John Mallernee, a Salt Lake resident and Vietnam War veteran, is taking a train on Thursday to Washington, D.C., where he will take up permanent residence in the U.S. Soldiers' and Airmen's home - the best- kept secret in the Army.

Mallernee knew about it but never considered it for himself even though he grew up as an "Army brat," the son of a career soldier. When he got out of the Army himself in 1976, he moved to Utah as a convert to the LDS Church.Over the years he worked as a correctional supervisor at the Utah State Prison, a firefighter, an emergency medical technician and as a police officer for the Department of Defense.

None of these jobs prevented him from marching in the Veterans Day Parade every year. Plus he was a member of the committee for the establishment of a Vietnam Memorial on the State Capitol grounds.

Although Mallernee was not injured in the war, he retired on disability. He has suffered from depression and has been treated for post-traumtic stress disorder, also known as Vietnam syndrome.

"I spend most of my time in my apartment, and I just get worse and worse. I like Utah, but I'm not doing myself any good just vegetating. I was just killing time one day, looking through some old books and read about the soldiers' home. I knew it was primarily for retirees from the Army, but I didn't realize that they also take disabled veterans.

"So I wrote in, got an application, expecting I would never hear from them. But they invited me to come to Washington for a medical evaluation. I spent about a month there and decided it was fantastic."

Mallernee was happy that he would be with people from similar backgrounds. "The camaraderie and association with other veterans was the initial attraction to me. It's kind of an exclusive club - and I kind of like that. You have to have served and served well."

Mallernee also quickly determined that he would save an enormous amount of money by living there. It has been very difficult for him to make ends meet when he pays $338 per month for his Salt Lake apartment.

At the soldiers' home he will pay only $19 per month - which includes a private room, all his meals, all medical and dental care, eyeglasses, laundry, dry cleaning, shoe repair, movies, large-screen TV, recreational facilities - such as a gym with Nautilus equipment and a bowling alley, an 18-hole golf course, arts and crafts shops, bycycles for daily use, classes for TV repair and computer programming, a piano, a still photo library, and military balls several times a year - all on 300 acres two miles north of the U.S. Capitol.

A spokesman for the home - a historic landmark - verified all that Mallernee told me. He called it a "full life-care retirement home" but cautioned that the low fee that Mallernee is paying is not average. A veteran who hopes to live in the home must pay a user fee, which amounts to 25 percent of his retirement pay or veteran's compensation. This averages out to $200 for the 1,915 members who live there, 5 percent of whom are women.

The home operates as a congressional trust. Soldiers and airmen - not taxpayers - pay for the home by having 50 cents withheld from their monthly pay. Those eligible are enlisted members of the Army and Navy - both men and women - not draftees, reservists, National Guard members, commissioned officers or anyone convicted of a felony.

Currently, there are about 100 openings. Interested veterans should realize that congressional legislation has made some changes in the home that will go into effect in November 1991. The fee will increase slightly, including other federal annuities in the 25 percent, such as Social Security. Draftees will be included, and an age limit of 60 or older will be enforced. Currently, there is no age limit.

Those interested should call toll free 1 (800) 422-9988, or write Admissions Office, U.S. Soldiers' and Airmen's Home, Washington DC 20317. Mallernee's future sounds much more interesting than that of the average retiree - a good deal for single veterans.