Charlie Brown's war has been raging since July 16, 1966, when he started his first tour of duty in Vietnam, and he carries that struggle on his back.

At first the problem seems to be his lower back, the injury that brings him here to the pain center in the Veterans' Affairs Medical Center, to learn relaxation and other pain control techniques so that he can get off the pills he's taken for the better part of 20 years. A tall, heavy man with darkly tattooed arms and two little gold posts in his left ear, he talks stolidly of how he hurt himself during his second tour of duty in Vietnam, where he repaired and salvaged airplanes for the Air Force. You can see a scar from his two surgeries in the gap between white T-shirt and low-slung jeans.

But that's not it. That injury didn't happen in Vietnam. It happened when he fell and struck his back on a curb while on rotation in Japan. Charlie Brown's war is bitten into his upper back. He takes off his T-shirt and there it is, covering his shoulder blades, moving down to the waist: a detailed map of Southeast Asia. At the top is a B-52, dropping its payload, and at the bottom, two helicopters. It is a work in progress; he's still planning a monument to the war's nurses. On the map, neatly lettered: manteiV. aidobmaC. soaL.

"You'll see the names are written backwards," he says. "I did that because I thought it was a backward war we shouldn't have lost."

Now he shows the Grim Reaper on his left forearm, a tattoo he made himself. He speaks of nervous breakdown, attempted suicide. "I was in and out of mental clinics," he says.

The war. "It kind of worked on my nerves. I drank. I did drugs. I had nightmares. I had my first wife and family terrified of me. ... I'd hear a loud bang and jump two feet. I still get flashbacks and stuff like that. I still see bodies. I just react to them differently."

Today, at 45, he runs his own tattoo shop in Charlestown, W. Va. He supports Operation Desert Shield, he says, but "I hope the nation's attitude to the new veterans is better than it was to us. I hate to see a lot of these kids the same age I was when I went there -- about 19 -- and seeing folks wounded, shot, mangled."

Framed by the helicopters on Brown's back is a bewildered observation he believes fervently enough to have inked it into his flesh: Reality is often beyond what one has envisioned.

He is skeptical of predictions that Iraq will be a "short war."

"I don't know whether there really is such a thing" he says. "There's always aftereffects, and they can last for years and years and years."

Americans understand that people die in battle. The specter of American youth "coming home in body bags" has been invoked, ever since Vietnam, to test the threshold of political support for war.

But there is a whole realm of transformative war experience less well memorialized, because it is a drama so drawn out and so various. It is the experience that continues long after the soldiers have joined the battle, and long after the statesmen have settled it. It is the very air of a veterans hospital.

Casualties. The word means something real to anyone old enough for Vietnam. But for younger Americans, after the peace of their adulthood, it can still be heard with a child's ear: casual-ties, summoning men in chinos, women in sundresses. Perhaps some mildly coercive form of relaxation.

Clearly Tommy Broomfield is a casualty of Vietnam, though it is not clear -- least of all to him -- exactly how. He's had a heart attack and bad blood pressure problems, lung problems, fertility problems, and above all he's had "dermatitis of unknown origin." Skin lesions: They are the theater of Broomfield's war, which has been going on at least since the first time he consulted a field doctor about them, on June 19, 1967.

He has a dogeared copy of the earliest reports of his condition, from doctors who saw him during the next decade. They speculate: Chromo- blastomycosis. Or Northamerican blastomycosis. Some fungal disease. He has been examined, he says, at the University of North Carolina, at Georgetown, at Duke, at Walter Reed.

Perched nearest the window in the four-bed room, barefoot and drably attired in the brown regulation pajamas ("VA/Government Property/Not for Sale"), he seems despite his surroundings and evident anger like a man full of life, squirming with energy. He is roundly shaped, from his body to his handsome eyes and up to his balding dome, which sports a bright birthmark. Some accident of biology has turned the inner half of each eyebrow gray, giving him an air of puckish wisdom.

But Broomfield, 49, feels betrayed by his country. A 20-year Army man, he served three tours in Vietnam, including a tour in a long-range reconnaissance patrol, one as an infantry squad leader, the last one -- after his medical problems began -- as a supply sergeant. It was on his first tour, he believes, that he was poisoned by Agent Orange or some other chemical agent sprayed by the United States. "We engaged in chemical warfare, germ warfare," he says.

"It makes you bitter too," he says of war. "It keeps coming back. It just won't go away. You have animosity toward the government. ... I've never gotten any answers. You're suspicious of all the people in the VA, after a while. ... At least tell me what the problem is. But don't tell me it don't exist."

He thinks the men and women of Desert Shield should be as questioning of their government as he has learned to be. "I wouldn't go across the street to fight this war," he says.

