BILLIE WHEELER pulls the light jacket closer to her body in the damp autumn afternoon, walking between the white marble tombstones of the cemetery near her home. Her steps are slow and deliberate.

"It's not so bad now," she says. "I don't cry every time."

Leaves crunch underfoot on the damp ground. Small bunches of marigolds planted close to the cool stone markers are brown and shriveled, their brittle stems ready to snap. In the distance, there is the smell of burning leaves.

"That's Timmy Boyd over there," she says. "His parents come every day." She walks slowly up the sloping lawn, and pauses, pointing to a small marker. "That's Barbara." Two more steps. "Sandy and Tracey are together up here."

She leads the way to her daughter's grave, a slate-gray tombstone cluttered with dying summer flowers planted by friends. Sandy Wheeler is buried next to her boyfriend, Tracey Mentzer. They and four of their teen-age friends were killed last November when a drunk driver smashed head-on into the Volkswagen they were riding in near Winchester, Va. The impact sent the six bodies spilling over the highway like broken puppets, their bones shattered, their lives snuffed out in a single second.

"Tracey Metzer's body was in two pieces. He was cut in two."

She walks back to the car, moving as if in slow motion. "You know, I still can't comprehend how one person did all this. How one impact . . ." Her voice trails off. "But at least they're all together here."

Billie Wheeler is not only against drunk driving, she's obsessed by it. Enraged by it. So enraged that she is ready to abandon her quiet career as a housewife to join a nationwide campaign to stop the senseless slaughter of their innocent children: Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

The statistics are staggering: 26,000 people (at least 8,800 of them teen-agers) die at the hands of drunk drivers every year, more than die as a result of handguns every year, more than the population of Gaithersburg, Md. On an average day, 71 Americans are killed and 2,000 persons are injured in alcohol-related accidents, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which also estimates that at least one out of every 10 drivers on Friday and Saturday nights are legally drunk. Men in general are responsible for 80 percent of alcohol-related accidents, with those in the 20-to-24 age group the worst offenders.

The practice of driving while intoxicated has become socially acceptable in our grab-all-the-gusto, chug-a-six-pack culture. In the past, judges -- many of them social drinkers who may have driven drunk more than once in their lives -- have been lenient toward the drunk driver, seeing the problem as a personal aberration rather than a criminal offense. Celebrities like Johnny Carson get arrested for DWI and joke about it on national television.

In fact, one out of every two Americans will -- sooner or later -- come into contact with a drunk driver. Sandy Wheeler and Tracey Metzer already did. So did 20-year-old Eddie Kunec of Falls Church, killed by a drunken college student after a rock concert. So did Charles Jacobsen, run over on his Fairfax front lawn by a drunk driver in February 1981. So did 18-year-old Susan Herzog, killed last New Year's Eve by a drunken teen-ager, and 17-year-old Nora Neale, killed on a rural Virginia road last fall by a drunken man.

Like Billie Wheeler, the mothers of these victims decided to fight back by joining MADD, an organization that has grown to 96 chapters in 31 states since its inception two years ago. The group now has more than 20,000 members who are actively lobbying on local and state levels to change the social acceptability of driving under the influence and to strengthen laws. So far, 10 states with MADD chapters -- including Virginia and Maryland -- have passed tougher laws and the group this year persuaded President Reagan to form a presidential commission to find ways to combat drunk driving. (The District of Columbia also passed a tough new law, expected to increase arrests by 1,000 each year.)

In northern Virginia, the members of MADD form a network of strangers with one thing in common: grief resulting from the sudden, violent deaths of their children. It is, they say, something so enormous that no one who has not experienced it can ever understand it. They were not prepared for it. One day their son or daughter was there, smiling in the kitchen, or laughing in the back yard. The next day, gone.

