War and rumors of war were on nearly everyone's mind yesterday, as veterans and their families gathered in the District, Maryland and Virginia to honor those who died serving their country. As more U.S. troops geared up for deployment in the Persian Gulf, war was a subject spoken of with determination, skepticism and dread.

At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, speaker Jim Bohannon, a familiar radio interviewer and a Vietnam veteran, told of a letter he received from Vietnam Memorial Fund President Jan Scruggs several weeks ago. In the letter, Scruggs confirmed the details of Bohannon's scheduled speech, adding, "I fear we may be at war by then."

"I'm glad he was wrong," Bohannon told the crowd gathered for wreath-laying ceremonies at the memorial.

In Baltimore Harbor, the USS Sanctuary held its own ceremony using a Vietnam-era helicopter, which flew over the harbor to drop a wreath in the water near the Maryland Vietnam War Memorial. At the Washington Monument, children flew kites in honor of American service personnel stationed in the Persian Gulf in a commemoration sponsored by No Greater Love, a humanitarian organization.

Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney, in a speech after the traditional wreath-laying at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery, spoke of the soldiers, sailors and airmen now serving in the Persian Gulf and those about to join them there to oppose Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.

"I know that all of us keep them in our minds and in our prayers," he said. "Americans support what they are doing."

But for some at both Arlington National Cemetery and the Wall, as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is known, that support came with mixed feelings.

"The president hasn't come out and told us why we're really there," said Russell Lambdin, of Gettysburg, Pa., a 43-year-old veteran of combat in the Mekong Delta who was among those at the Wall. "It's for oil."

Still, he added, it would be right for Americans to fight Saddam Hussein -- as long as the politicians let the generals run the war. "If you're going to go there, you let your guys fight," he said firmly. It was a widely shared sentiment.

"A war worth fighting is a war worth winning," Bohannon told the crowd of several thousand veterans, their friends and families. They applauded loudly when he concluded: "And a war not worth winning is not worth fighting."

Yesterday's services seemed to unite two generations, as young men contemplated the sacrifices of war, and their parents remembered the ones already made. At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the events also united cultures.

Standing on the edge of the sunken granite memorial, a black soldier lifted a bugle to his lips to blow taps. Five American Indian veterans stood nearby, wearing full headdresses and waiting for the moment when they would conduct their own healing service, following the ancient Indian custom of honoring returning warriors. As the last bugle note faded, the color guard retreated, accompanied in a slow march by a Scottish bagpiper.

Afterward, David and Marilyn Sommer, of Cheshire, Conn., stood with their 22-year-old son, Michael, and watched as people filed by the Wall, many reaching out to touch one of the 58,156 names engraved there.

"Big, grown, masculine men, just standing there crying," said Marilyn Sommer, in wonder. Her husband said that they had come in memory of the friend their son was named for -- Michael Caller, who died at 19 in Vietnam, hit by mortar fire as he slept in his tent in Da Nang.

"Now our son, who is named for him, may have to face these same issues," Marilyn Sommer said. "It was the issue of our generation, and now it's the issue of their generation too."

Several miles away, at Arlington, Allan Kuehnemund was thinking similar thoughts. A 42-year-old Vietnam veteran from Michigan, he sat on a bench with his 16-year-old son, Jared, waiting for Cheney to speak. Father and son wore nearly identical camouflage jackets.

"We came from the farm," said Allan Kuehnemund, a longtime farmer and now a federal crop adjuster. "I was drafted from the field, and he would be the same way."

To Jared and Kuehnemund's other son, 19-year-old Anson, the prospect of war is distant and thrilling, he added. Kuehnemund should remember: He was only 19 himself when he was drafted into the Army's 5th Infantry Division.

"There's all this {recruitment} advertising on TV, and they're just like we were -- they're just kids," he said. "They're trying to make the transition from kids to adults. Right now it's all exciting. Reality won't hit until something happens."