LEXINGTON, VA. -- There may be places where overwhelming public opinion is that the United States should go in now and throw Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, but the Virginia Military Institute, where statues of Stonewall Jackson and George C. Marshall stand watch over cadet parades, isn't one of them.

For the 250 members of the next graduating class who have gathered here for the new school year, the question is as much personal as political. For now, 143 of them are planning to enter the military next spring or take commissions in the reserves. Combat service, once only a distant possibility, is becoming potential reality for them as America gears up for a possible war in the Middle East.

"As far as the mood in the barracks, nobody's really taking any side," said Jon Milner, 21, a senior cadet from Lumberton, N.J. "There are no warmongers running around, {but} nobody's saying we should get out of Saudi Arabia."

"They're as mature as hell in their approach to this," said Col. J.W. Ripley, commander of Marine and Navy programs at VMI. "They are not courtesans to the czar, running around happy that they've finally got a war to fight . . . . These things are real to these lads."

In an undergraduate college of 1,300 students assigned to small Army, Marine, Navy and Air Force units, friendships become strong and each class has a kinship with the ones following it.

"We stay pretty close to the Marines who were here ahead of us, and some of those guys are over there now," said Fred Lehman, 21, a senior from Wooster, Ohio, who is the top cadet officer and will enter the Marines when he graduates. "We're old enough to realize that people get killed, that it's not a picnic or anything."

Ripley, the Navy-Marine commander who has held the same job at Annapolis, said the 151-year-old VMI is different from the service academies in the closeness of its cadets, and that may affect the way they respond to the prospect of combat.

"These guys know exactly what's happening to every single man," said Ripley, whose son, a Marine officer, is on the way to Saudi Arabia. "In an unusual way, it adds to the cohesiveness of VMI. At the Naval Academy, you have a diffusion of people going off to different warfare specialities, losing the cohesiveness that is immediately apparent here."

This year's senior class knows three 1988 graduates who roomed together and are now in the Middle East. Some cadets have older brothers who are there or on the way.

For one cadet, President Bush's call-up of the reserves and some National Guard units may affect him soon. Jeff Cuiper, a senior from Houston, is both an Army cadet and a member of the 29th Light Infantry unit of the Virginia National Guard, a unit that has been told to stand by.

"If we get called up, we'd get sent to Fort Bragg to handle what the 82nd Airborne handles year-round," said Cuiper, 22, a history major. "And given the hostilities, we would be the pool to breach gaps in the 82nd."

Still, the students acknowledge an eagerness to show what they have learned, and some relief that life in the military may not be as dull as they feared.

"When you go through all this training and you look forward to it for this long, the peacetime Army looks pretty boring," said Milner. "If you get the chance, you want to show that you can do these things."

"No one likes war, but that's what we train for and that's our job," said Lehman.