John M. Webb describes his lower legs and feet, which are swathed in whitest gauze and snugged in plaid slippers: "There's no circulation down there. They just feel like they're frozen, all the time." He was an Army staff sergeant working convoys in Vietnam when he was hit by enemy fire, with vascular damage to both legs.

In addition to his wounds, he carries one of those more nebulous injuries of war. When he went to Vietnam in 1968, in his 16th year in the service, he didn't know he was a borderline diabetic. After 15 months of field food, the disease was full blown by the time he was Med-Evaced from Cam Ranh Bay.

Behind his bright almond eyes and sculpted cheekbones he seems extremely shy. He seems, too, a man of utilitarian philosophy: "I liked the service," he says. "It's a way of life, if you can put up with it."

He backs President Bush completely, he says -- though like most of the men here, he refers to both Bush and his antagonist, Saddam Hussein, simply as "he," and counts on you to know the forces of good from the forces of evil.

For the past month Webb hasn't been able to walk. He's been in the hospital since Christmas, and his doctors are talking about vein bypass surgery. "You get to the place where you can only get worse -- you can't get better," he says. "I have some regrets about that. But it's no use getting bitter."

This hospital was dedicated in April 1965, by vice president and licensed pharmacist Hubert H. Humphrey, who obliged photographers by "mixing" a batch of medicine in the spanking new hospital pharmacy. Construction cost $22.4 million, and today the hospital has 590 beds, plus 120 more in the nursing home.

Over there you will find longer memories of war. Nathan D. Golden and Salvatore Castrataro both fought in World War I, and both lost a leg to the kaiser. Golden, 95, wears a jaunty bolo tie, is 98 percent blind and hears poorly. He might weigh 100 pounds. "If I were able," he says, "I'd go into the Army myself" to fight Saddam.

"I was with the 101st Infantry of the 26th Division in Headquarters Company," he says, slowly and carefully, accustomed to audiences who must be helped to understand his history. "I fought at Chateau Thierry, St.-Mihiel, Verdun."

He was wounded five days before the armistice. By 1925, the wound to his left leg required amputation. "They took off my leg at Walter Reed on the Fourth of July, my birthday," he says.

Everything is said with precision. "I'm wholeheartedly in agreement with the actions of President Bush," he says, "although I'm a Democrat."

In a foxhole buddy movie, Castrataro would be the other grunt in the trench, Golden's opposite. Raised in Providence, R.I., he speaks an English flavored by his family's Italy. He was wounded a month before the war's end and captured by the Germans. "No sir," he growls of Saudi Arabia. "We shouldn't be there. That's not our business. ... I don't think anybody likes the war. I didn't either," he continues, as if it were all one war.

Raymond Rivera, whose life moved from New York to Washington via service in the Pacific, was wounded on Okinawa the day after the atom bomb fell on Hiroshima. "I think it's going to be a short war," he says. "I think our technology is overwhelming. War is war. And if you're lucky you'll survive, the way I did."

He is roundly disputed by Leroy Durkan, in the neighboring wheelchair. Durkan, 69, served 3 1/2 years in World War II, in both the Atlantic and the Pacific. "I have a great deal of sorrow and sympathy for the young person that's there. Because if there's a shooting war, whether they survive or not, they'll be scarred. I have a feeling, but I couldn't back it up -- but I feel so bad for the young folk. ... It has a habit of marking the young."

Durkan remembers enlisting at 20, the day after Pearl Harbor. "I thought the war wouldn't last. I sat in the hall all night at the post office, 'cause I didn't want to lose my place in line. How foolish can the young be?"

He is in the nursing home for reasons unrelated to his war service. "I got out with a whole skin outside," he says of the war. "Inside I was marked up pretty good. These days they have a fancy name for it. In those days they called it 'combat fatigue.' "

Durkan was tougher than many; his insides held out almost for the duration.

"It took me 3 1/2 years to get there, but I got there."

He went to work for the Navy as a civilian after the war. But he has "nary a dime's worth" of faith that Iraq can be beaten in a short war. "Somehow or other I've got, at the age of 69, the feeling that if a politician says it's nighttime out, then by God, it's daytime. I have zero faith in the spoken words of politicians. When old Read-My-Lips gets up there, I turn my head."

At noon, in the hospital chapel, Chaplain James P. Lauer and his staff marked the passing of the deadline for war with a 20-minute prayer service. Only about 20 people dotted the 10 pews, most of them staff, identified by the beepers that squawked throughout the silences built into the ceremony.

But their voices were enough to fill the modest space with the first of the service's two hymns, "Oh God Our Help in Ages Past."

"Time like an ever-rolling stream bears all its sons away," runs the fourth verse.

"They fly forgotten as a dream dies at the opening day."