For millions of Americans, the dedication of the Vietnam war memorial in Washington this past week - as well as the church services and vigils held around the US - represents a long overdue homecoming and belated thank you. For perhaps more than at any time in recent years, the people of the United States seem to have at last separated the service and patriotism of those who fought in Vietnam from the political controversy that marked the war itself. In other words, to have recognized that, however the war is viewed, these were Americans who were called upon to sacrifice much for their country - and who did not flinch from that responsibility.
The new memorial, made up of a pair of V-shaped black granite walls listing the names of the 57,939 Americans killed or missing in that conflict, will be joined at a later time by a statue of three Vietnam-era servicemen. The complex thus mirrors the very ambiguity about the meaning of the war that so divided public opinion during those turbulent years, set American against American, embroiled presidents from Truman to Ford, and brought down at least one, Lyndon Johnson. Yet, the complex also conveys the gratitude of the American public and, by honoring those persons who did not come back, honors all those who served.
With the passage of time, records have been sifted to guage the precise dimensions of the sacrifice given by those Americans who wore military uniforms during that period. In their book ''Chance and Circumstance,'' Lawrence Baskir and William Strauss note that 11,250,000 persons served in the US military during the Vietnam years, roughly 20 percent of the entire baby boom generation of that period. Some 42 million Americans in the same age bracket did not. Of those who did not, 26 million were women, who were not required to serve; 15.4 million were men who were deferred, disqualified, or exempted, for one reason or other. And of the 11 million persons in uniform (all but 250,000 of whom were male), some 2.2 million were sent to Vietnam. Theirs was indeed a singular mission. For those who went to ''Nam'' there were few parades as they were sent off to unknown locations seldom even found on a map - more often than not being lifted out of the US by aircraft from a military base late at night. And there were seldom parades for those who returned to a war-weary nation.
But all Americans can rejoice that the nation's gratitude has at last come. Cornelius Robinson, who served in Vietnam with the 101st Army Airborne, stood before the Vietnam memorial this past weekend to search out the names of comrades who did not return. He summed up vividly what has at last occurred in the United States: ''I never thought it would happen, but during the past few days, for the first time ever, people came up to me and said, 'Welcome home.' ''