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.