This is the story of five mothers, five women with different backgrounds brought together under bizarre circumstances. Five suburban women who once wrapped themselves in the warm comfort of their safe lives, immune from other people's causes and politics. Now, their lives have been irreversibly altered. One is bitter, as if her anger could somehow bring her child back to life. One suffered a complete breakdown. Two are seeing therapists. One, a high school dropout, is speaking to groups and on television while trying to keep her marriage together.

Some have read the coroner's report. Others could not. Some have cleaned their dead child's room. Others have turned those rooms into shrines, leaving everything untouched. As if clutching a favorite sweater or picking strands of hair from a brush could, for a moment, ease the mind-numbing sorrow that has engulfed their lives and made them strangers to their friends and even sometimes made them wish for their own death.

As it is now, there is no escape from the haunting vision of the disfigured bodies of their children. It is always on their minds. From the moment they awake to the minute they fall asleep. The nightmare never ends.

Some refer to it as "the accident." One calls it "the tragedy." The rest call it murder.

Donna Neale is a 36-year-old housewife who lives outside Warrenton, Va. She dropped out of high school to get married and begin her family. She had two boys and a girl, Nora. "For the last couple of years, I couldn't believe the relationship. I was so pleased that she liked me. She wasn't like a lot of teen-agers. You didn't have to buy your way with her."

She runs her hand through her short, curly brown hair and points to the room adjacent to the living room. "That dining room was built big for a purpose. It was built because Nora was gonna come home with all the grandchildren and we were gonna have room around that big table. You just don't know how you build your life around your children. They become your future. I didn't understand all that until after she died."

It was a Friday night. Normally, 17-year-old Nora Neale worked at the McDonald's nearby. But this night, friends wanted her to go bowling. Nora didn't really want to go, but she decided to at the last minute. The group went bowling, then started for home before 10 p.m. The accident happened on a rural road. At 10:30, the Neales got a telephone call from the other children's parents. That call that every parent dreads. The kids have been in a wreck. Better get to the hospital.

"I kept thinking, it couldn't be anything bad because we've tried to be good and everything had been good and God took care of us," says Donna Neale, brown eyes glistening with tears.

At the hospital, she learned her daughter was dead, killed instantly upon impact. "It was as if someone took their fist and landed an extremely heavy blow on my chest . . . I said, 'Please doctor, go in and try again. I'll talk to her just one more time. Don't let it be so.'

"I thought I would die of a broken heart," she says, looking out the window where oak leaves were falling slowly onto her front lawn. "I still get the physical pain. Real heavy on my chest. You have to make yourself do everything. You could give me a million dollars. You could give me everything of value, but you could not make me happy. There is no way I can be happy. I'm happy with my husband and my children, but the deep joy is gone forever. I have no desire to live in this world. I want to go on to where Nora is. I'll stay because it is my duty, but that's not where my hopes and desires are. It's to be wherever Nora is."

After her daughter was killed, Donna Neale went into a prolonged period of shock. "For a week, I tried to make the bed. I couldn't." She urinated constantly. She offered to leave her husband. "I was trying so hard to set a meal on the table. I was afraid I was destroying his home. I had heard there was about a 75 percent divorce rate among parents who have lost children in accidents."

Finally, she went to a local doctor who took out his prescription pad and scrawled the letters M A D D. "I took it and came home," she says. "Then I went to a luncheon several weeks later." Still half in shock, Donna Neale swore that her daughter would not die in vain. "I don't know what I can do to help," she told the organizers. "But whatever it is, I'll do it."

She began monitoring Fauquier County traffic court in Warrenton, familiarizing herself with the judicial system. "When they didn't prosecute, I'd ask why. 'Why did you let him off? What was his blood count?' "

She says her aggressive behavior--if sometimes annoying to prosecutors and defense attorneys alike--has made a difference. "When I sit in court and I know that a drunk driver on a second offense who before would have gotten a $50 fine and a suspended sentence, now gets a $350 fine and loses his permit for nine months to a year, I get a great deal of elation out of it," she says, her fist clenched. "We knew we made some changes."

