.''
When he asks how many don't support the ``idea'' of United States intervention in the Gulf, only two or three hands go up. The majority say they support the troops and the idea.
After the meeting, four residents sit down and talk about the war with a reporter. The veterans generally aren't shy around the media. Since the shelter opened 14 months ago, a stream of reporters and television crews has passed through, most interested in the shelter itself and others seeking reaction to the Gulf crisis. So the glare of klieg lights is a humdrum part of the daily routine.
Hoyt Van Jones, an Air Force veteran of Vietnam, says President Bush moved too slowly in responding to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's aggression. He says he's behind the troops and behind Bush.
But Clay Rockie, who served in the US Army, poses a question that echoes Vietnam-era debates.
``Why are we over there in the first place?'' he asks, and says he does not understand the motivations behind the war. All four in the group agree that they are ``uncomfortable'' with the feeling that there's some ulterior reason for war.
But the sense that diplomatic efforts were tried unsuccessfully carries the day here. Bush has ``done the right thing because now he's pushed into it. His arms are tied,'' says Richard English, who took part in the Grenada invasion.
Bitter memories of Vietnam and the perception that Bush has acted justly make some of the veterans unwilling to tolerate public protest. ``There's no way you can protest the war, and support the troops. It's a contradiction,'' says Mark Helberg, who founded the shelter with Smith and two others.
Asked how objectors should register their dissent, three veterans critical of antiwar protests say they should write legislators and work behind the scenes, but stay off the streets.
Bill Durant, a veteran of the Korean War, says the Gulf conflict is undesirable but just. ``We got pulled into something that we really didn't want, but that had to be stopped.''
``What really gets to me ... is to see demonstrations in the streets,'' he says. What he learned in war is that ``brother helps brother,'' and he says a similar feeling is what is called for in the Gulf crisis, at home and abroad.
In his office, away from the banners that read ``P.O.W. - M.I.A.'' and ``Our Cause Was Just,'' Ken Smith recognizes that the widespread support for the Gulf war among the homeless veterans is at times more visceral than thought out. It's a ``defense mechanism,'' he says, the result of ``a camaraderie and brotherhood that's difficult to articulate.''