Eugene James left the Army last October after 6 1/2 years, confident that he could find civilian work back home in Washington at least as good as his job as an Army clerk.

But three times he went downtown to the District's unemployment office and shook his head at the long list of jobs for janitors, short-order cooks and day laborers -- jobs James didn't want. He was interviewed at the C & P Telephone Co. Officials there said they'd call him if a job came up, and never did. He was interviewed at the post office and was told to wait for a call. It never came.

Ast month, 23-year-old Eugene James, running of money and patience, gave up his search and reenlisted. He joined more than 103,000 men and women in all services who, since last October, have looked at civilian life and opted for a uniform and a guaranteed paycheck. Indeed, more people are reenlisting today than in a decade. The number of first-time enlistments also is at 100 percent of its quota.

Hard times on the outside -- as those in the service call civilian life -- mean good times for the military, as has long been the case.

But for James and others, the decision to reenlist is only partly explained in dollars. He remembers the respect from younger enlisted men when he was a corporal, the proud smiles and hugs from family, friends and neighbors when he came home to the Lincoln Heights public housing project where he grew up, the giggles of the girls in his Northeast neighborhood. They would ask to touch the military honor ribbons he wore on his chest, and he would let them. He remembers the hearty, pumping handshakes from the old men who have sat under the trees along the banks of the Anacostia River for as long as James can remember.

In the military, he was earning $700 a month and in charge of records for more than 3,000 military people at the Army's Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland.

But outside, James joined the ranks of the unemployed.

"Guys I know who left the service are talking about doing what I just did -- sign back up.

"I never thought it would be so hard to get a job," says James, sitting in a bedroom of his family's Lincoln Heights apartment where a picture of him poised in a helmet and camouflage gear hangs on the wall. "The job situation here is worse now than when I left to join the Army in 1974.

"The job opportunitis here are not good and the question is how long can a person hold out without getting into trouble?"

James grew up in far Northeast Washington, but got his first real job, a high school diploma and training as an administrative specialist -- a clerk in civilian life -- in the Army. He joined at 17, after persuading his mother to let him sign up. He was stationed up and down the East Coast, in California and Korea. He traveled, had friends, a good job, a home and more chances at education than he had ever had before.

For James, military life was a secure cocoon to return to when all else failed. That is also true for others.

More than a year ago, when Army Sgt. Gregory Gibbs, 27, and his wife, Donna, returned from a tour of duty in Germany without enough money for a security deposit for their Fairfax apartment, the Army gave them an interest-free loan. Says Gibbs, "The Army takes care of its own."

For instance, the Army paid for the birth of the baby of 24-year-old Spec. 4 Terence Nesfield. He says it might have cost him upwards of $1,500 for a delivery in a civilian hospital.

"One of the reasons I joined was for security and for a chance to continue my education," says Nesfield, a computer analyst at the Army's office at Buzzard Point. "In the military, you know you're going to have a job."

Other benefits include a paycheck that includes tax-free food and housing allowances that equal about one-third the salary of enlisted men such as James or Nesfield. There's free medical and dental care, free job training -- even if it isn't always marketable on the outside -- and thousands of dollars in tuition assistance for college.

There are also allowances for meals and housing. If James marries and doesn't live in the barracks, for instance, he will receive an extra $206.10 in housing allowance and $118.20 in food allowance each month. If he and his wife remained in the Washington area, they would get an extra $103.05 a month in the Army's Variable Housing Allowance -- the estimated extra cost of living in the expensive Washington area. Again, all of this is tax free.

Add to that a recent military pay raise of 11.7 percent, compared to the 9.1 percent raise that civilian government employes received, and bonuses of up to $4,000 for many who reenlist, a good retirement plan after only 20 years of service, and the Armed Forces can be a plum job indeed.

So far this year, 62 percent of those who have nearly finished their tours and are eligible to reenlist in the four services have reupped. That compares to 57 percent during the same time last year. The statistics are even higher for the Army, in which nearly 70 percent of those eligible to reenlist this year did.

"When I pick up the paper and read what's going on, I wonder what could happen to us if we weren't in the military," says Gibbs, a data processor at the Pentagon. He had considered quitting the Army, but decided to reenlist when a recruiter promised to enroll him in an advanced computer-programming school.

"When I go back home to Chester, Pa., many of my friends who teased me about going into the military before are now at low-paying jobs or laboring jobs," Gibbs says. "They ask me now about the Army: Is it really worth it? How can they join?"

"They say, 'Wow, you're working with computers at the Pentagon?'" says Gibbs, the son of a skilled ship-fitter. "They're working at the cleaners or at Al's Motors, or other kinds of blue-collar jobs."

What has happened to the friends of Eugene James since he left for the Army more than six years ago also helped persuade him to return to the service. The old neighborhood has a new subway stop on Benning Road near his house, but too much goes unchanged: Many of his old friends are without jobs, still playing pickup basketball every day at the Kelly Miller Junior High School playground. Some are in jail for robbery or stealing cars; others are drug addicts.

"Most of my friends are hustling -- doing anything to get by," James says. "If I had known it was going to be like this, I would have never gotten out."

But for all the job security and safeguards, some say the cocoon of the military is a sticky web.

"The longer you stay in, the more you get dependent," says Leonard Taylor, 29, who was a sergeant when he left the Army in December. Taylor has a bachelor of arts degree from Rutgers, but works as a security guard at the Sheraton Washington Hotel -- a temporary job, he says, until something better comes along.

"Some people panic when they have to leave the service," Taylor says. "In the service, most of the major decisions are already made for you -- what you're going to wear, what job you're going to do and how you're going to do it." Yet despite the service's drawbacks, Taylor says he'll reenlist if things don't get better.

James has been down that road.

"I didn't give up looking for civilian jobs, I just kept getting turned down for what I wanted, James said bitterly, thumbing through a short stack of commendation letters he says are meaningless on the outside.

"He loked around here and found nothing, nothing he wanted to do or could do," says his mother, Addie, at the Lincoln Heights housing project where she still lives. "It reminded me of when he was 17, and I didn't want him to join the Army. Finally, he came to me and said, 'Momma, sign for me because if you don't, I might get in trouble.' That's when I went down and signed him in. There are so many things to get into out there."

James never planned to make the Army a career, and when he returns to Fort Sam Houston, Tex., on June 9, he will do so at a rank below what he was when he left. That's a penalty he says is better than staying in Northeast Washington without a job.

"I want to work," he says. "I want a job. But it seems like nobody is handing out jobs but the military."