Those changes culminated in the murder conviction of Warren Essex, the 25-year-old man who killed Neale's daughter last November. It was the first conviction of its kind in Virginia.

Donna Neale was a constant presence at the trial, clutching an 8-by-10 color photograph of her daughter and showing it to the press. At first, she says, she became involved with MADD for selfish reasons. "I felt somehow that I could get her back," she says. "Then I realized I couldn't."

Her husband initially blamed MADD "for our whole life being destroyed. It made him ill to go. But he said, 'If it helps you, I want you to do it.' My parents tell me I shouldn't get too involved with MADD. That it's taking me away from my family. It means I don't get the clothes washed or the dishes done on time, but I know what I'm doing makes a difference."

Neale has just been elected president of the Rappahannock chapter of MADD, which covers Fredericksburg, Fauquier and Stafford counties as well. She speaks to groups and on television. She is getting used to being interviewed.

She cites 1982 Virginia traffic fatality figures, and says they are down by 120 deaths from last year. "I feel that I was in some part responsible for those 120 people. Because I've gone through all this. And I can't stop. Sometimes I'd like to stop and I can't."

She leads a visitor to Nora's room. A pair of jeans and a sweater lie on the twin bed, just the way the teen-ager left them that November night. "I think I'm not letting go," says Donna Neale, sitting on the bed, fondling the sweater. "I know I have to, and I know I will. But I'm not ready yet."

She opens the top drawer of her daughter's bureau. Inside is a plastic hairbrush, tangled with long thin strands of auburn. Donna Neale takes the brush and runs her fingers over the bristles, gently singling out one of the strands of hair. "This is all I have left of my daughter."

Christine Jacobsen is nervous. She fiddles with the glasses in her lap, twirling the long neck strap over one index finger, then the other.

"There's hardly an hour that goes by that I don't think of him," she says, crying softly. "I wish I could tell him something. Apologize for things." She lowers her head. "We've got to get people who drink off the road."

Her 33-year-old son Charles, married, a Vietnam veteran who worked for his father's Monticello Cleaners in Arlington, was run over on his front lawn by a drunk driver two years ago. It was Washington's Birthday, and he and his wife had just returned from a shopping trip. Charles was killed instantly.

"The details of it stay with me. I wake up in the middle of the night, crying. I think of that car . . . "

She turns her attention to the mountain of material on her coffee table. Among the literature are newspaper clippings, photographs and a newsletter from MADD. Several months after her son was killed, she heard of the group while watching television. Her husband didn't want her to join, accused her of "wallowing" in their son's death. She joined anyway. It seemed to help, she says. To get involved with something.

"I simply couldn't operate. I'd cry all the time." She consulted a psychiatrist, who prescribed tranquilizers and antidepressants. Now she works part-time at a local library. Her husband has sold the family business. Her daughter-in-law has returned to her home in Italy. Her own marriage is strained.

The death of their son and her involvement with MADD "definitely has not made us closer," Jacobsen says sadly. "We're very polite. But the relationship is different. There's a lot of guilt."

In one way, she says, MADD "is painful." But she knows her work is helping. She knows it's doing some good.

"People are reluctant to face the issue. I don't know why, unless it's the fact that we all do it. I think people need to be embarrassed. If our names appeared in the paper after being arrested for drunk driving, I think it would do a lot of good."

Christine Jacobsen doesn't know how long it will take for the slaughter to stop. "We can't wait for all of us to have a loved one killed," she says. "We can't wait that long."

Ed and Marie Kunec had just gone to bed that steamy July night last summer when the phone rang. Marie Kunec turned over drowsily and heard her husband say, "Is he alive? Is he alive?"

It was the hospital calling. Their son Eddie, a senior at James Madison University, home for the summer, had gone to a Jimmy Buffett concert at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Md. The car he was riding in had a fender-bender leaving the parking lot. Eddie Kunec got out to inspect the damage and before he could climb back in, another car -- driven by a drunken college student -- swerved wildly and hit the 20-year-old. His right leg had to be amputated and he suffered severe brain damage. Eight days later he died.

"It was the most nightmarish time of our lives," says Marie Kunec, sitting in her Falls Church home. "We were in a daze. Our world just collapsed."

For months afterward, she says, they could focus on nothing else. "You go to the movies and you're thinking about it." They found no solace in friends. "People, for some reason, hesitate to talk to us about it. I don't know why that is. We want to talk about it. We don't want to ever forget that we had a son."

"Maybe," says Ed Kunec, a NASA official who is now president of the Northern Virginia chapter of MADD, "they have a conscious fear that it will happen to them."

The more they thought about the statistics, the more they thought how senseless it was, Marie Kunec says. They circulated a petition, winning approval of a drunk driving task force in Fairfax County. "It's not a question of hating the drunk driver," Marie Kunec says, citing the fact that the boy who killed their son is still driving, his case having not yet been heard in court. "It's a question of getting justice for what he has done. I think there should be some kind of punishment that would deter others."

Yes, she says, MADD is an outlet for their frustration and grief. "We want to help educate poeple. For instance, a lot of people simply don't know how much liquor it takes to make them drunk."

The Kunecs applaud a Fairfax bar owner who recently installed an automatic "breathalizer" in his establishment to warn customers when they've had a few too many. According to the owner, the number of patrons calling for cabs has since doubled.

"I think people have to know what their limits are," she says.

The Kunecs are usually the first ones to call other parents of children killed by drunk drivers. They urge the parents to get involved with the group. They understand what the family is going through.

As for them, "We just take one day at a time," says Marie Kunec. "Try to get through each day. We don't cry every day. I cry alone. I'm sure Ed does."

Patty Herzog's eyes are blazing. She is a short woman, with salt-and-pepper hair. Her fury and anger are knotted up inside like a volcano, ready to burst. You can feel it sitting next to her on the sofa of her Fairfax living room.

She has just been to a showing of a documentary on drunk driving, sponsored by the Professional Insurance Agents at their downtown offices. The hosts served a buffet luncheon. They also had an open bar.

"Everyone took their drinks in to watch this movie on drunken driving," she says angrily. "It's so acceptable that people didn't even think about it. We just cannot have a social function without alcohol."

Patty Herzog has a reason to be angry. Her 18-year-old daughter Susan was killed last New Year's Eve when her Volkswagen was slammed by another teen-ager, Kevin Tunnell. Susan Herzog was killed instantly.Tunnell walked away from the crash.

"One woman who had lost a child four months before told me, 'If you can avoid it, don't go see Susan. That will remain with you forever. So I didn't. My husband did. He went to the morgue and identified her. Her face was not badly damaged. She had a little puncture wound on her chin. We debated about an open coffin. After Lou saw her at the morgue, he said it just doesn't look like her. The mortician said he would do cosmetic things, but it just wasn't her. So we closed it. I never did see her. And then I had another woman say, 'If you don't look at her that will haunt you for the rest of your life.' " She begins to cry softly. "I've had moments when I wished I had."

Susan Herzog died of multiple injuries. "Every organ in her body was crushed," her mother says. "The loss is the main thing, but the violence is a big part of it.

"One thing I would advise mothers to do, as soon as you can. Put everything away. Because you go in every day, and you look and you touch and you feel her clothes. And it's not good for you. She had a stack of laundry that needed to be done. I hated to do it," she says, her voice cracking.

Ed and Marie Kunec called Patty Herzog shortly after her daughter was killed and asked if she would be interested in joining MADD. She agreed.

Every Thursday, she monitors Fairfax traffic court. "It's definitely an outlet," she says. "You feel a sense of isolation. We're not the same people we were. Lou and I were just, well, activism was just not a word in our vocabulary. We led a very sheltered, quiet life. We did things with the children all the time. We rarely went to cocktail parties. I don't know how to describe it, except your life is altered. It's like an arm is gone. There's always that missing thing.

"Some people don't talk about it. We talk about it all the time. We know that as long as we live, our lives will never be the same. She's just not here."

Patty Herzog's hands are trembling. "It's hard for my husband to show grief. I think I'm the only person who's seen him cry. He says he cries going to work sometimes, when he sees a blue Volkswagen. And of course, he stops at the cemetery a lot."

Two months ago, Patty Herzog began seeing a psychologist to help her deal with the aftermath of the tragedy. Kevin Tunnell, a juvenile, pleaded guilty to drunken driving and was placed on probation until the age of 21. The judge, who also took away Tunnell's license, recommended the boy do 12 months of voluntary service in the form of lecturing other students on the dangers of drunk driving. Tunnell is a much-sought-after speaker now, and has appeared on national television.

"The thing that made me seek help was everyone else's reaction," Patty Herzog says. "I just cannot understand how they can forget about the victim. All of the sympathy is with that kid."

After a private, emotional meeting with Tunnell, Patty Herzog asked for something over and above the insurance settlement received by the family: that Kevin Tunnell make out a check in the amount of $1 and send it to the Herzogs every Friday for the next 18 years, the age of the Herzogs' dead daughter. Tunnell agreed. He also signed an affidavit, requested by Herzog, stating that he bought champagne at a Fairfax market using his older brother's identification, and later purchased beer at a drug store where he was not asked for any identification. Some called the $1-a-week payment cruel and unusual punishment. Patty Herzog thinks it's a small price to pay.

"We were never after the money. We wanted to make a statement about drunk driving. We don't hate him. We hate what he did. What I'm interested in is letting people know what the victims go through," she says angrily. "We just don't feel that Kevin was punished."

As for her work with MADD, she says, "I am a black-and-white person. I just don't see any gray. I see something that has to be done and I say, 'Let's do it.' We can. If enough people want to, we can."

She knows her new persona is not a popular one. "People want me to go back to being my old self. They don't like the new me. I can see that. I can feel it. One of the hardest things to do is to go to a party. For four hours you sit there and nobody mentions Susan. Nobody mentions the accident. Nobody mentions how you're doing. It's like it never happened.

"You want to talk about it. It's the only thing on your mind. You don't care what they're doing in Lebanon. You want to talk about, well, I'm saying 'accident,' but actually I correct everyone who uses that word. It was a crime."

Billie Wheeler is sitting at her dining-room table in Herndon, pictures of her auburn-haired daughter Sandy nearby on the mantelpiece. "When I read about Patty and Lou Herzog's loss, I did not know her. I went to the phone and called her. Two weeks later we went to visit. Their loss was six weeks after ours."

Wheeler is planning to become a court monitor. She recalls the first few months after her daughter was killed.

"In the first six days, I went into complete shock. Temperature, chills, muscles so weak you cannot walk." She was bedridden for a time, then returned to work at a bookstore. In April, she suffered, in her words, "a complete collapse, a physical breakdown."

She was bedridden for two months. Then her work with MADD slowly pulled her out. She is feeling stronger every day, feeling that her life has a purpose.

The 23-year-old West Virginia man who killed Sandy Wheeler and her friends was convicted of six counts of manslaughter and was recently sentenced to 29 years in prison.

In the meantime, Billie Wheeler haunts the cemetery where the children are buried, and says, "Nobody in the neighborhood understands why you can't get it together."

It's not like the members of MADD, she says. She goes to the regular meetings and sits across from Patty Herzog, Donna Neale, Christine Jacobsen and Marie Kunec and, somehow, it becomes clear. "You feel such a kinship. There is such a bond. It's sad and its tragic, but in a way, you almost feel as if you belong to another family."